Italian painter Carlo Crivelli has largely been erased from art history, Hettie Judah said in The i paper. Crivelli (ca. 1430-95) was a true maverick and a master of illusion with an unparalleled command of the trompe l’oeil style. His work “pitches eye against brain” and “seems to warp space” by displaying “the structure of his own illusions.”
Yet in the centuries since his death, Crivelli has been ‘dismissed’: painting in tempera rather than oil, and by adopting obvious artifice and visual tricks, he did not fit ‘with the established narrative of the Italian Renaissance’, which tended to be ‘greater Naturalism”.
This fascinating exhibition at Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery argues that Crivelli should instead be “celebrated for forging his own path”. The exhibition brings together a selection of his illusionist masterpieces in a “spiritual” attempt to rehabilitate his art. Far from being art-historically irrelevant, he argues that his blurring of artificiality and reality can be considered “centuries ahead of his time”.
Crivelli, a native of Venice, left his hometown after being jailed for adultery, Stuart Jeffries said in The audience. He ended up in the eastern Marche town of Ascoli Piceno, a relatively artistic retreat. Yet rather than being creatively cut off, one could argue that Crivelli “thrived precisely because he stood outside the Venetian mainstream, able to play with ideas and invent innovations that went beyond those of his contemporaries”.
And what innovations these were: in The vision of the blessed Gabriele (around 1489), Crivelli paints a “campy trompe-l’oeil swag of apples and pears” hanging in the painted sky above the head of the eponymous monk. Meanwhile, in his portrait of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, we see a fly that has landed on the wall; it is “oversized” relative to the sacred, but life-size from the viewer’s perspective.
is even more fascinating The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius (1486), a “huge masterpiece” depicting a “complex urban landscape”. In its center we see Saint Emidius, a “proud native” of Ascoli, showing the angel Gabriel a model of the city, while the Virgin Mary relaxes “in the study of her burgher house”. A wealth of odd detail – a peacock on a ledge, an oversized cucumber – undermines the image, while a diagonal beam of light from the sky “shatters the illusion of perspective” – not so much tricking the eye as depriving it of its illusions.
There is something deeply “bewildering” about Crivelli’s paintings, Waldemar Januszczak said in The Sunday Times. While certain details are so viscerally realized as to seem almost tangible, his religious figures can never be accused of looking “realistic”: in one instance we see a “particularly beautiful” Madonna in an impossibly “ornate” outfit, worn in “a unreal” manner emphasizing their divinity”; but in the same picture Crivelli paints a peach “so obviously juicy that you can feel yourself biting into it”.
This show “sees this from a contemporary angle” as a postmodern “conceptual game” – which ignores the strong religious dimension in his work. Crivelli tried to suggest the existence of two different realities: in other words, “one style describes God’s world and the other ours”. Despite this blind spot, the exhibition is a powerful celebration of Crivelli’s “magically accomplished illusions.”
Icon Gallery, Birmingham (0121-248 0708, ikon-gallery.org). Until May 29th
https://www.theweek.co.uk/arts-life/culture/art/956308/carlo-crivelli-shadows-on-the-sky-work-considered-centuries-ahead-of Carlo Crivelli: Shadows on the Sky – work “as centuries ahead of its time”