Going through “The Renaissance Portrait: From Donatello to Bellini,” a survey of fifteenth-century Italian paintings, sculptures, and drawings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, visitors are likely to feel they are in the hands of an inspired storyteller. They are. The storyteller is Keith Christiansen, who heads the European painting department at the Metropolitan, and who organized the exhibition together with Stefan Weppelmann of the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin. Taken one by one, the works on display are mesmerizing, with signal achievements by Donatello, Botticelli, Desiderio, Verrocchio, Pisanello, Ghirlandaio, Gentile and Giovanni Bellini, and many others. Taken together, they create a vast historical panorama, full of overarching themes and intermingling plots, all delineated with uncommon intricacy and force. Christiansen weaves immortal impressions of a century’s worth of men and women into an experience that, for New Yorkers, has some of the narrative suppleness and novelistic richness of the thick books of tales by Boccaccio and Chaucer.
Nobody working in New York’s museums today can top Keith Christiansen’s brilliance when it comes to presenting works of art to the public. He sees a succession of galleries as an unfolding drama, and gathers individual objects in such a way as to reveal hidden qualities, meanings, values, and implications. Of course he does not do this alone; big museum shows are always group efforts. But just as a top-notch conductor or director can give us the illusion that we are experiencing Mozart or Shakespeare precisely as they meant their work to be known, so an inspired curator can make the art of the past feel immediate and inevitable. That’s what Keith Christiansen has done at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, time and time again. Among the unforgettable exhibitions he’s helped shape in the past are “Poussin and Nature” and “From Van Eyck to Breugel.” “The Renaissance Portrait” is in the same league. The challenges involved in such curatorial work are the challenges of interpretation. Scholarship and erudition are essential. So is an instinctive feeling for the freestanding value of the work of art. And all of this must be combined with a sense of how works that emerged in a particular time and place can most effectively be presented in another time and place—in a way that is true both to the past and to the present.
“The Renaissance Portrait” raises extraordinarily important questions about the evolving nature of individualism in fifteenth-century Europe, questions that artists were answering in many different ways as they grappled with the rival claims of the real and the ideal, the informal and the official, the intimate and the allegorical, naturalistic appearance and psychological or spiritual essence. Christiansen surveys these various modes and manners with a quickening energy. At times he urges us to linger on a single object. At other times he seems to press us to take in a group of works all at once or to dart from image to image. He begins with a stroke of unabashed showmanship: Donatello’s dazzling, gilt bronze Reliquary Bust of Saint Rossore, a strongly modeled impression of masculine thoughtfulness and vitality. He offers crowd-pleasers, especially Botticelli’s portrayals of idealized female beauty, which to my eye look rather saccharine, their suavity suggesting a fifteenth-century version of airbrushing. By arranging some of the portrait busts so that their eyes appear to catch ours as we enter a gallery, he dramatizes the deepening sense of intimacy and immediacy that some artists were exploring at the time. He suggests a new interest in the early years of life through a grouping of works devoted to children. And in one wonderful central room he offers what amounts to a show-within-a-show dedicated to the sublime Pisanello, with a wall of drawings, a group of medals, and Pisanello’s portrait of Leonello d’Este, the noble, hieratic profile of the marquess of Ferrara set off by a hedge of roses that evokes a chivalric Garden of Love. The exhibition concludes in Venice, with Giovanni Bellini’s gently charismatic portrait of Fra Teodoro of Urbino as Saint Dominic and Gentile Bellini’s hauntingly strange impression of Caterina Cornaro, her head seen through what amounts to a delicate cage of veils and jewels.
Rarely does an exhibition that includes objects in so many different sizes and shapes and media come together into such a seamless whole. That’s because Christiansen pushes us to respond to works of art with the same lively, free-spirited intelligence that comes so naturally to him. In a catalogue preface, he turns our attention to a speech by Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest. As she studies the profile of a young woman, Oscar Wilde’s bulldozer of a protagonist announces: “Style largely depends on the way the chin is worn. They are worn very high, just at present.” Nobody but Keith Christiansen would have the wit to cite Oscar Wilde by way of introducing an exhibition of Renaissance portraits, but once he has done it you realize that this is the most natural thing in the world. After all, “The Renaissance Portrait” is an exhibition with more than its fair share of men and women seen in profile, and many of them have their chins “worn very high.” It is precisely this feeling for deep historical connections—the unexpected links between fifteenth-century Italy, Oscar Wilde’s England, and New York today—that explains Christiansen’s exhilarating presentation of “The Renaissance Portrait.” This is an exhibition in which Renaissance paintings, sculptures, and drawings feel simultaneously time-bound and timeless, entirely alien and absolutely familiar. Museumgoers cannot ask for more.
Jed Perl is the art critic for The New Republic.