Saturday, 12 January 2019

'Florence' exhibition at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich

The big exhibition in the world of early Renaissance art at the moment is 'Florence and its Painters' at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. The National Gallery can make a claim to that title with its Bellini and Mantegna exhibition but the Pinakothek wins for the sheer number of extraordinary exhibits and the range of artists represented. Sub-titled 'From Giotto to Leonardo' provides the scope of the artists featured in the exhibition and there are paintings, statues, drawings, books and reconstructed altarpieces. There is a record number of works by Fra Angelico with 11 paintings and three drawings, panels by Giotto, paintings and drawings by Domenico Ghirlandaio and his brother Davide, Donatello, works by Fra Filippo Lippi and by Filipino Lippi, Botticelli, Verrocchio and Leondardo and a host of other Florentine artists. The range of exhibits is quite astonishing with excellent labels and explanatory notes in German and English.

The earliest works are a mere 700 years old and are three small panels by Giotto: the Last Supper, the Crucifixion and Christ saving the souls from Limbo (with Adam and Eve at the front of the queue to get out of Limbo). I'm always astonished that small paintings that old have somehow managed to survive over the centuries and retain much of their colour - that is a great tribute to artistry of the masters' workshops and the skills of the craftsmen who mixed the paints for their masters, prepared the panels or cleaned the brushes. We'll never know their names but an artist of Giotto's stature had a good sized workshop to help him in his endeavours. The downside to seeing these panels is that they're displayed in what is effectively a corridor which is busy so there's not the comfort or convenience to really look at them undisturbed.

Also in the corridor are a group of six paintings by Agnolo Gaddi, two large life-sized paintings of St Nicholas of Bari and St Julian. The more interesting is St Nicholas, the forefather of Father Christmas and Santa Claus. Nicholas gave three bags of gold anonymously to the three daughters of his neighbour to provide them with a dowry and prevent their father selling them into prostitution. That was his first kindly act on his long journey into sainthood. Isn't it odd how stories start? The other small panel shows St Nicholas saving a ship at sea during a storm.

Various artists at the time and later tackled the stories around St Nicholas (there is a panel Fra Angelico in the Vatican Museums with the same story of saving a ship) but I quite liked this version by Gaddi and it works well in the context of the exhibition - Giotto worked at the start of the 1300s and Gaddi towards the end of the century, so he makes a nice springboard into the works from the 1400s which make up the majority of the exhibition.

The next room is full of the wonders of Fra Angelico and Fra Filippo Lippi as well as others, roughly contemporary but with very different approaches to life and art. Despite being a friar Filippo fathered his son, Filipino Lippi, on a Dominican nun whose name we don't know. That doesn't mean he hasn't created some wonderful art.

The first painting in the room is the gorgeous Virgin & Child with it's rich cloth of gold background partially obscuring the Roman columns of the room within while the Virgin looks at her child serenely and the child offers the viewer a blessing. I've loved this painting since I first saw it at an exhibition in Paris in 2011, the gorgeous rich blues and reds of the Virgin's clothes and the passive, almost glowing child, gazing out at the viewer. It really is a wonder. The other paintings and drawings by Fra Angelico are arranged around a reproduction of the former high altarpiece at San Marco in Florence and are included elsewhere in this blog.

A really nice touch is that there is also a small panel by Benozzo Gozzoli near the Fra's paintings - Gozzoli was a pupil and assistant to the Fra who became a master in his own right and he painted the walls of the private chapel of the Medicis in their palace in Florence. On the opposite wall is a small Annunciation painting by Zenobi Strozzi who was also thought to have worked in the workshop of Fra Angelico (although with less documented proof than with Gozzoli). Here's Gozzoli's small predella panel of 'St Zenobius Resuscitating a Dead Child'.

Moving round the room you come to a lovely, delicate 'Annunciation' by Fra Filippo Lippi with the angel Gabriel kneeling before the Virgin while, up in the top left-hand corner we see God the Father channelling his energies through a dove to represent the Holy Spirit and straight down to the Virgin, the moment of conception. Gabriel holds the stem of a lily for purity and the Virigin has just got up from reading a book. Look at the detail of the house and garden, with Filippo practicing his skills at the new-fangled thing called perspective. It's quite a large painting and is dated at around 1444 so other painters had already made inroads into naturalism and perspective. Filippo doesn't sound like someone who followed 'the rules' and his addition of God to the scene and the setting in a well-to-do house would probably have been quite dramatic at the time.

Further round the room you find three paintings of the Virgin and Child by Fra Filippo Lippi from different periods in his career. Two are hung on the walls and one is in a glass case so you can see the drawing of a face on the back of the painting. The earliest painting uses the cloth of gold motif as a screen behind the Virgin while the mid-period painting has a landscape, an emerging skill for artists at the time. The third one uses a conch shell as the background, showing that classical Roman influences were taking hold.

The main room is full of treasures, with a painting of the Virgin & Child by Leonardo da Vinci almost hidden amongst the wealth or wonderful art. There are drawings by Pollaiuolo, bronzes by Donatello, paintings by Filipino Lippi (the son of Lippi senior), Botticelli, Lorenzo di Credi, Botticini, Domenico and Davide Ghirlandaio, Fra Bartolomeo and others. I mean, wow! It's not quite like being in the Uffizi but this is pretty close. I suppose the only real omission was anything by Michelangelo but you can't have everything and I suppose he really belongs to the 1500s. It was actually quite exciting wandering around this large room and finding wonder after wonder with no idea what you might stumble upon next.

Another reconstructed altar was that of Santa Maria Novella in Florence with the large painted altarpiece and two side panels by Domenico Ghirlandaio. I've marvelled at his frescos in that church and was delighted to see a rough drawing of one scene in the frescos showing the birth of the Virgin, but I'd never seen the large, main painting before, showing the Virgin and Child enthroned with saints and angels.

Here we see Saints Dominic, Michael, John the Baptist and Thomas below the Virgin and Child, St Dominic since Santa Maria Novella was and is a Dominican church. Santa Maria Novella is one of the great churches of Florence and it's a delight to see what would've been behind the high altar all those years ago.

A bit further into the exhibition, in the section covering the rise of portraiture in Florence (influenced by the great paintings of the Northern Renaissance) are two paintings of young ladies, one by Davide Ghirlandaio and one by Domenico Ghirlandaio. The brothers worked together in Domenico's workshop. I've only ever seen paintings by Davide in the Academia in Florence and I wasn't all that impressed so it was really nice to see these two small portraits side by side and not be able to tell who painted which. Clearly, there's more to Davide to explore.

The last painting in the exhibition (or, at least, the last big one in the final room) is a strangely surprising 'Lamentation" by Botticelli that has been restored especially for this exhibition. It's a big, almost life-sized painting with colours that glow (my photo doesn't do it justice).

There's none of the frivolity or playfulness of his earlier paintings, this is full-on religious, serious art.  Look at that composition, with everyone at an angle other than St Paul who stands upright, representing the true church. The thing that really caught my eye was the detail of grass curling around the toes and drapery, individual blades of grass, not just generic green foreground. And the body of the dead Christ almost glowing against the black of the Virgin's cloak. This is a very clever piece of art with a very serious subject for an altarpiece. Earlier in the exhibition we see Botticelli's 'Adoration of the Magi' which is a very different work, with his fops and dandies showing off their clothes and tights to best effect. This is most definitely a later piece by a man who's lived, loved and experienced pain.

I was really blown away by this exhibition. Such a great concept, such great works of art and something that must've taken years to put together, getting agreements to the loans and the conditions around the loans. I suspect something like 3-5 years has gone into planning and delivering this exhibition and I must congratulate everyone involved. It really is astonishing. Now that the Alte Pinakothek is on my radar for exhibitions I'll be keeping a watchful eye on whatever it does next. Thank you.

And, just because I can, here's the lovely 'Annunciation' by Zenobi Strozzi with Gabriel dressed in Fra Angelico pink.

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