Sunday, August 24, 2014

Fruit and Flesh

In Milan over the summer I was able to visit the Pinacoteca di Brera and the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana. Two paintings, one in each gallery, held my attention long enough for some thoughtful contemplation. 

Caravaggio's 'Canestra di Frutta' of 1599 and Giovanni Bellini's 'Pieta' of 1460 are both paintings that seem to be negotiating the boundaries between, desire and loss, growth and decay, the living and dead, and the relationship between 'animate' and 'inanimate forms'. 

The mutability of 'flesh' suggested by the worm holes in the apple in one painting and the wounds on the body in the other point to the inevitability of death tempered by the possibility of renewal, rebirth or resurrection in either organic or theological terms, depending on your point of view or beliefs. 

The tenderness and emotion of the faces and hands in Bellini's painting draws the viewer psychologically into the human drama unfolding before them just as the trompe l' oeil ledge in the foreground that support the hand of the dead Christ draws the viewer visually into the illusion of space opening inside the window of the picture frame and to the solid forms of the figures defined by the chiaroscuro modelling of light and shadow and to the landscape receding into the distance 

 Caravaggio's  view of the basket of fruit, painted with such a precise and apparently objective realism in all its carefully modelled solidity is starkly contrasted with the uncompromising flat background and  total lack of foreshortening in the ledge, which is positioned at exactly eye level, unlike the same illusionistic device in Bellini's Pieta which even has a shadow from the hand receding across its surface.

Just as the fruit appears to have been captured at the moment when ripeness turns to decay, thus emphasising time and transience even while appearing to arrest it, the painting itself seems to have defied change and is as fresh and powerfully effective an image as when it was painted over 400 years ago - although this illusion is itself subject to decay. 

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