Making the ManJohn Haber
in New York City
Filippino Lippi and His Circle
Style sounds so clear-cut. Just open a magazine. Yet art and life have a habit of crossing lines. I hate to give this one away, but I caught a major exhibition of Renaissance painting on the way to an astronomy convention.
Besides two views of the heavens, I also had too much time on my hands in Washington. At one point I found myself staring at the desolate Martian surface, a late-breaking photo from a space probe called Pathfinder—a robot, really. To stay awake (and feel superior), I labeled it to resemble Saul Steinberg's cartoon of The World As Seen from New York City. Was the style now Steinberg's, mine, or a robot's?
To find my own style, I had to step back again to the Renaissance. I thought about those paintings in Washington, by Lorenzo Lotto, and an equally fine show in New York, of Filippino Lippi. With them both, I could see the birth of a style. I could in fact see our whole idea of style coming to be—and why, even in a postmodern era, the idea still matters.
The circle game
The Met is the last place I go for prints or drawings. Too often, I pass through that corridor on my way out, perhaps to find a really good show at the Morgan Library. For once, I had to stop in my tracks. I caught a stunning exhibition of drawings, "Filippino Lippi and His Circle."
Lippi worked in the most colossal studio and museum ever, Florence. Even Piero della Francesca had to work as an assistant there. Great commissions were going up everywhere—in plazas and in churches, even in reliefs meant for the home—and Lippi had a direct line to their creation. His father, Filippo Lippi, trained under Masaccio, the painter who forged a new style alongside sculptors like Lorenzo Ghiberti. Filippino in turn reached maturity under his father's most famous pupil, Sandro Botticelli.
With that lineage, one expects a lot. One gets a lot, too, but not the way I expected. The older generation had combined monumental force and incisive drawing. Lippi's drawings aim for something more effervescent. Swept by the intricate rhythms of white-chalk highlights, his figures reach for everything but the ground and the sky.
What would Lippi's teachers say? For the older Lippi or Fra Angelico, line carves out a simple beauty and great masses. For Botticelli, line poses emotional tensions against precise spaces. For them and others then, drapery defines a figure's volume, bearing, and place. Not for the younger man.
Even today, an art teacher might want to take a pen to some of the drawings. I can verify it: I went with two. Lippi's anatomy lessons range from a second bicep on just one arm to a man that looks, well, pregnant.
In art, as in Freud, mistakes are never just mistakes. Here they offer the rare revelation of a great artist's thought process. One sees Lippi just as he was first designing important paintings. They show him in the act of finding a pose and inventing a style.
The spice of life
I know that arm started over there, right? Oh no, I imagine Lippi thinking, the hand deserves to point up more, toward God. The limb demands a more heroic gesture. So, oops, the bicep had better be duplicated over here. Sorry, but these things happen. An artist must move on.
One slowly understands, then, how well he drew, how much he had studied anatomy, and how deeply. If limbs go off on their own, they also reflect nature. Surfaces build on a knowledge of the underlying muscles, and Lippi could not have known them from surfaces alone.
The mistakes also reveal a new decorative impulse. With Lippi, masses can give birth to rhythms for their own sake. The human form, even human emotions, all but vanish amid complex drapery studies. The drawings can remind me of Verocchio's curly-haired angels of much the same years. Background architecture runs to multiple stories—an escape from function into fancy.
Lippi's skill points to his father's generation, but he was losing interest in the very basis of their art, the human figure. In drapery all that complexity is natural, even when it obscures flesh and dulls psychological penetration. Those same rhythms may need taming when it comes to the body, but Lippi may not care. That is someone else's business.
For Lippi and others, a new naturalism grew alongside a new emphasis on stylistic variety. One sees it in the casual portrait drawings. The wealthy patrons never look ostentatious, even as their expressions never give away emotional conflict. Under the pressures of a personal style, realism no longer means earthiness or penetration deep beneath the everyday. It is a flight beyond. Style serves as a vision.
All well and good, but how good are these drawings? The Met has a winner. For a better artist, perhaps, the puzzle might have fallen into place spontaneously. Some artists seem never to make mistakes from the start, but then there is only one Botticelli.
There is also only one Filippino Lippi. As with so many shows, I expected the accent to be on "His Circle," leaving far too many unfamiliar names and mediocre pencils. I was surprised by a large show almost exclusively of Lippi himself. The exhibition relies on some key collections, and Lippi's own drawings mix with such artists as Botticelli and Piero di Cosimo.
The show includes one painting. In Lippi's finished work, the old simplicity often returns, but without losing his delicacy. That painting lets one see how an artist's extraordinary thoughts work through to ordinary reality. Yet it remains a dreamlike reality. Thanks to the Met, I can better understand why Lippi's most famous painting, of Saint Bernard, shows a man's vision.
Lippi's drawings play out dreams that his public would never see. Only decades later, in the north of Italy, Lorenzo Lotto never stopped dreaming, and a show of fifty paintings puts those dreams on display. The National Gallery borrows works from towns outside Venice, places that even a decent tourist like me never visit. An intelligent display makes the Renaissance accessible in America. That does not happen often.
Both men grew up with artistic change. Lippi, along with artists as Piero di Cosimo, comes near the end of a great century, the quattrocento. Lotto, a contemporary of Titian (or Dosso Dossi), learned from the High Renaissance. It too had given humanity greater weight, as so much of art had attempted since Giotto. And like Lippi, Lotto now turned a tradition into a personal style. He too sought greater naturalism and yet less immediacy.
Lippi worked right at the center of things, in Florence. Lotto moved in and around Venice. By circumstances a loner, by temperament he was an exile. His figures could well belong someplace else, and they sometimes find it in their visions.
In those times a Sacred Conversation labeled a group of saints. It did not mean that they should literally speak. For Lotto, though, they do not even share the same world. His saints look off, as if to distant memories, eyes unfocused. Their puffy flesh makes them all the dreamier.
Lotto has two favorite saints, Jerome and Catherine. (At least they turn up in commission after commission.) Saint Jerome lived alone in a barren wilderness, a true icon of Lotto's time. (El Greco painted him repeatedly, too, while learning from Venice.) Catherine, a mystic, imagined her marriage to the infant Jesus. As if to stress the visionary over the vision, her eyes and those of the child never meet.
When figures do not look blankly, they swoon. When Jesus bids his mother goodbye, she is supposed to collapse, but Lotto's Jesus too looks down, bent inward by his humility. In a Pietà the crush of their figures becomes unbearable, weight upon weight upon weight. An angel above reaches weakly for Mary, still unable to bear the dead Christ in her lap. In turn his fall strains two more supporting angels. The strain tugs at images of women even in art today.
As in the Pietà, Lotto prefers symmetry. His compositions never quite abandon the High Renaissance. Nothing tears apart his grand pyramids. They only sink into a dream.
Eclecticism as style
As with Lippi, dreaming actually helps sustain a new naturalism, and why not? After all, sleep and realism alike distrust theater.
Jerome holds his rock, but it does not tear at his breast. Donors have all their warts, and Jerome shows that Lotto could handle anatomy perfectly well when he wished. The donors freely enter the same space as saints—or is it the other way around?
In that Sacred Conversation, a baby Jesus ignores the fuss to play with a saint's emblem. It is only a ribbon and medallion, but imagine if an instrument of martyrdom were itself to become a child's toy. Earthly possessions would take on heroic proportions, but earthly suffering would vanish into thin air. One senses the sobriety of the Renaissance's very beginnings.
Far from looking ahead, to a still-newer style we call Mannerism, Lotto clings to the past century. He admires the clear light of his teacher, Giovanni Bellini, and steals a composition from Raphael. At his best, Lotto combines the intense color of the quattrocento, or the 1400s, with the encroaching darkness of Titian's Venice. That blend is all his own, and one does not see it again until the Baroque.
The amazing combination reminds me of his instinct for exile. Living apart, a little further north, made him eclectic. He borrowed from Dürer, and his acid colors and awkward, heavy men and women made me think of German Renaissance art.
Maybe he grasped instantly the relevance of late Northern Renaissance painting, prints, and prints after painting and prints for the oil medium just coming to Italy. By documenting a private marriage, a double portrait of his helped make the marriage legal. Jan van Eyck had probably used that theme three quarters of a century before. (The debate over van Eyck's wedding portrait makes a great story all to itself!)
Lotto had many sources. He even collected the carpets that decorate the background of a few paintings. By looking firmly at the world around him, he developed the Renaissance into an otherworldly style. By ceding innovations to others before him, he developed a style that allowed him his reticence.
Style as a way of hiding
By the time of his death, art had left Lotto and his many worlds behind. His audience could now choose instead between Titian's High Renaissance followers and the latest style, Mannerism. The latter, a reaction to the High Renaissance, had all the psychological action that Lotto avoided.
I could see what had changed by strolling again through the National Gallery's permanent collection. I could look at Mannerism or the High Renaissance to see what Lotto left out. At the very least, his version of Mannerism shares some of the calm of Pieter Bruegel in the north of Europe.
With Pontormo, an innovative mannerist, I saw piercing, dark eyes trapped between long, cramped windows. I saw the hideous laughter of Andrea del Sarto's angels and the deep passion of Titian's parting lovers. No wonder Lotto's contemporaries had some trouble appreciating this backward, itinerant artist. More and more, they demanded artistic change and an artist's passions. They met a man carefully defined and disguised by his art.
In one painting, Lotto comes close to Mannerism. His wonderful annunciation has a light sky and a slim Virgin. Like a Mannerist, he makes Mary afraid, not strong and accepting, almost in hiding from her momentous fate. If the High Renaissance spoke confidently of a higher realm, younger artists lived in fear of it.
A diagonal composition further reverses the High Renaissance. For once in his life, Lotto breaks with symmetry. Reading naturally from left to right, then, one's eye runs into Mary before the angel Gabriel and the room behind him. In other words, one hits the effect before the cause, the sacred form in hiding before the unhidden world.
Even here, however, Lotto will not let go of his dreamers. Mary crouches, unable to act. Lotto displaces any overt action or emotion onto a cat, striding in the dead center of the canvas.
With the cat, the painter's emotional reserve and complexity has its greatest triumph. The cat's nervous action symbolizes Mary's mood—or does it? Should I identify her with the cat or rather with its victim? Curled in a ball, she made me think of a mouse, and in art a cat sometimes symbolizes the devil.
I could not stop there, either. From her crouch, I imagined her ready to spring like the cat after all. And still she stares at nothing, with the inner retreat of another Lotto recluse. For him, style had become a way of hiding.
Seeing through style
Today style implies almost the opposite of hiding out. The modern age likes to think of a painting as expressing personality, not evading it. The style makes the man. Each century of art has held countless inner worlds now lost—and yet to decipher them, historians have to stick to surfaces. They have to retell old stories and describe old conventions.
Of course, style also means fashion—another convention, a means of decoration, and so a break from fine art. Sure, painters may have genius, but not ordinary people. I express myself by dressing like everyone else this year.
The two uses of style seem at odds, then, expression and convention. Worse, each seems at odds with itself. Together, they leave too many paradoxes and too many myths. Some terrific critics, including feminists and postmodernists, have thus taken apart words like style, expression, genius, and the avant-garde—and found them at least a good half-empty.
Cynics, and I am one, have trouble calling a glass half-full. However, Lippi and Lotto suggest a way to respect the paradoxes. What if a style turns out to require both a tired convention and an act of self-definition?
As with Lippi and Lotto, I want to see through fictions to their history. In Renaissance art and now, I want to spot assumptions behind what the majority calls common sense. Art will find alternatives that the comfort of common sense shamefully excludes. Art and critics must ask how every understanding of reality requires fictions.
Criticism gets in trouble only once it confuses seeing through lies and living without the stories people tell themselves. Not every transparent object is empty.
Style as an event
Masaccio or Titian created an explosion. Style silences the explosions as it recovers decoration and fantasy, from Lippi's architecture to Lotto's carpets. Lesser figures turn a news event into a social event.
A revolution projects feelings every which way like a schizophrenic. Style gathers them in, like a party or a dream. Style becomes a means of defining oneself by escaping the self, like Mary escaping her future and giving birth to it.
In my cartoon, had I shown off or hid myself in others? Modernity allowed them both and made them inseparable. This New Yorker really does love art but suspect New Yorker cartoons, wonder at astronomy but wonder about America.
It is time to recover a notion of style as formal, conventional, unoriginal, and inexpressive alongside the old idea of individual expression. For my ultimate stylists, I want to think not of van Gogh's fatal madness and Picasso's Blue Period, but of Monet and Cézanne, with all their steady stylistic evolution. Back in the Renaissance, a couple of less significant painters showed the way.
Drawings of Filippino Lippi and his circle ran through January 11, 1998, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Lorenzo Lotto remained on display through March 1, 1998, at the National Gallery of Art. The two art teachers I have mentioned, an art historian and a painter, had a lot to teach me. I am happy to thank Olivia Shelley and Dik Liu. They first spotted more than a few details in Lippi I have felt compelled to explain, and they helped to restore for me the urgency of the quattrocento. Dik's own latest show of still life ran till February 4, 1998, at the Bowery gallery.