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Giovanni di Paolo,
The Resurrection of
, 1426,
Walters Art Museum,


Giovanni di Paolo,
The Way to Calvary,
1426, Walters Art
Museum, Baltimore

David Carbone Tracing Giovanni’s Shadow


“It is only when the imagination is dragged away from what the eye sees that a picture becomes interesting.”
                              –Tom Stoppard, Artist Descending a Staircase

When art historians write about figurative art in the Renaissance, they tend to follow the moribund prejudice that realism is what every naturalistic figuration must seek to achieve. While this view ran its course in the nineteenth century, it is still a commonplace in the art world. Indeed, many figurative artists today, regardless of their various inclinations from reactionary to post-modernist, cling to this narrow prejudice. What gets emphasized is skill in rendering form: realism as work and not as feeling. Holding to these prejudices, many in the art world feel secure in their conformist creed. I find this view to be evidence of a great blindspot about the art of the past as well as of the art of our time.
          There are other possibilities that can enrich painting enormously for those who are willing to engage art without an agenda. Painting is not one tradition but many. The narrowness of judging art through any single theory enforces parochialism. It was during the heroic decades of Modernism, from 1900 to 1950, that an understanding of art, rejecting the mimetic theory, first re-emerged. It was not accidental.
          Art historians want to see art in the context of its time. Fine, but too often this is looked at broadly and without distinctions. Ultimately, understanding “art in its context” is only partial truth, and can’t be done without distortion. Certainly we must consider works in their local and national cultures, but I also feel that comparisons across time and across other cultures are important too. I am not convinced that we can truly understand the full originality and aesthetic achievement of an artist without considering these larger contextual relationships. We must see art with the fullness of the culture we have absorbed.
          Giovanni di Paolo and the Sienese tradition offer alternate models to the clichés of the Western realist tradition. The reevaluation of the Sienese achievements began with the cultural diversity of Modernism. John Pope- Hennessy first made the connection between the irrational mysticism of Giovanni and contemporary surrealism of the thirties. It was with these thoughts that I turned my attention to some paintings that have long haunted my imagination.
          When a librarian at the art school I attended dumped the school’s picture files because they seemed useless and out of date, I retrieved some black-and-white reproductions of scenes of the Miracles and the Passion of Jesus, from the Malavolti alterpiece by Giovanni di Paolo. One image in particular, The Entombment, has held an intense fascination for me. Having rejected belief in religion early in life, I have never been able to see images of the Christian faith as history; rather for me they are a grand fairy tale, a myth: the story of Jesus’ self sacrifice. This is especially true of the works of Giovanni di Paolo, who has always seemed a painter whose work opens a dream world that activates forms with ecstatic power, awakening a feeling for the metaphysical.

Ornamental Divider

As there are no contemporary monographs on di Paolo, I’ve looked in vain for color reproductions of the five predella panels from the Malavolti family altarpiece. Four are in the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. The fifth and central panel, which I have seen only in black and white reproduction, The Crucifixion, is in the Lindenau Museum in Altenburg in Germany. The original Malavolti polyptych is Giovanni’s earliest known altarpiece, painted in 1426 when he was twenty-three, for the large church of San Domenico in Siena. Throughout his career he worked for the Dominican Order and its austerity may have encouraged his lifelong path toward an ever more mystical expressionism. In The Entombment, the shadow points up Nicodemus as the key figure who gave up his tomb for the burial of Jesus. This unusual act of charity may be a reflection of the Malavolti family’s commission of the altarpiece, and their relationship to the mendicant order.
          About a year ago, I went to the Walters Art Museum to see the four panels. The Italian Renaissance section there is a rather sorry collection of dull and ruined pictures. Against these gray and brown fenestrations of Albertian space, four panels hang in a row, blazing forth a brilliant golden light. As I approached, the luster from these gold leaf panels flashed, alternating with a deeper amber tone. Here they were at last.
          At several feet from the wall, I stopped to bask in that distinct Sienese palette: gold, vermilion, deep lapis blue, Naples yellow, and yellow green, which pulsed in tensions against one another, creating an ambient space that seemed to spread across from panel to panel. Together they radiate a color-space that beckons one to stop and yield oneself to an engulfing presence. In doing so, time seems to shift from its worldly progression to a protracted moment of boundlessness, and I found myself gazing into the Other World, or at least the other world of art.
          Stepping closer, I became absorbed by these dramatic moments symbolizing Jesus’ sacrifice, each a ritualistic scene meant to prescribe our oblation, our simulation of the “living sacrifice.” In my euphoric state, the figures seemed almost alive, and from out of the blackness of memory, I recalled a favorite passage from Raymond Roussel’s novel, Locus Solus, where we are told how the scientist Canterel came to produce a complete illusion of life in elaborate tableaux using the corpses of the recently dead. As the subject achieves artificial life, “the latter would at once reproduce, with strict exactitude, every slightest action performed by him during certain outstanding minutes of his life; then, without any break, he would indefinitely repeat the same unvarying series of deeds and gestures which he had chosen once and for all.”
          What a perfect image of the mad magic of these paintings! Didn’t Giovanni want his work to embody a “living sacrifice” so that through giving ourselves over to these images, we too can transcend the temporal and imagine the Divine?
          As I became absorbed by looking at the Malavolti panels, I recalled a comparable experience six months before at a Christie’s auction viewing, of Mark Rothko’s superb painting, Homage to Matisse of 1954. In a vertical format, almost nine feet high, a golden field shifts between yellow and orange, opening a color-space that projects forward three hazy rectangles. The largest of these, a rich ultramarine blue, floats just above the bottom edge and rises to the middle of the canvas. The blue is at once luminous, open within itself, and effectively a silhouette with the physical force of an object. As it emerges from the deep chrome yellow atmosphere, leaving de-saturated green traces on either side, it presses forward into our space. Just above it, at eye level, an intense band of cadmium red-orange recedes into the golden field, pressing the blue outward, along with the shimmering light cadmium yellow that blurs into a deeper yellow-orange immediately above.
          At the time I saw the Rothko, I wondered what did this painting have to do with Matisse. Oh yes, Matisse died in 1954, so the painting was titled as a tribute to the symbolist master of color; yet, as a painting the Rothko evokes nothing of Matisse’s expression. The palette itself would seem to be more a response to the Pierre Bonnard paintings shown at the Museum of Modern Art in 1948. Taken together with the palette and the composition, I found the Rothko echoing the format of a Sienese Madonna. Rothko wrote, “I think of my pictures as dramas; the shapes in the pictures are the performers.” Pursuing this thought, I imagined that Rothko might have simply chosen a painting that evoked the Virgin in Mercy or, perhaps, the Queen of Heaven, as if in tribute and rebuke, a gesture of intercession for the hedonist Rothko considered Matisse to be. Perhaps this is why the canvas is signed and dated 1953 on the back. It is with such allusions that a level of meaning between paintings from different times may be revealed and this is especially true of modern works, as we, like Rothko, have an acute self-consciousness of the past. Yet the drive to appear to be without influence is no longer so true for contemporary artists who are beginning to see some value in engaging in a dialogue with the past.

DAVID CARBONE is a painter and writer living in New York City. He has exhibited widely, including The Boston Museum, The Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art, The Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, The National Academy of Design, and Phyllis Kind Gallery, Chicago. In addition to various scholarships, fellowships and awards, Carbone has been a recipient of The Englhard Foundation Award and The Ingram-Merrill Award. He has published criticism and essays on painters in Antaeus, Arts Magazine, Art and Antiques and Modern Painters.

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