May 9, 2012

Nature’s Scream, Earthy Angels, Musing Madonnas, and the True Complexion of Humanity

“ANNUNCIATION”: This oil on canvas by Livio Mehus (Oudenaarde 1627-Florence 1691), is from the seventh decade of the seventeenth century and is among the works on view in “­Offering of the Angels: Treasures from the Uffizi, which will be on view through August 10. The museum is located at 138 South Pine St., Doylestown, Pa. For more information, visit or call (215) 340-9800.

One evening I was walking along a path, the city was on one side and the fjord below. I  felt tired and ill. I stopped and looked out over the fjord — the sun was setting, and the clouds turning blood red. I sensed a scream passing through nature; it seemed to me that I heard the scream. I painted this picture, painted the clouds as actual blood. The color shrieked. This became The Scream.

from Edvard Munch’s Diary, Jan. 1892

Just when you think it’s safe to do an art review about the new “Treasures from the Uffizi” exhibit at the Michener Museum, along comes the $119 million sale of Edvard Munch’s The Scream.

Once upon a time a long time ago in Oslo, one week into the Golden Bear Student Tour, I watched our Oxford-educated, bipolar tour leader being hauled off, screaming, by the Oslo police. The first time I saw him scream was in Stockholm. He didn’t make a sound but he was looking right at me and he was screaming.

It was as Munch put it in his diary, a silent scream “passing through nature.”

What a time to see that strange painting, knowing that we were, all 36 of us, going to have to get back to Hamburg and a new tour conductor on our own. Everyone made the obvious connection between the tortured soul in The Scream and the man who had managed, but barely, to guide us from Amsterdam to Oslo.

We saw a lot of museums that summer. The Golden Bear had three other tour leaders, all of them English, all slightly bonkers, but likably so, as had been their predecessor. We saw art in Munich, Vienna, Venice, Florence, Paris, London, and Rome, but nothing, including The Scream, could match what I’d seen in Amsterdam on the first full day of the tour. We’d been staying at the Museum Hotel, so named because of the big building across the street, which I walked into that day “because it was there” and found Vincent Van Gogh. Wall-to-wall Van Gogh, miles of Van Gogh. I was 19. Art had never happened to me before. I’d always “looked at it.” These paintings were coming to life right before my eyes and some of them were screaming.

On to the Uffizi

There were tours within tours that summer, and one of them was at the Uffizi. If nothing I saw came close to wall-to-wall Van Gogh in intensity, it was due in part to the fact that almost all the art we saw was as a group with a tour guide droning on, sometimes brilliantly, sometimes obnoxiously in the style of the pompous ass showing off about Rodin in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. It’s usually best to see art on your own, which is how I saw it last week when I visited “Offering of the Angels: Treasures from the Uffizi,” which will be at the Michener Art Museum, through August 10.

The Uffizi show represents an unprecedented opportunity for the handsome, user-friendly, if expensive, Doylestown venue whose exhibits I have been covering since the Alan Magee show in January 2004. Because the artists represented in “Offering of the Angels” are, aside from Botticelli, of lesser renown, like Il Parmigianino, Lorenzo Monaco, Livio Mehus, Pietro Liberi, Il Guercino, and Cristofano Allori, among others, the curators have emphasized arrangement over name recognition; thus, “the path to redemption is illustrated, from the Old Testament to the New Testament, from the creation of Adam and the Original Sin to the passion and death of Christ, as a prelude to resurrection.”

Botticelli’s Mary

Every time you stand in front of a painting, it’s a moment of truth, minor or major. There it is: what do you make of it? Would you rather have someone tell you how to see it or what it’s all about like the groups of seniors and kids I saw being led through the Michener exhibit? This is my long and winding approach to what I saw in Botticelli’s oil on panel, Madonna della Loggia. I wonder what Walter Pater (1839-1894), one of the best writers ever about art, would have made of this tender, pensive Mary, her eyes downcast, as if she were listening to music or perhaps contemplating everything from the nativity to the last supper to the passion to the resurrection and beyond.

About Botticelli, Pater wrote, “His morality is all sympathy; and it is this sympathy, conveying into his work somewhat more than is usual of the true complexion of humanity, which makes him, visionary as he is, so forcible a realist. It is this which gives to his Madonnas their unique expression and charm.”

But what if the complexion of this particular Madonna has been altered? According to the Ufizzi’s “unedited catalogue,” the work has been “almost irremediably compromised by a disastrous ‘cleaning’ carried out in the past, followed by a reconstructive restoration based on the complete repainting of the faces of the Madonna and Child as well as many other parts.” Recent investigations have determined that only a few parts, such as “the red gown of the Virgin and the distant landscape which can be glimpsed in the background from the loggia,” have “proved to be in a slightly better state of conservation.”

The Plot Thickens

So, is the feature attraction of “Offering of Angels” to be marred by an asterisk? Not for me. Does the idea that the work of hands other than those of Alessandro Di Mariano Filipepi, called Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) make the piece any less compelling or less sympathetic? Is she less a Madonna, more a down-to-earth Mary because she’s the offspring of a mixed marriage between Botticelli and “a restorer from the 19th century”? Look around the room at all the paintings with a less tarnished provenance and this Madonna is still pre-eminent. For me, the best thing about the proviso lamenting the wages of restoration is the information that the painting “represents a further, precious testimony” to the youthful Botticelli’s “close stylistic adherence … to the manner of his maestro, Filippo Lippi.”

Here, the plot thickens. A few weeks ago, celebrating Robert Browning’s bicentenary, I neglected to comment on one of his most famously exercised dramatic monologues, “Fra Lippo Lippi,” in which Botticelli’s mentor complains,

What, ‘tis past midnight, and you go the rounds,
And here you catch me at an alley’s end
Where sportive ladies leave their doors ajar?

Read the back story in Vasari and you learn that the gorgeous young woman named Lucrezia Buti who posed for Lippi’s Madonna was his lover, and that he kept her in his own house in spite of the nuns’ efforts to reclaim her (Filippino, the child eventually born to the artist and his model, also became a painter). Moreover, Lippi’s Madonna is said to have influenced Botticelli’s, and if you do some searching online, you’ll see that both Marys appear to be listening to similar music. The striking thing about Lippi’s Madonna is that she might have been painted yesterday, the work seems that fresh, that bright, her rosy lips and elaborately stylish headwear revealing the worldly element, not to mention the Puckish grin on the face of the angel bearing the weight of the Christ child (it’s said that Filippino may have posed for the angel).

Browning’s Fra Lippo Lippi delighted in the paradox of the flesh and the spirit:

Make them forget there’s such a thing as flesh.
Your business is to paint the souls of men —
Man’s soul, and it’s a fire, smoke … no, it’s not …
It’s vapor done up like a new-born babe —
(In that shape when you die it leaves your mouth)
It’s … well, what matters talking, it’s the soul!

An Earthy Angel

According to the Uffizi catalogue, the Flemish painter Livio Mehus’s (1627-1691) beautifully, if oddly, lit Annunciation (late 17th century) was part of a series of four canvases portraying scenes from the life of the Virgin painted for a tailor friend. I’d like to think that the tailor’s rosy-cheeked, auburn-haired teen-age daughter posed for the angel. More bemused than musing, this Mary is clearly younger and less knowing than Botticelli’s Madonna. But it’s the tailor’s daughter who steals the painter’s show, the way she’s sprawled forward, stretching, only half-kneeling, putting her whole body into the moment, her bare right foot arched, her weight on the toes, a very physical Florentine school girl sort of an angel who probably giggled (“it’s ticklish”) when Mehus attached the wonderful wings and no doubt occasionally complained about the difficulty of the pose. One of the most prominent focal points in the painting is in foreground, where the girl’s bare foot is lit in a way that brings out its sturdy physicality; both of this earthy angel’s peasant feet are poised and ready, either to sprint forward or to push off into flight.

Mavis Smith

The moment I saw the Botticelli Madonna I knew I had to go next door for another look at Mavis Smith’s “Hidden Realities,” which I wrote about a few months ago (Town Topics Feb. 22). If you have come specifically to see “Offering of Angels,” you’ll be missing something special if you don’t make a point of looking in on the subtle, deep, thoroughly accomplished 21st century counterparts of Botticelli and Mehus in the adjoining exhibit, which will be on view until May 20.

Mavis Smith will be at the Michener for a lecture and demonstration, “Egg Tempera Then and Now,” on Thursday, May 17, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. To register, call 215 340-9800.