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No Trouble at All

The problem with critics' praise of Piero della Francesca's Frick show

The Frick Collection

The rapture that has greeted “Piero della Francesca in America,” at the Frick Collection, is a bit much. Reactions to this unquestionably beautiful gathering of seven paintings by the fifteenth-century Italian master are so hushed and reverent that I find myself wondering if people are transfixed by the paintings or by their participation in what has been widely recognized as this season’s perfect little museum show. Don’t get me wrong. I have no wish to be a killjoy. It’s extraordinarily important that museums do this kind of small, closely focused exhibition. And the cool, pellucid geometry of Piero’s figures and figure compositions certainly casts a spell. But museumgoers and critics are so quick to embrace Piero’s impassiveness as profundity that they risk losing track of how strange his work really is. Piero’s figures suggest sleepwalkers, becalmed within the great dramas of Christianity, barely able to act or react.

Piero della Francesca has become the Renaissance master about whom a shred of doubt can be raised, but only in order to quickly dismiss any serious reservations. And when nobody is any longer willing to question an artist’s work, it’s fairly certain people have stopped actually looking. Am I the only person on earth who finds the centerpiece of the Frick show, the Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels from the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, off-puttingly cool?1 Of course I admire the puzzle-like ingenuity with which Piero fits the monumental Madonna into the suave architectural setting and the elegance with which the angels are arranged like a set of divine chess pieces. The painting, with its marmoreal tonalities, exudes a courtly calm. Or is this courtly calm really just a case of a painting that’s so damn tightly controlled that the life has been sucked out of the figures? Are these otherworldly beings really meant to be made of marble? Is the lifelessness of the figures designed to point to a life beyond this life? Is lifelessness being equated with spirituality? The painting is a marvel, no question about it. But I would rate it a stultifying marvel—a bummer dreamed up by a genius, maybe a transcendent bummer, but a bummer nonetheless.

The Frick Collection
"Saint Appolonia" by Piero della Francesca

I admit that I’m playing the devil’s advocate here. What troubles me isn’t that people are embracing Piero’s work—I love much of it, too—it’s that they are reluctant to see that its power is inextricably bound with its limitations. Nearly everybody who has written about the show at the Frick has pointed out that you have here only a glimpse of an artist who cannot be understood without seeing the cycle of frescoes about the Legend of the True Cross in the Church of San Francesco in Arezzo. That vast narrative work is surely one of the wonders of Renaissance art. But, once again, I’d say that it’s a wonder of a particular variety, the greatest example in European painting of a frozen lyricism—maybe even a comatose lyricism—the scenes so ritualized and formalized that every human action is stalled, reconfigured in terms of a magnificently patterned stasis. Of course it’s this refusal to think about human interactions in terms of clear, simple actions that draws people to Piero, that makes them feel he’s our contemporary. Piero’s impassiveness is experienced as enigmatic or uncanny. That’s a perfectly honorable response to the work. For much of the past hundred years, artists of many stripes have questioned the legitimacy of the sturdy old narrative structures, and so Piero can seem like a precursor of Samuel Beckett, an artist who introduces narratives only in order to confound them. What bothers me is that so many museumgoers, critics, and historians seem reluctant to consider what Piero is actually up to.

I suppose there comes a point in the evolution of every great reputation when acceptance becomes all too easy; that is what happened to Raphael in the eighteenth century and to Picasso in the 1950s. With Piero, whose work was virtually unknown from the sixteenth century until nearly the end of the nineteenth century, the shift from modern rediscovery to modern brand is if nothing else an altogether fascinating development in the history of taste. Writing in 1951, art historian Kenneth Clark observed that “quietly, inexorably, almost unobserved, Piero della Francesca has taken his place as one of the greatest artists of the fifteenth century, and thus one of the greatest artists who have ever lived.”

Clark went on to comment, in his book about Piero, that “few of our bewildering revolutions in taste would have been more incomprehensible to the aesthetes of the nineteenth century.” John Ruskin, Walter Pater, and the other nineteenth-century critics and historians who did so much to revive interest in the art of fifteenth century Italy almost totally ignored Piero. While Nathaniel Silver, who organized the remarkable show at the Frick, does not overlook Piero’s shifting reputation in his excellent, scrupulous catalogue, it seems to me that we are in danger of losing track of the particular qualities in Piero’s work that made him nearly incomprehensible to connoisseurs and historians until late in the nineteenth century. And if we fail to understand why the nineteenth century couldn’t see Piero, we are in danger of failing to understand what we see in him now.

The Frick Collection
"An Augustinian Friar" by Piero della Francesca

Some of the historians and critics who wrote about Piero most eloquently in the early and mid-twentieth century were perfectly willing to celebrate his idiosyncratic idea of perfection. Art critic Adrian Stokes, a great admirer of Piero, said he represented “the mind becalmed,” and even spoke of the paintings as suggesting that “death’s calm separation lent nobility to the pressure of each heart beat.” Kenneth Clark, who viewed Piero’s Arezzo frescoes as a pinnacle of European art, spoke of one later Madonna as “grey and frozen.” And in considering Piero’s focus in his final years on treatises on mathematics and perspective, Clark wrote that “a means had become an end, the ideal had been emptied of life, the central fire which warmed and animated those austere constructions, so that they were no longer abstract but the word made flesh, had been extinguished.” Here we see a writer who is entirely open to the gambles that Piero is taking: the gambles of the austere and the abstract. The same can be said of Bernard Berenson, who in his 1954 book Piero della Francesca, or The Ineloquent in Art, spoke of Piero as being “opposed to the manifestation of feeling, and ready to go to any length to avoid it.” There is no point in denying that the feelings Piero awakens in viewers have everything to do with a rejection of feeling—at least, the most immediate experiences of pleasure, pain, joy, and sorrow.

It is this skittishness about overt emotion, this desire to show what Stokes called “the separateness of ordered outer things,” that powers Piero’s art. Although we can probably never know what Piero’s contemporaries saw in his intricate compositions, what we see is not a perfect world but a problematical world, where form absorbs feeling, and the effort to create an ideal order is the only reasonable response to life’s everyday confusions. We are entirely justified in understanding Piero through eyes attuned to the somber poetics of Seurat (who probably did not know Piero’s work) or of Balthus (who copied the Arezzo frescoes when he was young) or of Morandi (whose still lifes are as detached from quotidian experience as Piero’s Madonnas). Bernard Berenson, in a conversation in 1932, observed that “Cézanne had a colleague in Piero della Francesca, and it is since Cézanne that Piero has been considered great. For it has always taken contemporary interest to shed light on forgotten art.” Certainly, there is some affinity between Piero and Cézanne in the way that the suppression of emotion becomes a way to intensify emotions. In both cases, the result is a haunted poetry.

If we are honest with ourselves, what we are responding to in Piero is our own troubled relationship with art, which, as Adrian Stokes argued, we often crave because its insistence on the impersonal power of formal values brings into our world some of “death’s calm separation.” There is about Piero’s obsessive vision something of the madman and the outlier. He doesn’t make things easy for us. He imagines new kinds of beauty, but not without considerable sacrifice. What troubles me about the response to the Frick show is how untroubled it has been.

  1. I must not be the only one, considering that Karen Rosenberg, writingin the Times, admitted that some might “find such architectonic figures a bit dehumanizing.” But this was offered as a reservation to overcome, and in any event Rosenberg found the Virgin and Child Enthroned “enthralling.”