Leslie Primo at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts

On October 22nd 2013 I was delighted to be invited to the Barber Institute of Fine Arts to deliver a lecture in Black History month.  For those who have expressed an interest this talk, but were unable to attend, what follows is a brief précis, of some of the pictures that I talked about from this exquisite collection.  Among the many highlights that I spoke about at the Barber is a tiny and exquisite triptych made in the late 14th century by an unknown Italian artist that seems as though it has been captured and pressed into a frame as though a bird in a gilded cage. However, the incredible decorative effects achieved by this unknown craftsman have not been subdued by its capture. The delicate stippling and decorative colour effects behind the Virgin and Christ Child sing out from this tiny painting. The painting not only features the Baptist and a rather hairy Magdalene in the left and right wings respectively, but this tiny painting also features an even smaller Annunciation in top register of each wing. The jewel-like quality of this work reminds one of the jewel-like quality of another piece also by an unknown craftsman and also from the same period in the National Gallery – the Wilton Diptych.

I also mentioned two small panels again by an unknown craftsman, but formerly attributed to the Master of the Judgement of Paris. In the panels we see the age old story of man in pursuit of reluctant woman played out in the Greek myth of Apollo and Daphne, in two panels by an unknown Italian artist or artists. The pure simplicity of the depictions in these panels (possibly made to adorn a marriage chest, i.e. cassone) certainly contribute to their supposedly innocent charm, they are indeed beautifully executed panels; most likely egg-tempera on poplar wood. However, one can’t help thinking that Daphne’s solution, suggested by the gods, to escape the arms of Apollo by turning herself into a tree, seems to be giving credence to the age old myth that women who do not give themselves freely to men must be frigid though made of wood.

Along with this work by Sandro Botticelli (1445 – 1510): Botticelli’s distinctive and unusual style (and that of his workshop) is unmistakable, and so to is the figure of Simonetta Vespucci cast here as the Virgin. This muse and inspiration seems to appear over and over again in Botticelli’s most famous works, such as the Uffizi’s La Primavera (painted between 1477 and 1482), the Birth of Venus (painted between 1482 and 1485) and the National Gallery’s Venus and Mars (painted about 1485), and in this case the not so well known work the Barber’s collection – the Madonna and Child with the Infant St John the Baptist (1490s). The delicacy of painting, emotion and complexity of composition, along with perfect execution of diaphanous materials is a joy to behold and surly transports one to that strange place called Botticelli world.

Another great highlight from this great collection that I talked about is a work by Jacopo Bassano (active about 1535; died 1592). Bassano’s Adoration of the Magi is, as one would expect of this subject, a truly sumptuous affair. The handling of paint to create the beautiful and colourful robes of the kings is marvellous. One of the most skilful aspects of this work is the superb fore-shortening of the horse with its backside emerging from the painting on the right side of the canvas. But curiously the position of the horse with its backside in our faces is echoed by the eldest Magi, Caspar, who is seen knelling in the centre foreground.

Also mentioned was the masterpiece by Spanish artist Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1671- 1682). No photograph can do justice to Murillio’s – The Marriage Feast at Cana, it must be seen live. The still life arrangement of the water vases and figures in the foreground literally emerge out of the canvas and handling of textures such as clothes and ceramic of the vases is sublime and tangible. The painting itself is sensitively lit and is hung at just the right height to take full advantage of Murillio’s extraordinary powers of illusion. Indeed so good is the effect that one might imagine they can almost enter this sumptuous scene. These same powers of illusion are also on show in Murillo’s self-portrait at the National Gallery (probably 1670-3).

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