Monday, January 23, 2012

The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Met is my favorite place to look at art, the type of art that reminds you why art matters. It is not the art of our recent century that I seek here, although with all the re-structuring that is going on within the contemporary department, who knows… I go to The Met to do a visual cleanse, a purge, to sweat out all the goop of everything else I absorb through these orbital organs called my eyes. For this visit I had two places that were must sees, one was the newly renovated Islamic wing, which is very wonderful indeed, and second the exhibition, The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini which features around 160 works from 15th century Italy. Both are must-sees, but the portraiture exhibition is one that you should dash to as it closes in March.


The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini features the works of masters such as; Donatello, Filippo Lippi, Botticelli, Verrocchio, Ghirlandaio, Pisanello, Mantegna, Giovanni Bellini, and Antonello da Messina. There is a wide range of materials and methods, like; coins, busts out of stone or metal, drawings and illuminations in books but the zinger for me were the paintings. There is a lot of emphasis on how portraiture was once for royalty and courts only and how this exhibition shows how the influx of wealth to the mercantile class made commissioning a portrait affordable and in vogue. All that is fabulously relevant in historical context of course, but for me, the increase of portraiture also reveals another wonderful human impulse, that of inventing and controlling one’s image, persona, and legacy.


Most of the portraits are flat direct profiles to recall Greek and Roman art. There is a linear quality to these paintings, the most important one being the single line that creates the person’s profile. This line contains so much information and it is subtly adjusted to highlight the sitter’s personality. The rest of the features are very tightly controlled as well, such as the ear and the hands when shown. These portraits are instances in which every line counts and the heightened flatness almost becomes an abstraction in its severity. It is rare that one looks at someone’s face in direct profile only, but in the case of these portraits I think it is a stunning formula, and one that I wish were done still. The person’s face becomes a space. They become somehow flattened and all that is around them is flattened. The emphasis on the hair, clothing, and jewelry revels even more when the sitter’s pose is frozen and it gives those elements even more life and impact. The portrait of Lucrezia Landrian by Domenico Veneziano is one such amazing example of this. Her profile is exquisite and her hair is in the fashionable style of forehead bare and braided with a fabric-capping crown. Her dress has gorgeous embroidery of brocade flowers and is red capped. The detailing makes you realize that what we consider fashion these days are mere drab rags. What also heightens the captivating aspect of this work is how she is leaning, which is slightly tilted back. There is such a subtly of mood shift in this lean and with the exposure of the neck and upper back of Lucrezia, she is made vulnerable, alluring and fleshy.


These strict profiles were not the only types of paintings featured as around 1450, Italian Renaissance painters started working with the three quarter view of the sitter and this introduced that hypnotic thing called “the gaze.” Now the sitter is able to look back at the viewer. This makes things more electric but also it requires more from the sitter and the artist, as they have to stand up to the viewer’s gaze. Because of this, the hands, the tilt of the head, especially with the male subjects, are firm, confident and at times cavalier. In some instances the sitter opts to not engage directly with the viewer and instead skews the glance heavenwards or off to the side. The most fascinating example of this type of view was that of Giuliano de’ Medici, by Sandro Botticelli. The Medici family was the ruling clan of Florence from the 15th to 18th centuries and they immortalized their rule through their art patronage. Guilano, the son of Piero de’ Medici, was assassinated in 1478 and to commemorate him, portraits in the form of busts and paintings were commissioned after his death. In this exhibition there were two Botticelli paintings that looked nearly identical. Both were based on the death mask of Guilano, which the Met, in all its scholastic merit, had a cast of on view. This cast was eerily fascinating to look at as it revealed Guilano to be a large man with a bent nose and a huge presence. To see this translated in Botticelli’s portraits is a fascinating study into human beings capacity to empathize and to imagine one’s self in the presence of another.


Sticking with the death theme, there was one magnificent gilded bronze bust by Donatello of Saint Rossore c. 1424-27 which was created to hold the skull of the martyred saint. This head sticks out, in more ways then one, but the concept of this coffin decanter was goose bump worthy. The face, scholars think, is that of the artist, but either way, there is an unnerving sense that the face and chest are breathing and at any moment it will slowly pick up its slightly bent head and stare at you. It is very odd be in the same room with this bust. After this unnerving thought, I realized that all these people are dead. All the portraits, and all the artists are no longer living, yet everything is still so undeniably pulsing with life. This is where I will get back to the idea of these individuals creating an external persona and how the lives of these people were utterly fascinating. The stories of their lives, their lovers, the deceits, the assassinations, the exiles, they are the juiciest type of stories. These stories are what connect us to them, they are the TV and movie stars and sub-stars, the celebrities, they represent the fame that humans crave and desire throughout time immemorial. The portraits these artists created were at a height of certain styles and the support to explore this and to develop new methods was enabled by this moneyed class. What we are left with are wonderful capsules and images that contain the history of an era and also of a life unimaginable but also relatable. There is something unexplainably fascinating about these portraits and the faces feel more alive then the digital photos of even myself from a week or so ago. They stick with you and you want to know more about them and their makers. This is the greatest magic of art, it reminds us that we all love gossip, beauty, stories, and that we are all just human.