Monday, November 17, 2008

Bellini: mental perspective

Via Corsini, Rome, Nov. 15—

TO THE SCUDERIE the other day, up on the Quirinale, to see a blockbuster show of paintings by Giovanni Bellini, ?1435-1516, an artist who had the luck to live in a time of great change, the intelligence to be aware of that and to respond to it, and the genius to do that in work that continues to seize the intelligence and sensibility of onlookers half a millenium later.
Giovanni Bellini: Pesaro Altarpiece

The Scuderie show offered dozens of paintings, beautifully hung and lit in ten rooms on two floors, beginning with the Pesaro Altarpiece, perhaps Bellini's major breakthrough, painted when the artist was thirty or so (his birth date is uncertain). This online reproduction does the work no justice, of course: the first thing you have to know is that it is nearly eight feet wide. In a curious way, thanks to Bellini's mastery of recessive space, as you contemplate the painting the distant landscape gradually becomes its most significant component. It's as if the figures at the foreground and the divinity symbolized by the cherubim above were mediated through landscape, I thought looking at it; and indeed the little pamphlet we were given agreed:
…here the relationship between divine and human is very nagurtally and simply translated into landscape. A relationship that becomes mental perspective.
This mental perspective returns in what was to me the most arresting and memorable work in the show, the "Sacred Allegory" of perhaps twenty years later. The painting is arrestingly modern, even ahistorical, bringing to mind such disparate work as Fra Angelico's Annunciation and Degas's Spartan Youths.
Giovanni Bellini: Sacred Allegory

Incredibly rich and moving, this painting refers to Plato's allegory of the cave, to pagan times (the centaur barely visible at the right edge beyond the lake), to the Hebrew creation story and Christian legend (St. Peter about to go fishing, left of center), to the progress from youth to age (figures on the right, foreground), and to contemporary times (that timeless woman, left, in the black shawl).
I don't know what to make of the porcini-like, flying saucer-like apparatus at the upper left corner, but the distant landscape full of architecture, center, recalls by its placement the one in the Pesaro Altarpiece — though more fully elaborated. Oddly, though you don't see it in this reproduction, the classical temple facade with the dark doorway, just above exact center, is the most brightly lit passage in the painting.
I think Bellini, at least by the time he painted this Sacred Allegory, was not Christian but Hellenistic: I mean, uncommitted, privately, to an exclusively monotheistic, let alone Christian, view of life and nature, individual and society, moment and continuity. The progress of his Madonnas is a fascinating thing to see, and can be seen readily in this exhibition: when again will you ever see the identically posed Detroit and Milan Madonnas in a single room? Painted a year apart from a single cartoon, they show an increasing secularization of the subject. Bellini's view of the Madonna and Child is more about Maternity than theology, I think; the foreboding in the Madonna's face as she considers her son's future is universalized because it is generalized beyond anguish toward contemplation of an inevitable. Birth incorporates death, as the Moment incorporates Continuity, once self-sentiment is transcended.
I suppose this is what Christianity attempted, two thousand years ago, here in Rome: a mythic apparatus that would appeal to a rising sense of individual self in a society grown insanely complex. As far as I'm concerned, in succeeding at appealing to hoi polloi at the expense of scrapping Hellenistic subtleties of intellect, it lost its usefulness; I suspect Bellini has this in mind late in his career.

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