Tuesday, January 20, 2009

`Full of Light and Serious Joy'

Last week my brother posted a rebus even more gnomic than usual. The name spelled out in pictures is Piero della Francesca, the 15th-century Italian master. The post was prompted, he told me, by a rereading of “Piero della Francesca,” the only essay in Zbigniew Herbert’s Barbarian in the Garden devoted to a single artist. Herbert is the most civilized of poets. When friends ask him to “tell us what you’ve chosen for yourself, who is the painter closest to your heart, the one you’d never exchange,” Herbert replies, “Piero.”

The first of Piero’s paintings Herbert sees – he calls it a “meeting” -- is "The Nativity" in London at the National Gallery, “an unusual composition full of light and serious joy.” Fortunately for his readers, Herbert was an autodidact of art history, not an academic. His reactions are informed by a deep knowledge of technique but remain essentially emotional, or rather they issue from that place in the sensibility of a civilized person where the emotional, aesthetic and intellectual share space:

“The sensation was similar to my first Van Eyck. It is difficult to define such an aesthetic shock. The picture roots you to one spot. You cannot step back or move closer or (as with modern painting) smell the paint and examine the facture treatment.”

Herbert moves on to Piero’s homeland with typical charm and abruptness:

“Goethe’s wise dictum: `Wer den Dicther will verstehen, muss in Dichters Lande gehen.’ As the fruits of light, paintings should be viewed under the artist’s native sun….Hence the pilgrimage to Piero della Francesca. Since my means were modest, I surrendered to chance and adventure. The story does not follow a chronology so relished by historian.

“Perugia. The sombre town dwells in the green-golden Umbrian landscape.”

Herbert wanders around central Italy, relishing its weather and cultural wealth – and his freedom. His visits came in the immediate wake of the 1956 thaw in the Soviet Bloc. Herbert, a Pole, was in his thirties, still healthy and, like “The Nativity,” “full of light and serious joy.” His essays, unlike most of his poems, are filled with carefully chosen pieces of his life, and we see a chronically under-oxygenated man breathing the fresh air of freedom and culture. Herbert is writing about Piero but it reads like a poetic credo:

“The key to Piero’s mystery: he was one of the most impersonal, supra-individual artists in history. Berenson compares him to the anonymous sculptor of the Parthenon and to Velázquez...The absence of psychological expression unveils the pure artistic movement within mass and light…over the battle of shadows, convulsions and tumult, Piero has erected lucidus ordo – an eternal order of light and balance.”

In his collection Shocked Stars (2006), the Australian poet William Rush includes an homage to Piero with a title borrowed from for one of the artist’s most vividly human works, “Madonna del Parto.”

“Piero’s mother also waited here
in Monterchi for her son. He would
walk, as we are walking, past
lines of walnut and olive, noting the
axis of tiled roof and cypress,
leaving his pastel, most serene
saints, scattered over Umbria.”

This is pleasing but thin and sentimental, the opposite of Herbert’s earthy account of the same painting:

“It is certainly one of paintings most provocative Madonnas. Her hair, pressed to her skull, uncovers large ears. She has a sensual neck and full arms, a straight nose and a hard, swollen mouth. Her eyes are lowered, her eyelids drawn over black pupils which stare into her body. She wears a simple, high-waisted dress open from breast to knees. Her left hand rests on a hip, a country bridesmaid’s gesture; the right hand touches her belly but without a trace of licentiousness, as though touching a mystery. Piero has painted for the Monterchi peasants the tender, eternal secret of every mother. Two angels briskly draw aside the drapery like a stage curtain.”

Never has the Virgin seemed so human, so womanly and motherly, so like a Polish peasant. Everyone who has ever lived with a pregnant woman will recognize the stance Piero paints and Herbert describes – one arm akimbo, the other holding her belly “as though touching a mystery.” Herbert, who practiced no religion and had both Christian and Jewish forbears, enthusiastically embraces a great Christian artist who, like him, was “one of the most impersonal, supra-individual artists in history.” Near the end of the essay Herbert writes:

“It is impossible to place him in a romance. He hides so thoroughly behind his painting and frescoes that one cannot invent his private life, his loves and friendships, his ambitions, his passion and grief. He has received the greatest act of mercy by absent-minded history, which mislays documents and blurs all traces of life. If he still endures, it is not through anecdotes of the miseries of his life, his madness, his successes and failures. His entire being is in his oeuvre.”

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