It is improbable that more nonsense has been written about aesthetics than about anything else: the literature of the subject is not large enough for that (Clive Bell)


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Sunday, October 2, 2011

John White: Masolino

(this is chapter 10 of John White's "Birth and Rebirth of Pictorial Space".
Quoted text is in YELLOW.
Text quoted from other authors is in GREEN)

Masolino’s attitude to pictorial space and to the new perspective is
epitomized by the two faces of the altarpiece of ‘The Madonna of the
Snow’ which he designed, and largely painted, for the Basilica of Sta. Maria Maggiore.

The character of the painting on the back of the altarpiece is set by the central panel of ‘The Assumption’. The gradual diminution of the angels, accompanied by a lightening of the colour as the eye moves up the panel, appears to be dictated by a desire to fill the lower surface of the picture satisfactorily without making the mandorla seem topheavy, rather than by any wish to create a deep recession of the figures. The inward movement of the lower figures is balanced by the slight projection of the foreshortened body of the Christ at the mandorla’s apex. Despite this gentle inwards and outwards movement that encloses the heavier figure of the Virgin, like the first, slight curling of a leaf; the design is, as a whole, a brilliant surface decoration. Perspective is too harsh a word to use of the soft nuances of space which enhance the wing-beating liveliness of the decorative pattern.
The same restricted interest in pictorial depth is to be seen in the two pairs of saints which flank the central panel. In each case the outer figure faces inwards in pure profile, his companion being shown full-face. The soft, and only slightly plastic forms do nothing to increase the gentle spatial quality of this heraldic disposition.

The contrast on the opposite face, which from Vasari’s description must have been the front, is remarkable.

Perspective is the dominant factor in the central panel of ‘The Foundation of Sta. Maria Maggiore’. The foreshortening of the transepts, marked out by the filling snow and sweeping the eye straight into the distance, can only be described as dramatic in intention and effect. The spatial cavity is accentuated by the figures ranged in depth round the miraculous plan, by the steep orthogonals of the buildings that continue the inward movement, and finally by the small, mosaic-hard clouds which run, at times in unbroken lines, out over the distant hills. The change in figure scale between the Pope, plying his mattock in the foreground, and the immediately juxtaposed, diminutive figures of the distant crowd is striking in itself. Already carefully explained by the graduated ranks behind and opposite the Pope, it is accentuated further by the figure standing at the end of the far transept. His bright yellow tights stand out in sudden contrast to the midnight ultramarine of his scalloped jerkin, and are the brightest note in a colour scheme of pinks and softened reds and greyish browns. Colouristically, therefore, it does nothing to increase the depth. What does happen is that it attracts the eye, and holds it at the furthest point of the dramatically receding ground-plan, whilst the anatomic clarity of the brilliant hose stresses the change of scale. Finally, the contrast between space and plane is made explicit by the visionary figures of Christ and of the Virgin in the top pan of the panel. Their relative size, the absolutely circular glory which surrounds them, and the horizontal bar of cloud that closes in the spatial box below, all emphasize the flatness of the panel which is so forcefully attacked in its lower half.

Thankfully, White often abandons his earlier "decision to base all arguments as far as possible upon an analysis of the treatment of rectangular solid objects, and to accept the limitations which this implies."

It's funny how Masolino has used those little clouds to turn heaven into a kind of coffered ceiling vault, establishing a tunnel of space receding into the distance.

Perhaps, it's too funny, and that's why this effect is so rarely done.

Smith would probably see this as exemplifying that love of architecture that characterizes the early Renaissance.

The spatial pattern of the altarpiece as a whole, therefore, reveals both a delight in the traditional qualities of surfĂ ce decoration and an equally intense enthusiasm for the spatial possibilities of the new, focused system of perspective. These two aspects of pictorial design are, as far as lies within the artist’s power, contrasted, and not blended. Each characterizes one face of the altar- piece, and where the two extremes are brought together in the principal panel, they are still divided by a carefully accented compositional break. Even a subsequent rearrangement of the reconstruction of the altarpiece is unlikely to affect this contrast, since the now separated sets of paintings, ascribed to its two faces, were actually sawn apart, originally being painted back to back on single panels. Furthermore, precisely this dichotomy of style recurs, in one form or another, throughout Masolino’s major works in fresco.

In S. Clemente, Masolino’s interest in perspective is well represented by the complex, steeply foreshortened architecture of ‘The Annunciation’ placed above the entrance arch of the chapel which he decorated. The design is in sharp contrast to the works of Donatello and Masaccio which it calls to mind, for its perspective is aimed only at the setting of a scene, at the capture of the sudden excitement of architecture seen from an unusual angle, making an unexpected pattern. This excitement is not shared and given human meaning by the figures. The architectural forms themselves do not betray it. It is for itself alone, a sudden vision of new beauty, framing a well-remembered scene with a spatial decoration born of new, and fascinating knowledge.

I agree that the interaction of figures and architecture in much different in Masolino than in Masaccio's "Tribute Money", but I wouldn't call the use of vanishing points a "new, fascinating knowledge".

It's just how real buildings appear, and now some imaginary buildings are being presented that way as well, in this case to emotionalize the point of contact between Mary and the angel.

BTW - the space between the lines of dots that run down the ceiling of the barrel vault do not diminish with distance -- and yet -- it still seems like a deep space, doesn't it?

The fresco of ‘The Dispute of St. Catherine’ within the body of the chapel is perhaps even more typical of Masolino’s outlook. Here every’ thing is done to stress the box-like structure of the council chamber thrusting inwards through the surface of the wall. The panelling of the room looks like a diagram of the new perspective grid which happened to be left in place after the inclusion of the figures, and then congealed into the form of architecture. Nothing obscures the spatial skeleton. As far as possible, the structural joints, where wall and wall, or walls and ceiling meet, are clearly visible. The figures compensate for any unavoidable blurring of the volumetric clarity by being likewise set in rigid rows that reinforce the inwards plunge.

It is the visual effect, however, not the mathematics of the system, which excites the artist. This is shown by the unregulated intervals in the panelling of the side walls, which conflict with the accurate construction of the ceiling network. On the other hand, the artist shows a definite interest in what might be called the abstract pattern of perspective.

This is a fascinating scene that deserves so much more than a discussion of its perspective.

This scholar addresses its origins within a Roman renewal after the Great Schism and compares it with other presentations of the Catherine legend.

The distance point to which the diagonals of the ceiling run is made to coincide with the vanishing point of the next-door composition of ‘The Liberation of St. Catherine’, and a similar relationship exists between the frescoes of ‘The Death of St. Ambrose’ and of ‘The Flood’.

The enthusiasm for perspective space reveals itself again in the main cornice which runs round the asymmetric architecture of ‘The Liberation of St. Catherine’ . The orthogonals and transversals of this spatial zig zag are sharply differentiated from each other, and its backwards and forwards movement is further emphasized by its distinctive jetblack colouring.

Here, the figures hardly penetrate the principal architectural inlet, and a similar dichotomy is dramatized in the ‘St. Catherine Converting the Daughter of the Queen’, in which calm figures, placid even in the course of a beheading, are confined to a narrow foreground strip, whilst the architecture plunges back into the depths with all the self-sufficient drama of extreme foreshortening. The latter is a most remarkable pictorial invention, particularly when the date of its creation in the early 1430’s is considered. Only in the final quarter of the fifteenth century can it be matched again in Italy. Yet it expresses no essential figure movement, and its dramatic thrust conflicts with the less abrupt recession in the fresco on its left. In conjunction with the wide overlapping of these two scenes’ external vanishing points, this means that despite the many purely decorative elements in the designs, the possible function of the bold recession in creating a visual centre for the whole lunette is anything but furthered. Such compositions stress the everpresent contrast between Masolino’s disinterest in the plasticity of his gentle, decorative figures, and his pleasure in sharp-angled geometric space, the thrust of which is subdued neither by his clear, decorative colour, nor by the often weak construction of his buildings.

Masolino's (b. 1383) feeling for character and drama is much closer to Fra Angelico (b. 1395) than to Masaccio (b. 1401)

White calls them "gentle and decorative", but they could also be called dream-like or mystical - i.e. visions of a supernatural world.

The extent to which the succession of simple, but irregular, architectural spaces cuts into the left wall of the chapel is underlined by the presence of a sole exception in the landscape of ‘The Decapitation of St. Catherine’. The absence of the clearly defined orthogonal thrusting straight into the distance, and also of the geometric measurement of depth, means that the landscape composition is softer in its spatial effect. It is more dependent upon atmospheric qualities which do not break the surface tension of the wall.

The available images on the internet are not large enough to determine whether any kind of atmospheric quality is present. But in his foreground, Masolino does offer three sizes of figures which diminish in size as they move further back into space,
and with that angel floating in space, the "surface tension of the wall" seems at least as broken as in the Masaccio posted beside it. What Masolino, like the Sienese, does not offer is a sense of mass in his figures.

On the opposite side of the chapel, where, paradoxically, every scene is architecturally defined, the conflict between space and plane does not obtrude on the observer in this way, since there is no such sudden contrast with an area in which pictorial space and surface decoration are achieved by the same, and not by different elements in the design.

The greatest triumph in the evocation of pictorial space in S. Clemente is the much damaged fresco of ‘The Crucifixion’ which covers the whole altar wall. Freed of the limitations which accompany the clarity and exactitude of architectural perspective, Masolino’s spatial sense presses him to achieve a revolution in the art of landscape. Nothing on this panoramic scale had been attempted in the ninety years which separate it from Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s memorable adventure.
The scene takes place on a high hill, with many of the figures only partly visible upon the downward slope beyond the foreground plateau. All the figures are confined, however, to a relatively narrow forward strip, with the great vista rolling out beyond them to the far horizon.

It is a significant pointer to Masolino’s attitude that, in spite of this, he does not use the hilltop composition to bring the figures close to the spectator, showing them from a normal viewpoint with the landscape distances unrolling in the background fr below. That is the solution typical of figure painters from the time of Simone Martini’s ‘Guidoriccio da Fogliano’ to Castagno’s predella scene of ‘The Crucifixion’ and the Pollaiuolo ‘Martyrdom of St. Sebastian’. Here, the panoramic bird’s eye view takes in the foreground as well as the distance, and banishes the monumental figure.

A bird's eye view is also found in this Jan Van Eyck version that is dated to about the same time

If this one was done by Hubert Van Eyck, it would have been even earlier

Within the figure composition several things are clear. The first is that the artist has done everything within his power to give a spacious feeling to the foreground, and not merely to the distant view. The figures obey the demands of space, and work to make it real. Those standing break into small, isolated groups. The riders each move in their own direction with a maximum confusion which has but a single steady purpose. This is to provide the greatest possible range of different foreshortenings and directions of movement, and thus to emphasize the entire composition’s spatial content. Dramatic gesture is the means by which the artist then attempts to hold the purposefully disparate elements of his design together. Even so, the eloquent attitudes draw attention not to a single centre, but to three. Each of the crucifixes is the focus of a separate action and a separate interest without being, in any sense, the centre of a formally coherent group. All this is directly contrary to Masaccio’s principles of composition even when applied to several actions going on at different times within a single scene. There is no way of connecting the isolated relief groups in the foreground, or the deliberately contrasted and disorganized individualism of the figures in the middle ground of ‘The Crucifixion’ with the tight, concentrated groups, and calm, figure subordinated clarity of Masaccio's composition. The fresco bears the stamp of Masolino's personal qualities and attendant weaknesses from the nearest figure group to the furthest castled hill.

The Masolino crucifixion certainly has a different, more spacious sense of space than found in the Van Eycks (who, by the way, do not get a chapter in this book)

But which space is more "real" ?

And has Masolino failed to connect the "isolated relief groups in the foreground"?

The painting does suffer from those two doorways that perforate it. Perhaps they came later? And perhaps the composition makes more sense when standing within the chapel, where the decoration runs from floor to top of ceiling.

The artist’s unquenchable enthusiasm for pictorial space reveals itself again in the baptistery at Castiglione d’Olona. It is even present in the frescoes on the vaulting of the Collegiata itself, although there it is greatly restricted by the awkward shape of the pictorial fields.

In the whole first half of the fifteenth century there is nothing that can match the exuberance of ‘The Feast of Herod’ , its arched columns stepping gracefully into the distance, and the blind arches racing with them like the palings of a fence seen from the window of a train. Such a clear, uninterrupted sweep of architecture from the foreground inwards to such depth had never been attempted till this time. Such a naive and delicate delight in the depth-creating possibilities of linear perspective and extreme foreshortening is not found again until the days of Jacopo Bellini. By then the springtime softness of the architectural forms of the first years of the Florentine renaissance has been lost.

Once again, the decorative artist is excited by the pictorial possibilities and not the scientific meaning of perspective. The ceiling in the ‘Dispute of St. Catherine’ shows that he could apply the rules in their entirety, if ever he felt so inclined, which was not often. Here only the unified vanishing point is carefully observed. There is no attempt to give the proper interval between the columns, and so to forge the scientific link between pictorial space and the real world of the beholder. Similarly, the joy in three-dimensional composition far outruns any demands made by the action. The graceful silhouettes move in the very foreground, and the space runs on behind them for sheer pleasure.

Once again, White has lost abandoned his focus on rectangular solids, and now he speculates that the artist was more interested in "the joy of three-dimensional composition" than in the science of perception.

But what about the possibility that Masolino and his clerical patrons were even more interested in story telling?

It's engaging details like this which seem to make this painting memorable, rather than the converging parallel lines.

This same quality is visible, though to a lesser extent, in the magnificent cloister in the fresco of ‘The Namegiving’. Here the single action of the story allows the vaulted tunnel to be more easily related to the demands of the figures. The aged Zachary is indeed felicitously framed by the far archway. Something of grandeur takes the place of gaiety in the now’ruined architecture. Nonetheless the love of making holes in walls with the new weapon of perspective; the desire to show what it could do, to the amazement of the populace, and to the artist’s own delight, seems not to be entirely absent.

Regretfully, I could not find an image of the "Namegiving".

(and BTW - why assume that the populace is more amazed by holes in the wall than by visualizations of the gospels)

The feeling for clear colour, decorative figures, and bold spatial play are seen from these analyses to run throughout the work of Masolino. His lack of interest in those fundamental qualities of the human form, which were the province of the great companion who so often shuts him from the sun of critical acclaim, does not diminish his own qualities or his real originality.

Why are the qualities of Masaccio's figures more "fundamental" than those of Masolino?

It's just that Masaccio seems to present the world of the street rather than the world of sacred vision.

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