Thursday, 23 October 2008

Museum Highlights: Masaccio's "Virgin & Child"

I usually refrain from making blanket statements like "so-and-so is my favorite artist" or "such-and-such is the greatest sculpture in western Europe" because as soon as the words are out of my mouth, I think of something else equally great, or that I prefer.  I've contemplated this for a really long time, and I feel reasonably to moderately comfortable with the following statement: Masaccio's painting of the Virgin & Child (at London's National Gallery) is my favorite painting currently housed in London.

There, I said it.  Now, let me rationalise my statement before I have to back-peddle.

Masaccio painted in Italy during the early 1400s, and by all accounts, was an innovator.  His immediate predecessors, and even many of his contemporaries, were holding onto everything about early Renaissance art that makes people cringe.  Iconography out the wazzoo.  Depictions of the baby Jesus that make him look like a mutant adult.  Pigmentation of the Virgin Mary that closely resembles the color of the statue of liberty.  Gaudy halos.  Awkward poses.  Of course you are familiar with these things, because they are the paintings you make a bee-line past on your way to find the Mona Lisa.  But Masaccio was one of the first artists in Italy to move beyond this, and his efforts are exemplified in this painting.  The baby Jesus is pudgy, even cute, and has naturalistic features.  Especially noteworthy are his chubby little hands, which are a stark contrast to the poorly executed limbs and hands of many other figures painted by Masaccio's contemporaries.  The Virgin Mary has a lifelike expression that evokes a peaceful calm, but also underscores her knowledge of what will happen to her son (or so I was told in lecture in Art History 210).  But this painting is also really worth your time because of what Masaccio holds onto of his predecessors.  He makes huge strides in realism, but the composition is still largely traditional- a pyramid shape.  The Virgin still wears her iconic blue robe, and their halos are marked with gold leaf.  The Christ child holds grapes, which signify his ultimate sacrifice and the wine shared at the Last Supper.  Oh, and it's painted in egg tempera on a wooden panel, so we have not yet witnessed the transition to using oil on canvas.  Because of these stylistic and technical reasons, this painting is a perfect capsule of a transition in western art.  You can see Masaccio struggling to move beyond the old style, yet retaining a link to the tradition.  I love that about this piece.  I love that it is an art history lesson in and of itself.  These are the sorts of pieces that make going through a museum worthwhile.

Also, it is perfectly positioned in the National Gallery (1250-1500 wing, third room in) amongst other paintings that highlight how exceptional it was among its contemporaries.  

Oh, and please don't mention that it's my "favorite" to anyone.  Because I just remembered how much I love the Tintoretto painting in the 1500-1600 galleries at the NG, and I'm already regretting writing this post.  

1 comment:

Michelle said...

This is shocking. Masaccio, huh? I do agree about the Jesus figure. I quite prefer the look of innocence/sinlessness to the dead baby look.