When a contemporary art gallery exhibits a Renaissance artist
BIRMINGHAM, England — The Ikon Gallery is located in the pleasant dockland district of Birmingham, a few hours by train north of London. His mission statement is “to encourage public engagement with contemporary art by exhibiting new works in a context of debate and participation”. Past exhibitions have included cutting-edge contemporary art from British artists like Martin Creed and George Shawand international artists such as Kristof Kintera and Zilvinas Kempinas. Why then is it hosting an exhibition dedicated to the Italian Renaissance artist Carlo Crivelli? Carlo Crivelli: Radical Illusionism in the 15th Century was Ikon’s 2019 winning entry for the semi-annual TAF award presented by Ampersand Foundation, specially created to offer institutions £150,000 and a chance “to produce their dream exhibition or visual art project… which curators and filmmakers have always wanted to do but have not been able to realize due to constraints of funding”. According to the exhibition catalog, Ikon director Jonathan Watkins, who co-curated the exhibition with Crivelli researcher Amanda Hilliam, “cared [this idea] since he was a graduate student. In February 2022, it was announced that Watkins was retiring from Ikon. Although there is no explicit connection between the exhibition and this news, it can be said that its ultimate goal has been achieved.
No matter how you look at it, however, the problem remains that Crivelli is a historical artist, and to get around the very raison d’être of the museum – that is, to deal with the contemporary – requires seriously convincing arguments that should be clear to the uninitiated. visitor, the museum’s most important public.
On a superficial level, the presentation is exactly as you might imagine of a contemporary gallery responsible for hanging and promoting historical works of art: nine paintings by Crivelli, seven from the UK and two from the Gemäldegalerie, of Berlin and the Vatican, hung on bare white walls. , to the legendary white cube. The show is famous shadows on the skywhich replaces the 15th century a bit with something more contemporary, and the press release has some absolute contemporary art howls: “shadows on the sky highlights his experimental use of perspective, trompe-l’oeil (optical illusion) and sculptural relief to create illusions of illusionism” and “such intelligence was transmitted with consummate craftsmanship and foiling with extraordinary elegance.
The exhibition guide tells us that Crivelli was born c. 1430 and worked in his hometown of Venice until he was brought to trial for adultery; after serving his prison sentence, he settled in the Marche region in eastern Italy. It draws our attention to Crivelli’s “pictorial game” and “the complex visual systems and metaphysical worlds that signal a reality beyond our immediate senses.” The technique of single-point perspective is applied consistently in all nine paintings, creating the illusion of a three-dimensional frame “behind” the picture plane, which is populated by saints and religious figures. Additionally, several trompe-l’oeil tropes reoccur. The feet of the characters protrude several times “out” of the picture plane towards us; flora and fauna, such as flies or carnations, and clusters of fruit have drop shadows to make it look like they’re sitting “on top” of the picture plane; Crivelli often paints cracks in marble or granite, sometimes with a fragment of stone emerging “towards” us. In case of “Annunciation, with Saint Emidius(1486, National Gallery, London), the pictorial depth achieved by single-point perspective receding far into the picture plane is bisected by a golden line across the surface of the plane. In this case, the “cup” of remote space signals the interaction between the divine, celestial realm and our “physical” earthly.
It is this breaking of the fourth wall, so to speak, that seems to be the “contemporary” element of Crivelli’s work – the “meta”, self-reflective self-awareness, although the word is never used – that is understood as the common point between the thought of Crivelli and that of contemporary artists. The press release states: “He used perspective symbolically. Its contrived and arbitrary nature was something Crivelli exhibited – along with the whole image-making business. Watkins further develops this idea of self-awareness, concluding that “Crivelli’s preoccupation with the nature of artistic representation anticipated Magritte’s founding idea. This is not a pipe nearly five hundred years old.
While it is indeed very believable that such visual trickery singles out Crivelli as an unusual figure in Renaissance art, such a specific connection to Magritte treats the two as existing in a historical vacuum, particularly with regard to the way in which artistic representation and the role of the work of art, developed over time. First, trompe-l’oeil is as old as the art itself, with the earliest anecdotal examples dating back to Zeuxis and Parrhasius in ancient Greece. Secondly, during the Renaissance, the role of works of religious art developed considerably, as did the sophistication of figurative painting, especially with Giotto composing convincingly rounded figures in architectural settings of precise precision in the early 14th century.
Crivelli was part of this arc, which saw the depiction of holy figures, originally conceived as icons – literal embodiments of holiness – develop away from hyper-stylization and towards heightened realism in the Renaissance and beyond, finally representing the saint, rather than incorporating he, a phenomenon explained by Hans Belting in the seminal likeness and presence. Later, following the Reformation in Europe, where the portrayal of religious figures was condemned as idolatry, artists took the “meta” even further by “framing” paintings within paintings (e.g., Breughel “framing” a Rubens “Madonna and Child with Garlandin c. 1621). In short, it seems that Watkins asserts that Crivelli’s self-reflexivity and his questioning of the nature of the image make him a singular figure, anticipating the “contemporary”. This ignores many other artists throughout history who adopted similar techniques.
The white cube format arguably allows for closer inspection of Crivelli’s paintings than their original religious settings, in which they were often lit by candlelight and out of sight. The white cube is therefore ultimately not so superficial, forcing a “contemporary” reading by isolating the work from a historical work. For example, many paintings are small pieces taken from larger altarpieces without context. Likewise, the explanatory legends are very light on the symbolic readings, fundamental to understanding the works of art of the Renaissance; “Madonna and Child” (1482, Vatican) includes pomegranates, pine cones, and coral, all of which have specific meanings not explained here (fertility, resurrection, and foreshadowing of the Passion, respectively). If Watkins argues for Crivelli’s distinction among Renaissance artists, providing some background context may have helped that cause. I have a Masters in Medieval Art History and am armed with this basic knowledge; to the casual viewer, the obscure symbolism isolated on the white walls can seem doubly inscrutable. In the preface to the catalogue, Watkins states that “the manner in which Crivelli’s paintings behave [give] a contemporary presence that is perhaps more compelling than that of the work of any other Renaissance painter” and that this “is central to their meaning”. Exploring this key point more explicitly and coherently may have helped drive home the desired reading.
Crivelli’s distinction is also reflected in his exclusion, noted in the catalogue, of the enormously influential work of Georgio Vasari. Lives of Artists — who helped put Giotto’s contribution to figurative art on a pedestal. The exhibition calls for a reassessment of art history to account for this, and rightly so, given Crivelli’s distinct sophistication and extraordinary inventiveness. Certainly the exhibition is significant and worth visiting as the first devoted to his work in the UK, and it is undeniably enjoyable to see the pieces together and up close. Yet it is difficult to rationalize the expenditure of this type of fund to modernize a historical artist with a “contemporary” interpretation.
Some concession is made by including contemporary pieces by Susan Collis, who takes ordinary objects like a broom and encrusts them with gemstones. However, the “interesting parallel of his works with Crivelli’s use of gold, precious stones and precious pigments, materials to enrich his altarpieces”, unfortunately undermines attempts to distinguish him, as was common in the Renaissance art. Similarly, the inclusion of two works by contemporary artists is weakly favorable Audrey Flack in response to Crivelli, exhibited the floors through another exhibit in a small room in the tower. Ikon will also organize a program which invites contemporary artists from the Midlands to respond to the exhibition.
shadows on the sky is clearly the realization of a long-held dream of a curator, and who can deny the importance of showcasing an artist long ignored by art history? But I wonder who this exhibition is for: the gallery becomes public; contemporary art; or the conservatives?
Carlo Crivelli: Shadows on the Sky continues at Ikon Gallery (1 Oozells Square, Brindleyplace, Birmingham, England) until May 29. The exhibition was co-curated by Jonathan Watkins and Amanda Hilliam.