Magazine article The Spectator

Gift for Understatement

Magazine article The Spectator

Gift for Understatement

Article excerpt


Masaccio: The Pisa Altarpiece (National Gallery, till 11 November)

For an artist of few works, Masaccio played a crucial part in the history of art. Vasari hailed him as the heir to Giotto and precursor of Michelangelo, a titan ranking with Brunelleschi and Donatello as a founder of the new style. The Pisa Polyptych is Masaccio's only documented work and a landmark in his short career and in Renaissance art. It was executed in 1426, and two years later he died in Rome, aged 27.

Masaccio's achievement is easier to grasp in the frescoes of the Brancacci Chapel, a cycle celebrating the life of St Peter, in which solid, credible figures move within a convincing spatial context. The Pisa altarpiece represents the next stage in his development and occupies a pivotal role in the evolution of the altarpiece. Instead of massed tiers of individual panels, Masaccio's work moves towards a more unified composition, applying perspective and psychological motivation to transform the medium itself.

Masaccio's great altarpiece was broken up in about 1590, its various panels scattered. While some disappeared, the majority found their way into private collections and, latterly, adorn museums from Berlin to Los Angeles. Their order and appearance have long been debated, but the pieces have never been reunited until now. This modest goal was the fruit of lengthy planning and has ruffled feathers in some quarters. But the result is wholly justified, and the number of panels on view in the National Gallery is in inverse proportion to their historical significance. These fragments not only shed light on each other, but they also give us the rare opportunity of seeing a great Renaissance artist evolving his own style.

The most unexpected aspect of the Pisa Polyptych is the uncertain note Masaccio occasionally strikes. Anyone coming to it with the Brancacci Chapel in mind would be disappointed, for the traditional backdrop of gold ground muffles the modernity of Masaccio's figures. This has always been a distracting aspect of the central panel, the National Gallery's own 'Virgin and Child', in which the painstaking naturalism of the Virgin's massive blue cloak sits uncomfortably with the flatness of the background. The same disjunction can be seen, however, in the powerful 'Crucifixion' from Naples. …

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