Monday, November 21, 2005

Fra Angelico

The following remarks reflect visits to the exhibition of the Florentine artist Fra Angelico (ca. 1395-1455) currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Fra Angelico is one of those rare artists whose appeal stands before and outside the rigors of art historical indoctrination. Limiting comparisons to the Old Masters, the names of El Greco and Vermeer come immediately to mind. The three artists are very different. Perhaps that is the point, for each stands for something precious and distinct. In the case of Fra Angelico it is the combination of mellifluous line with radiant color, the whole being infused by a kind of natural religious purity. For it is not necessary to share Fra Angelico’s specific faith to recognize that a special spiritual quality is being conveyed.

In the nineteenth century it was posited that art could be a substitute for religion. Many who are not religious nonetheless find that the work of Angelico, a professed Dominican monk, is inspiring. Does the appeal lie in part in this attenuated (and therefore accessible) religiosity? The religion of Angelico largely omits fire and brimstone, as well as stern moral choices—or so it seems. His wonderful colors and forms seem to offer pure bliss

For those with some knowledge of the period, it may seem that Angelico was an aesthetic reactionary in a good sense. Resisting the wave of innovation borne by Masaccio and his associates, the artist preserved something of the ethereal Middle Ages. Or more accurately, for those privileged to imbibe at the source (perhaps staying in one of those legendary pensiones offering "a room with a view"), Fra Angelico incarnates the essence of the Florentine spirit. As such, he bridging the gap between late Middle Ages of Giotto and Arnolfo di Cambio and the vernal Quattrocento of Uccello, Ghiberti, and Brunelleschi.

Like M. Jourdain, surprised to learn that all his life he had been speaking prose, many of us had been natural pre-Raphaelites, cherishing the early Renaissance before the movement became massive and portentous in the Cinquecento.

At all events the exhibition ranks as the first major presentation of the artist’s work since 1955. In addition to providing an overview of the trajectory of Angelico’s oeuvre, it seeks to revise the conventional wisdom regarding Angelico’s career. The established view (based on Vasari’s biography) holds that he was born about 1387 and did not come to art until his early thirties. The creators of the Met exhibition hold that he was born some eight years later, and had a normal initiation as an artist in his late teens. In this concept he would have begun painting in the second decade of the quattrocento, when the International Gothic, especially in the person, of Lorenzo Monaco was still vital. In this way he would not have reverted to that aesthetic (as the “reactionary” proposal suggests), but would have come by it honestly, so to speak. In addition, the organizers find examples of Angelico’s measured reception of the new trends, showing that he was not averse to adopting them when it suited him. In the first room, displaying the enigmatic pilgrimage scrolls, the organizers claim to find evidence of actual collaboration with Lorenzo Monaco. I am sure that Angelico carefully studied the example of his older contemporary. But since Lorenzo was a Camaldolite friar and Angelico a Dominican, close collaboration seems unlikely.

One current trend is to stress the role of the Dominican ethos of the Observance (the branch to which Angelico belonged). In a somewhat obscure, but beautifully illustrated monograph, William Hood has expounded this factor in great detail. As Hood is to speak at the Met on December 4, perhaps the connection will be clearer.

The exhibition displays a number of exquisite jewels. The organizers were not able to borrow any of the major altarpieces. Ditto the frescoes; thought these are represented by somewhat deceptive reproductions. So one must take these samples as tokens of the larger oeuvre, which doubtless can never be shown all at once. In fact, the exhibition includes less than 5% of the artist’s extant surviving work. The museum does not always help the viewer to integrate the fragments with the wholes from which they derive. For example, there is no diagram of the Fiesole altarpiece. Such a diagram would show that the two exquisite panels of the predella showing the Dominican blessed were in fact “book ends,” separated by three broad panels which remained in London.

The principle clearly is "pars pro toto." That is, from these samples from the whole range of his career one is supposed to be able to form an understanding of the whole career. With some effort one can do so. Still an irreverent comparison springs to mind: the show is like one of those CDs of "Mozart’s greatest hits" and other such, which present a series of snippets.

In some cases, especially with the early work, the attributions seem overly optimistic. Some of these works just do not look like Angelico. The attributions depend on intricate arguments in the catalogue that are hard for the layperson to decipher. We shall have to wait for authoritative reviews, say in the Burlington Magazine or one of the Italian journals, for a balanced appreciation.



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