In search of modern art

By JEFFREY GANTZ  |  January 28, 2006

LOVERS Or is Käthe Kollwitz's sculpture a mother and child?The Met’s handsome catalogue, with Lawrence Kanter’s introductory essay reminding us that Fra Angelico was no pious reactionary but a player alongside Masaccio in making what was real more realistic, blurs the distinction between what’s present and what’s not. Nothing, on the other hand, could be plainer than the difference between the real thing and the large-scale photographic reproductions of the San Marco Annunciation, the San Marco Mocking of Christ (from cell 7), with its postmodern spitting head and disembodied hands, Saint Lawrence Giving Alms, and more with which the Met has helpfully dotted the show. The photographs are flat and lifeless; the pieces seems to have been painted with liquefied precious stones, refulgent ruby and emerald and amethyst and sapphire, all impregnated, like Mary, with light. Last weekend, the divinity of the details had spectators (three months into its run, the show was still packed) pressing nose to glass. The Naming of Saint John the Baptist merges theology (the power of Zacharias’s written word) with form and color and, in the way Elizabeth holds her baby, human tenderness that all recall Giotto’s Arena Chapel frescoes in Padua. The biggest crowds formed in front of the Paradise panel from a Last Judgment that’s now in Berlin, its dancers tripping right out of Paradiso, Dante also being a disciple of Thomas Aquinas. With its planes of rock and light, The Stigmatization of Saint Francis anticipates both Cézanne and Feininger.

Like the show, the catalogue is assiduous in its attention to chronology and attribution, modern art history being all about who done it and when. Modern art itself has no such mysteries: virtually every work in “Degas to Picasso” is signed. Fra Angelico signed no works; his art is about the mysteries of creation.
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