Gentle readers and friends,
Stop a minute and look at the pictures displayed before you just above. Notice in the picture traditionally called “The Hunt” and (rightly) attributed to a man we know as Piero di Cosimo depicts not only the savage cruelty the half-animal human beings enact towards the full animals but how the animals themselves, driven wild by pain, turn on one another. Notice the animal struggling to get loose of the human being in the center. If we can’t kill it, it’s immortal was a sign supposedly seen in a gunshop in the southern US in the 1960s. Then look at the picture traditionally called “The Return from the Hunt,” and notice the tender loving nurturing care of some of the figures towards animals and small babies. Two women dressed in fur in the center of the painting care for what looks like a small puppy.
These are but two of the paintings on display in an exhibit of Piero di Cosimo’s works that (alas) just closed at the National Gallery (last day, May 3rd, Sunday). There’s also “The Theft of Fire and Prometheus Punished:”
The separate incidents set in one large frame like a medieval tale (or modern cartoon in a newspaper) tell a story of egregious injustice, which just gets worse. These are to be found in 7 rooms worth of Piero di Cosimo’s art.
Not all is desperate consolation and clinging or bleak outcomes, there’s a story of Vulcan and Aeolus, which like a number of the conventional Madonnas, and Childs, Christ, John the Baptist and the rest of it, has details which don’t fit into any secure (bogus) narrative, but offer vignettes on life’s experiences, some playful, some vicious, some senseless.
One of my favorites looks like a building site. We see a palace newly built and all around it small figures hard at work, putting things away, carting things, planning, with ordinary life just going on around them. This one has had dense allegoresis.
Cosimo seems to be very fond of animals. We have sweet lion faces in the altar pieces. Dogs here and there, unrecognizable animals (as in medieval paintings, showing the man had not seen the creature he was depicting).
What are we to make of this? that Cosimo was an astonishingly original mind as heretic when it came to his visual art? Vasari suggests, denigratingly, Piero was illiterate. I wonder if he was hiding himself in plain sight. The exhibit shows the high intelligence (in straight portraiture),
wit, sense of life’s crazy tragedies and finally concentration of mind and knowledge of out-of-the-way aspects of the classical and Biblical stories this painter knows about. The dullest of Madonnas has playful doings in images. Anthony Grafton in his “The Ravishing Painting of Piero …. ,” in the New York Review of Books for May 7, 2012, does justice to subtle brilliance and high intelligence seen in the stories told, Madonnas and children and old men undercut by the stories that go with them.
I took my black-and-white or gray image from Panofsky’s famed Studies in Iconography, the third chapter of which includes a romantic nostalgic interpretation and Renaissance small rebellions which petered out, against a mirroring of what we see upper middle English society is. Panofsky’s reading does not proceed from painterly analysis (what is there, the colors, even the tone), is not practical but rather an allegoresis of visions. I suggest as with Tiepolo you need to look at the faces of the smaller people, see what they are doing or not to the sides of the big scenes and there you find Piero.
I regret to say I cannot find if this exhibit is traveling somewhere else where there is a cultural life and orchestras. So this blog is here to alert you, to keep out a guarded eye. Walter Benjamin’s essay on the necessity of seeing the unique work of art if it’s a painting, or sculpture. a tapestry, piece of furniture is vindicated. It’s that there are 7 rooms so we can see “down’ to the smaller achievements, get a sense of a career. The true limpid intense colors. Piero di Cosimo’s imagined stories are deeply sceptical, pessimistic, ironic, humorous, tragic, it’s all there. I’d say Ingmar Bergmann’s Seventh Seal is an equivalent.
I also spent some time in a smaller exhibit of paintings by Americans at the turn of the 19th century, mostly impressionistic, from the Corcoran; if you live in DC and missed it, you could walk or take the train to the Corcoran.
My spirit was lifted up; I felt I communed across time. It was so cheering to feel oneself in contact with once there individuals who rejected in their times the equivalent of the materialism, nonsense, sheer stupid noise engulfs us if we don’t make a private space of retreat to share with others.
The question, using Poussin’s paintings, in his The Sight of Death, T.J. Clark sets out to answer, explain, develop, is why and how do paintings communicate deep feelings and thoughts. Clark is a left-liberal person and knows Poussin was reactionary, the stories are esoteric classical legends and myths, the paintings still, and yet he is deeply moved. Jim and I loved and responded deeply to Poussin together. The paintings chosen include Landscape with a Calm and Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake. There are lots of close ups of the figures’ terror and panic and grief in the latter; of everyday sudden doings by characters in the former.
Reading the book last night I realized one needs to answer why say Piero di Cosimo’s pictures made me feel better about being alive because his spirit was in them and it was a good one. he is altogether more playful than Poussin. Sargent is so varied I can’t begin to make a nugget summary: he is endlessly interesting and presents strange beauties in life. So we enjoy. How did I know or feel that. Clark attempts to meditate over and over colors, shapes, schemes of representation, bits of content. I was too tired to take the specifics in but the endeavour is worthy and will return to this.
Jim would have so enjoyed the Piero paintings.