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May 2022

Vol. 164 / No. 1430

Carlo Crivelli: Shadows on the Sky

Reviewed by Richard Stemp

Ikon Gallery, Birmingham (23rd February–29th May 2022)

This exhibition is a crystalline gem, a compact, focused examination of the remarkable paintings of one of Italy’s most original artists. With only nine catalogued works, one of which is not physically present, and hung in Ikon Gallery’s modernist white-cube space, it allows the viewer to explore the complexity and sophistication of each individual piece with the attention that Crivelli himself must have invested. It also includes a surprising, theatrical display that brings the Renaissance master within reach of Ikon’s usual remit, the world of contemporary art.

As an exhibition, it has been a long time coming. Its origins could be said to go back to the 1980s, when the artist Audrey Flack and the outgoing Director of the Ikon Gallery and cocurator of this exhibition, Jonathan Watkins, independently published articles suggesting that Crivelli’s allotted role in the history of art – as a retardataire oddity – was overdue for reevaluation. Both papers are re-printed as an appendix to the exemplary catalogue.[1] Alternatively, it could be argued that the aims of the exhibition date back to 1965, when Suzi Gablik coined the term ‘meta-trompe-l’oeil’ to describe the way in which Crivelli’s use of three-dimensional forms – whether pastiglia or objects attached to the surface to represent items such as keys or jewels – ‘goes past or beyond deceiving the eye’. [2]

This concept, and the desire to re-evaluate the complexities of Crivelli’s approaches to picture making, form the inspiration for the exhibition. As such, it is old news, given that art historians have long abandoned the idea of a singular ‘story’ of art. Nevertheless, as Anna Degler’s well-argued catalogue essay expounds, many art historians have continued to struggle to find the right place for Crivelli’s work. Included in the display are a number of the works discussed in the 1988 article, notably the Vision of the blessed Gabriele (cat. no.8; Fig.7); its painted sky has given the exhibition its title. As is common in Crivelli, the panel is decorated with a garland of fruit, which, unlike the other examples, casts shadows onto the sky and the branches of a tree, revealing the image to be a painted object. The implication can only be that the garland was hung there by someone with a particular devotion to this painting, in the manner of an ex-voto. The level of sophistication increases if we look at the ‘vision’ itself. The Virgin and Child appear in a glowing mandorla, angled as if in three dimensions and apparently in front of the garland: they must, therefore, be in our space. The muchtravelled Annunciation (1486; National Gallery, London; no.5) was another key painting in Watkins’s article. Almost everything is geared towards illusion, the exception being the beam of golden light, which emerges from the sky and forms a straight line across the surface of the painting. Either it is composed independently of the overall perspective or it takes a sharp, angular change of direction as it passes through the hole in the wall of Mary’s room. In each case we end up questioning the nature of perceived reality.

Two panel paintings showing St Catherine of Alexandria and St Mary Magdalene (1491; National Gallery; no.9) frame the exhibition, hanging at opposite ends of the display. Both stand in fictive niches with the toes of one foot projecting, a commonplace for Crivelli, in whose works elements frequently break through the picture plane. The first seen is the Magdalene, whose niche is cracked and chipped, a trompe-l’oeil device repeated in a number of the exhibited paintings. St Catherine, the last work encountered, has an intact niche, but on it stands a large fly, out of proportion with the saint, and therefore looking like a real fly that has landed on the painting. A Virgin and Child (c.1480; Victoria and Albert Museum, London; no.3) shows the infant seated on a cracked parapet on which a similar fly has alighted, although on a scale more appropriate to the figures depicted. At the far left of the parapet a carnation has been attached with a blob of red wax. The distortion of the shadow implies that the flower is fixed to the parapet rather than to the painting, although in other works by Crivelli this distinction is not as clear.

These visual games function in a number of complex ways, which are elaborated in the essay by Degler and in the superb catalogue entries by Watkins’s co-curator, Amanda Hilliam. The clarity of the writing and the expert analysis of earlier literature in these and in the introductory essay suggest that Hilliam’s forthcoming book on Crivelli will be a welcome addition to the field. It is only the entry for St Roch (no.6; Fig.9) that might be open to question. Putting aside some niggling inaccuracies, it seems unlikely that this painting and an equivalent St Sebastian (Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan) were originally part of the Virgin and Child with Sts Sebastian, Roch, Emidius, Francis and Giacomo della Marca (1487; private collection), an altarpiece that includes the same saints in the main panel. Such doubling is redundant and the few arguments put forward to support it do not convince.

In addition to the trompe-l’oeil details, the Virgin and Child from the Victoria and Albert Museum also shows extensive use of pastiglia, constituting the entirety of the Virgin’s gold mantle. This appears to be three-dimensional simply because it is – an example of the ‘meta-trompel’oeil’ described by Gablik. A string of pearls emerges from this solid mantle and crosses the Madonna’s forehead. It is painted with meticulous attention to detail, giving the impression that it too is solid. In this case it is painted, but elsewhere Crivelli did apply real gems, notably, even if the current examples are the result of restoration, on the Demidoff Altarpiece (1476; National Gallery). Although included as catalogue number 2, the relevant entry states that ‘due to its fragility, this work [is] exhibited in a special collections display at The National Gallery’ (p.24). As well as pointing to the elements of the monumental polyptych that are relevant to the Ikon’s exhibition, and providing encouragement for visitors to Trafalgar Square to travel out of London, the display in question adds to the Ikon’s exhibition by focusing on the relationship between Crivelli’s works and those of Andrea Mantegna, expanding on the shared backgrounds of these two artists – undocumented but universally assumed on the part of Crivelli – in the Paduan workshop of Francesco Squarcione.

Paying homage to her early enthusiasm, two paintings by Flack are exhibited in the Tower Room, a separate space within the Ikon Gallery. Skilled and elegant transcriptions of Crivelli’s work, they would have gained impact had they been included in the catalogue, even if their relationship to the originals is not especially illuminating. The same cannot be said of the works by Susan Collis exhibited alongside Crivelli in the main space, the omission of which from the publication is an even greater loss. Passing one of the dividing walls to reach the end of the display the viewer is confronted with what looks like detritus left by art handlers on their tea break (Fig.8). Reminiscent of Fischli’s and Weiss’s installation Untitled (Tate) (1992– 2000), which greeted visitors to the newly-opened Tate Modern, London, these objects seem entirely real. The essential difference is that, whereas the Swiss duo used humble materials to produce eye-deceiving replicas of humble objects, the materials of Collis’s work are anything but downto- earth. For example, 100% cotton (2004) may look like paint-spattered overalls, but what looks like paint is, in fact, meticulous embroidery. In a similar way, Dirty dancer (2010) looks like a paint-spattered broom. Only the caption reveals that the materials diamonds, ruby, turquoise and jade. Crivelli often used paint to represent jewels, whereas here Collis uses jewels to represent paint: a perfect inversion to compensate for the absence of works that were, understandably, too fragile to travel. 

[1]  Catalogue: Carlo Crivelli: Shadows on the Sky. Edited by Amanda Hilliam and Jonathan Watkins. 164 pp. incl. 71 col. ills. (Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, 2022), £25. ISBN 978–1–911 155– 31–7. The original publications were A. Flack: ‘On Carlo Crivelli’, Arts Magazine 55 (1981), pp.93–95; and J. Watkins: ‘Untricking the eye: the uncomfortable legacy of Carlo Crivelli’, Art International 5 (Winter 1988), pp.48–58.

[2] Quoted in Hilliam and Watkins, op. cit. (note 1), p.150.