Monday, September 15, 2014

Can Tradition Survive the 21st Century?

Every time I’ve seen Andrea Mantegna’s Lamentation Over the Dead Christ, I – like many viewers -- have been struck by the seemingly excessive foreshortening of the body and the over-large size of Christ’s head.  

Initially I managed “forgive” these “flaws” on the basis that it was painted in early days of perspective, and that there is so much else to admire about the picture. Then I read that Mantegna’s intent was to cast me, the viewer, in the role of a fourth mourner, kneeling beside the catafalque. That’s when I realized it was my understanding that was flawed, not Mantegna’s perspective!

This idea would suggest that the painting – which has long hung at the traditional level in the Brera Art Gallery, in Milan, – might be raised to a higher-than-normal position, to bring the viewer’s eye to just above the edge of the bier.

And indeed, last December, the Brera did rehang the piece. But their attempt to explain the unusual composition placed this iconic painting below standing eye level. This viewpoint was based on the assumption that Mantegna himself kept the canvas hung low so as to kneel before it in prayer.

And they didn’t stop there. They commissioned movie-maker Ermanno Olmi to design the new installation. 
Oh my!  What a furor this has created!   

ArtWatch UK writes: “The Dead Christ is now housed in a special crypt-like dark room, stripped of its historic frame and visually isolated by spot-lighting, as if now embedded into a monolithic black wall – and at a height of only 67 cm from the ground”.  
Quoted by ArtWatch UK, Michel Favre-Felix president of ARIPA (Association Internationale pour le Respect de l’Intégrité du Patrimoine Artistique) said this, “...the painting is now dematerialized and degraded to a projected image. This new projected-slide effect of the Dead Christ offends art historian Philippe Daverio who complains of a present resemblance to the reddish glow of a Pizza furnace. Personally, I am even more struck by the similarity with a movie screen. Could it be that M. Olmi does not realize that he is here replicating the very situation, so familiar to him, of a cinema showing in the dark? Should a row of cinema chairs be put in the present gallery, the seated spectators would be at the perfect height for looking at his Dead Christ film.”

I haven’t personally seen the installation, so I won’t express an opinion about it. But it does occur to me that, 500+ years later, it's difficult for most of us to understand the true spiritual and emotional meaning this image held for Mantegna and his contemporaries. In fact, it’s commonly believed that the work was created just after the death of the artist’s sons in the mid-1480s, which would have added a personal layer of  pathos to the image.  Perhaps, then, an “overly-dramatic” presentation is in order -- to stop us in our tracks and focus our attention on the Lamentation Over the Dead Christ.

Is this dramatic installation the most effective? Certainly there are many who don’t think so. And apparently others who do!