Iyou take a ten-minute walk from Birmingham New Street station to the Ikon Gallery, which occupies one of the few Victorian buildings to survive the redevelopment of the city centre. Above the excellent café and a boutique, the white walls of the first floor, where contemporary art is normally displayed, are currently dedicated to Carlo Crivelli (until May 29). Most of the paintings were borrowed from the National Gallery, but there are significant loans from elsewhere, including an exquisite panel from the Victoria and Albert Museum and the central panel of a large altarpiece now housed in the Vatican Museum.
Among the loans from the National Gallery is the Annunciation (1486), one of the best-loved Renaissance paintings in London, in which Crivelli exhibited his knowledge of linear perspective in the recession of brick and ashlar and the foreshortened openings of a distant dovecote, and demonstrated its familiarity with the revival of old Romanesque ornament in the gilded Corinthian capitals and terracotta relief of putti. But the incredibly elongated fingers of his Madonnas here and elsewhere reveal an attachment to late Gothic ideals, and the pierced and crocheted frames that survive on some of his polyptychs are spectacular examples of Gothic architecture. Crivelli seems to belong to two worlds.
He was not alone in the last decades of the 15th century in often retaining gilt backgrounds, but he had no rival in decorating gold with heavily incised and elaborately punched designs. He was also exceptionally good at constructing the gesso background of his bas-relief panels, using the “piping” technique now only used to embellish cake icing. He chose designs that were difficult to render with the bladder and feather he had to use, giving the Virgin in the V&A panel a robe embroidered with long-beaked, long-tailed, and long-winged birds, where the many fine lines in relief often shrink. to a point. These are phoenixes that migrated from Chinese textiles. Amanda Hilliam, in the excellent catalog entry for this painting, compares the effect of this relief to that of the press-cast sheet of silver that characterizes many Byzantine icons, including one from the 13th century in Fermo Cathedral . Such “Greek” images, not all ancient, have been found in many, perhaps most, homes of the moderate affluence in Crivelli’s native Venice.
Gesso relief of this type was probably first conceived and certainly most often used for the representation of halos, but in the Vatican altarpiece Crivelli superimposed a crown on a halo – relief on relief. He sometimes tries his hand at high relief, giving some of his saints accessories carved in wood (a walrus in one case and a pair of keys in another). More often than not there is a subtle interplay between the real and apparent relief, so that, for example, from a few meters away, the ruby on the forehead of the Virgin in the Vatican painting appears more solid than the piece of coral hanging from the child’s neck. Christ, but on closer inspection it is the coral that is built into the gesso while the ruby is simply painted. In other paintings by Crivelli, glass paste cabochons replace precious stones. Such tricks are more easily appreciated when his paintings are seen in the modern gallery and when the constituent panels of an altarpiece have been dismantled, down to a factor. Neither his altarpieces nor his small domestic panels are today lit by candles flickering from below, and yet this type of lighting was a prerequisite for the invention of such a relief.
Apart from the halos, mysteriously inconsistent, all the rest in relief imitates a material which would shine thus illuminated, either jewels or, more commonly, an object in gilded (or sometimes silvered) metal – the crown of the Queen of Heaven, the armor of Saint Michael, the keys of Saint Peter, inlaid with ‘gold cloth’. Coral may be an exception as it would not shine until immediately after the child removed it from his gums, but it was valuable. So was the blood of Christ, which is not depicted in relief by Crivelli but was featured in an earlier painting by another Venetian artist, Marco Giambono. His amazing painting Christ as Man of Sorrows, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is a reminder that Crivelli was not alone in such experiments in relief. Nor were they confined, at the end of the fifteenth century, to Ascoli Piceno and the nearby towns where Crivelli practiced, for they are a remarkable feature, for example, in the worship of kings (at the National Gallery) by Vincenzo Foppa, an artist active in Brescia on the same date.
Another aspect of Crivelli’s art can be associated with the trickery of his reliefs: his interest in optical illusion more generally. He paints in his first shots cornices that seem inscribed and above which are placed fruits that seem to project into our space. Or he paints a garland of fruit on top of a painting so that it casts a shadow on the sky painted on it – hence the title of this exhibition. No other artist has used such devices with such insistence and they of course invite us to reflect on the nature of art and illusion. Does the trick of painting a fly on a painting also serve to remind us that the painting itself is a work of fiction, or does it only increase our amazement at the skill of the artist? There are two flies painted in the exhibition, one on, the other in a painting. Do they elicit radically different reactions? How much more magical did these paintings seem to their original audience? Have they been deceived by the fruit as they can still be deceived by the fly? Above all, is naive wonder compatible with sophisticated rapture? And what role did “cult value” and “sacred presence” play in Crivelli’s trickery? The exhibition catalog certainly helps us think about these questions, even if some authors cannot help but detect in Crivelli’s work the exhibitionist ingenuities of modern academic discourse or the self-congratulatory witticisms of postmodernism. .
Step back to review the work of Europe’s greatest artists employing oil paint, and Crivelli, who worked in egg tempera, will not seem so eccentric in his preoccupation with deception. The device of the illusionist inscription on a frame or rim was used by Jan van Eyck before him and by Titian after him. The life-size fruit apparently protruding from a ledge is the subject of Caravaggio’s great painting in the Ambrosiana and was fundamental to still life painting for the next three centuries. Which is not to say that Crivelli was in many ways an exceptional artist or that working at any distance from the major centers of Venice and Florence allowed him to develop in an unusual way.
It is true that Crivelli, working in the Marches, was little noticed by art historians until the 19th century, but in 1852, when two of his polyptychs were combined to form a giant altarpiece in the Roman Catholic chapel (there was also a Russian Orthodox chapel full of icons) in the Villa San Donato outside Florence, which belonged to Prince Anatole Demidoff, one of the wealthiest men and art collectors the most passionate in Europe, his work was very fashionable. By 1877, the date inscribed on the gable of the Ikon Gallery, anyone with a keen interest in Renaissance art was aware of his achievements, which were so well represented in the National Gallery, the fastest growing public collection fast from Europe. The full range of critical reactions to her around this date is admirably collected in Stacey Sell’s catalog. Crivelli was often regarded with a degree of distaste, but he was equally admired and never ignored. More recently, two major 20th century monographs have been devoted to him, so it is a surprise to find him described in an essay by Audrey Flack, included in the catalog, as “set aside” and rather amusing to read on his “discovery”. ‘ by her – not in a dark chapel of a rural church, nor in the basement of a provincial museum, but hung in the Renaissance section of the Met!
The illusion of rediscovery is perhaps a condition of enthusiasm: ardent lovers do not care to dwell on their predecessors. And the enthusiasm is welcome since it resulted in an exhibition devoted to an Old Master in a regional gallery associated with contemporary art – an exhibition moreover on the initiative of the gallery director. It’s a welcome change after a quarter of a century of intrusive interventions by contemporary artists into major collections of Old Masters or ancient art. It is a small exhibition but well judged as an introduction to the artist. The unobtrusive labels are complemented by a free Exhibit Guide with succinct text drawing attention to detail and explaining confusing features but not telling us what to think. There is no entrance fee and when I was there halfway through the ‘we’ was made up of many visitors of all ages and backgrounds.