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Facets of brilliance
Bellini at the Gardner, Cubism at the MFA

The current show in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museumís special-exhibition room, " Bellini and the East, " is another flickering jewel in the Gardnerís crown. The Bellini in question is not even the relatively famous Giovanni ó who painted the Madonna of the Meadow and Sacred Allegory and The Feast of the Gods before being eclipsed, at least in the annals of art history, by Giorgione and Titian ó but his older brother Gentile, who in his time (1430Ė1507) was most noted for an enterprise, the narrative frescoes in the great hall of the Dogeís Palace, that a great fire eradicated in 1577. It was Gentile who in 1479, at the conclusion of a peace between Venice and the Ottoman Empire, sailed to Istanbul in response to Sultan Mehmed IIís request for a Venetian painter. There he executed the portrait of Mehmed II that resides in the National Gallery in London and now anchors the Gardner show.

Just what else Gentile did during his 16 months in Istanbul is hard to confirm, despite the exhibition catalogueís valiant attempt to attribute to his hand two of the four drawings the Gardner has assembled and also the museumís own pen-and-watercolor work Seated Scribe. " Bellini and the East, " which will be up through March 26, isnít really about Bellini; itís about the pas de deux of trading and traducing that Venice and the Ottoman Empire engaged in following the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Itís about the convergence of Italian, Greek, and Muslim cultures in Venice. And about the efforts of Cardinal Bessarion, a Greek émigré, first to unite the Eastern and Western halves of the Church and then, having failed in that, to rally Venice and the rest of Italy behind the effort to retake Constantinople. The portrait of Mehmed II and Seated Scribe and the drawings are accompanied by two Gentile Bellini oil paintings, Cardinal Bessarion and Two Members of the Scuola della Carità with the Bessarion Reliquary and Portrait of Caterina Cornaro, and his Self-Portrait in black chalk plus a collection of medals portraying Mehmed II, a Virgin and Child by Giovanni Bellini, a Cretan Madonna and depiction of the Raising of Lazarus, Vavassoreís map of Constantinople, and an Ottoman box and Venetian salver. (The London version of " Bellini and the East, " April 12ĖJune 25, will offer more, including Gentileís Virgin and Child Enthroned and Giovanniís The Doge Leonardo Loredan.)

But itís Gentile Bellini who fascinates. The concluding phrase of his inscription on the portrait of Caterina Cornaro reads, " You see how great I am but greater still is the hand of Gentile Bellini that can portray me on such a small panel. " And some peculiarities about the encomium that Mehmed II wrote upon Belliniís departure from Istanbul in January 1481 have raised suspicions that Gentile wrote it himself. He did not lack confidence. In that black-chalk self-portrait, the receding chin is more than offset by the shrewd eyes and tight-lipped mouth. Itís the look of the top painter in the Bellini family, the top painter in Venice, a loyal friend, an implacable enemy. He could be a character on The Sopranos, and not the kind that winds up sleeping with the fishes. Any doubts as to the identity of the subject are quashed by an accompanying medal executed by Vittorio Gambello with Gentileís name on the rim: the faces are identical, and the particularity of both is striking.

Belliniís Mehmed II is not the tough old bird of the medals (one of them said to have been designed by Gentile) but a frail, worn-looking ruler. Mehmedís head is tilted down ever so slightly, so that his nose seems longer and his face longer and thinner, and his chin disappears into the fuzzy length of his beard. His head is dwarfed by his turban; his entire body dissolves into his robe. Heís defined by the magnificence of his office ó the framing arch and parapet, the cloth of honor ó even as it consumes him. Itís not a conventionally flattering portrait; only a very wise ruler would have appreciated it. The same is true of Belliniís portrait of Caterina Cornaro, which emphasizes her small features and short, thick neck and massive upper body but also the intelligence and achievement of a woman who at age 18 married the king of Cyprus and upon his death became that islandís ruler. Itís a cartoon and not an idealization, yet it pays tribute in the degree to which it details the tiny diamond pattern on her cloth-of-gold dress. Her expression is forthright; like Gentile in his self-portrait, she knows who she is and makes no apologies.

East meets West in the Gardnerís Seated Scribe, whose excellence is the best argument for its attribution to Bellini. Head and hands are mere accents to the turban and robe, the latter a watercolor wash of blue and gold and magenta and crimson; yet the face, with its pursed lips, has the individuality of Belliniís self-portrait. Itís at once hazy and corporeal, west of Istanbul, east of Rome or Florence, the work of a major Venetian artist. The two brown-ink pen drawings the catalogue also attributes to Bellini, Seated Janissary and Seated Woman, show similar detail in their firmness of expression and luxuriance of dress. The catalogue acknowledges that a Muslim woman would not likely have sat for a Western male artist, even Mehmedís de facto court painter, and suggests the Seated Woman is a European woman in Turkish apparel. East and West, art and life, blurred once again.

Itís ironic that an artist who made such individualistic portraits should be best known for three large-scale crowd scenes: The Procession in Piazza San Marco, The Miracle at the San Lorenzo Bridge, and Saint Mark Preaching in Alexandria (this last completed by Giovanni after Gentileís death). Although Bellini didnít just paint anonymous faces (he worked his own image into all three, Alfred Hitchcock style, and you can make out Giovanni in The Procession in Piazza San Marco and Caterina Cornaro in The Miracle at the San Lorenzo Bridge), these are triumphs of artistic organization and communal spirit, celebrations of Venetian faith and tradition that only look square and formal. Even Giovanni Bellini, with so much more surviving work than Gentile, is a mystery, and not just in his enigmatic Sacred Allegory. More classical than Giorgione or Titian, he seems less expressive, less " modern " ó or is he just more inscrutable as he balances between flesh and spirit? As for Gentile, heís summed up by the statue version of his seated scribe that sits at the entrance to the exhibition. Executed in 1995 by a former Gardner artist-in-residence, the late Juan Muñoz, the figure sits, at the artistís direction, with his back to the viewer.

The genie in the bottle of the Museum of Fine Artsí " Facets of Cubism " (up through April 16) is Paul Cézanne, whose 1898-í99 Self-Portrait with a Beret greets you as you enter the Rabb Gallery. It was Cézanne who by crunching planes as if they were geological plates warped space and time and opened the door to artistic relativity. " Facets of Cubism " depicts some of the early efforts of those who plunged through, most notably Picasso but also Georges Braque, Fernand Léger, Henri Laurens, Jacques Lipchitz, and Juan Gris. In a press release for the show (there is no catalogue), MFA director Malcolm Rogers states, " The birth of Cubism is arguably the most important event in the history of modern art, " and itís unarguable that without Cubism we would not have modern art as we know it, but one could also liken the birth of Cubism to the fall of the Tower of Babel and the fragmentation of the artistic community into mutually unintelligible languages, from Marcel Duchampís urinal to Mark Rothkoís color fields and beyond. Picasso had the ability to communicate in any artistic language, and his initial Cubist efforts emulated Cézanne in probing reality and artís depiction of it, but soon the concept became too hard ó or too easy ó for him and he turned elsewhere. Cézanne, like Bellini, kept his genie bottled up and his works bursting with tension. Cubism, having popped the cork, enjoyed a bubbly explosion of creativity before the fizz dissipated.

Itís just as well, then, that Picasso gets the lionís share of " Facets of Cubism, " almost half of the showís 70-odd works, which add loans from private collections to the MFAís own holdings. His 1907 Head of a Woman (a study for Les demoiselles díAvignon) and 1908-í09 Head of a Man attest to the influence of African masks; the 1909 sculpture Head of a Woman, which depicts his then-mistress Fernande Olivier, looks like a Cézanne portrait in three dimensions. The two-dimensional Cubist representation of reality was a more demanding endeavor, and in his 1910 Portrait of a Woman Picasso pushes it about as far as it would go, the figure diffracted into multiple planes and even dimensions and hovering on the verge of dissolving into abstraction. Itís Picassoís genius that heís nonetheless able to make her as distinctive as Belliniís Caterina Cornaro. But his 1911-í12 Standing Woman and the 1913 Man with Guitar say more about the artistís personality than his subjectsí, and the 1912 Still Life with a Bunch of Keys suggests that Picasso is about to invent sudoku. The early Cubist Braque (and Raoul Dufy, though heís not represented here) likewise qualifies as a Cézanne disciple with his 1908 The House at La Roche-Guyon, the repetition of shapes giving order to the chaotic perspective, whereas his 1912 Fruit Dish and Glass, with its incorporation of wood-grain wallpaper, seems more of a David Copperfield illusion. Even the pumping cylinders of Légerís Still Life (1913) and The Factory (1919) and the cut-and-paste of Grisís Still Life (1915-í16), part of a series of illustrations for Cubist poems by Pierre Reverdy, seem little more than decorative. The artist who took Cubism beyond Picasso was Joan Miró in his three seminal early-í20s landscapes: The Farm, The Tilled Field, and Catalan Landscape (The Hunter), where visual puns and paradoxes rise to the level of poetry. And even he couldnít sustain it: the language of his World War II magnum opus, his Constellations series, is that of a private dancer.


Issue Date: January 13 - 19, 2006
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