In search of modern art

By JEFFREY GANTZ  |  January 28, 2006

The most modern entry could have been painted in a monastery. Giorgio Morandi’s Still Life of Bottles and Pitcher (1946), six bottles and a pitcher, all in his trademark palette of cream, beige, gray, ocher, and steel blue, huddle together against a similarly muted background. Too simple to be disturbing, you think, and yet it is. Where does one shape leave off and another begin? Where does the light come from? Morandi keeps raising the uncomfortable questions most of his modernist peers had stopped asking.

Real modern art arose in the 15th century, at the dawn of Renaissance humanism, when artists began to paint what they saw rather than what they knew. “I call a sign,” Leon Battista Alberti wrote in his treatise De pictura, “anything that exists on a surface so that it is visible to the eye.” But to a Dominican friar like Giovanni da Fiesole (circa 1395–1455), whom we know as the artist Fra Angelico, a sign was an operation. To Alberti, a figure in an Annunciation was the angel Gabriel or the Virgin Mary; to Fra Angelico, the figure in any Annunciation was the relationship between the two. Alberti’s isn’t just a different way of painting, it’s a different way of living. Next to that revolution, the one we call modern art is just a surface phenomenon.

Nothing could be less modern than the Annunciation that Fra Angelico painted on the wall of the north corridor at San Marco. The “figure” here is the exchange between Gabriel and Mary, the Word — verbum in Latin — as verb. It’s the exchange among Gabriel, Mary, and the unseen (unusual for an Annunciation) Dove, the exchange involving the loggia (Mary as temple), with its pillars (the pillar of fire in Exodus, legs as pillars of marble in the Song of Solomon), or the garden (Mary as garden), the once and future paradise, with its unseen expulsion of Adam and Eve. Barely visible, too, is the way the hem of Gabriel’s robe dissolves into the marble floor, itself a reminder that Fra Angelico’s abstract patterns (most notably the four faux marble panels beneath the Madonna of the Shadows in San Marco’s east corridor) attest to what no “figure” can show. This isn’t just a painter offering theories about art; it’s a theologian schooled in Antoninus and Thomas Aquinas inviting you to move between Alberti’s “visible” and God’s “invisible.”

Up through January 29 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and just the second show ever devoted to this artist (the first was in Florence in 1955), “Fra Angelico” will test your ability to move between what it has and what it hasn’t. Among the missing are the frescoes in the Dominican convent of San Marco in Florence, the great Annunciations in Cortona and Madrid and on the Santa Maria Novella reliquary, the Linaiuoli altarpiece, the Annunziata silver chest, various Last Judgments and Coronations of the Virgin, the Saint Stephen and Saint Lawrence frescoes he executed in Rome for Pope Nicholas V — pieces that are either permanent or too big to travel.

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