Piero della Francesca and I
Piero della Francesca and I

 NEW YORK—”Nothing.” That’s what I was thinking when my mother asked me “Do you see what I see?” as we were facing a Byzantine icon in an Orthodox church somewhere in Romania.

To translate, the implied meaning in the melodramatic question was “Do you feel what I feel when I look at this?”—hence my rebellious reaction.  

I was about 10 years old, and being born to parents who are both sculptors meant that, starting in utero, I was subjected to the noises of my mother carving stone, and later on having to go to drawing classes, art theory, endless discussions on art, and to what I considered at that age the episodic tedium of standing through lengthy speeches of yet another exhibition opening.

So, no, I didn’t see what she saw. Making me look at the icon was another exercise in instilling into me more learning on the theme. I had had enough.

To cut to the chase, something must have changed because as I was staring at Piero della Francesca’s “Santa Monica” at The Frick Museum in New York, I did see it, or rather, I felt it.

Saint Monica’s serene, severe, and humble face was looking at me through time and space with her determined gesture and unflinching eyes. And yet it’s as if she is about to move any minute, but is waiting for us to look.

This is the dilemma of talking about art, or rather the appreciation of art. The act itself cannot be easily explained, so critics will talk about the peripheral topics: how a work was achieved, the techniques involved, the artists life and cultural setting etc. Do these details amount to a better appreciation?

This is much like the argument between nature or nurture. Is it a matter of absorbing information up to a point of metamorphosis—where one goes from information overload, to assimilation, and ultimately a deep feeling of appreciation takes place? Perhaps some make the transition with less initial resistance.

Ironically, nowadays the ability to witness artists’ works in the relative sanctuary of a museum has become one of life’s inexhaustible pleasures.

The prospect of seeing the works of an early Renaissance master such as Piero della Francesca at The Frick Museum is that much more exciting since the building itself provides such a naturally elegant space for the appreciation of art in general. To note, the works are not behind glass, they are the way they’re meant to be viewed.

So, finding myself surrounded by such beauty was much like being a child in a candy store and made me equally monosyllabic during my attempts to interview the exhibition’s curator Dr Nathaniel Silver.

Dr Silver did concur with my gushing admiration of the artists depiction of Santa Monica in a subsequent and slightly more successful interview.

“Piero was able to invest his figures with a kind of quiet but powerful emotional intensity, and he does this very carefully with, for example, the character of a face, in the case of saint Monica. She’s an older woman, she has this kind of leathery skin, clearly she has lived a very long and difficult life and yet she is monumentally present,” Silver said.

He also mentions the difficulty of creating a three dimensional effect, which was even harder to accomplish against a gold background. Yet without a spatial reference point della Francesca still pulled it off.

Dr Silver elaborates on della Francesca’s technical virtuosity, saying that he had all of the same talents that his contemporaries did and more.

“He was able to manipulate single point perspective like the Florentines could, he was able to model figures convincingly in space again like the Florentines could, he could create very expressive narratives like his Sienese contemporaries, and like his Netherlander contemporaries, he could render with great detail material details and manipulate oil paint,” Silver said. “Yet he could do everything they could that much better.”

Seeing della Francesca’s “Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels” is almost like looking at one of Disfarmer’s photographs featuring rural Americans. The artistic gesture is the same: to portray with all honesty the essence of the subjects; a gesture through which we get a glimpse of the artist’s own truth, a glimpse of him. Though separated by centuries, the works of both artists are directly and unassumingly powerful.

Perhaps in the ongoing argument about what makes great art there should be a note somewhere that great art should have the ability to pin you to the spot, look you in the eyes, and tell you everything.

The Piero della Francesca in America exhibit is on display at The Frick Museum in New York until May 19, 2013. Visit www.frick.org for more information.

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