Piero di Cosimo in Washington

Prometheus making the first man

Yesterday with meetings complete, I went to the National Gallery in Washington
DC to see their exhibition on Piero di Cosimo - 45 works in all - works that embraced the decorative, the mythological and the religious.

When you go to see a major exhibition of a painter's work, there is always an assessment (or reassessment) going on, almost involuntarily. I remember going to the big Gauguin show in London. He was an artist I greatly appreciated only to realise that there was a specific period in his art, associated with his time in Brittany, when there was a perfect balance of aspiration and realisation - a known world heightened, symbolised that is beautiful - and that nothing afterwards, including the whole of Tahiti, that comes anywhere close to it. Indeed in the Tahiti period, there is a straining after revealing the knowledge of people and places that it is obvious he does not wholly comprehend, deteriorating into the merely exotic, so it becomes continually obscured by imposed projections.

Piero di Cosimo I knew truly only from this beautiful painting in the National Gallery in London (that had not traveled to Washington) where a Satyr mourns a nymph. I recall it vividly because I remember first seeing it with the distinguished Irish painter, Patrick Pye, and he showed me how it works as a painting. How, for example, the arch of the nymph's hip is positioned in relation to the two dogs so they balance and amplify one another and a grounding sense of collective sympathy within the painting is established.

I, also, knew him as a character in George Eliot's novel of the Renaissance, 'Romola', and his ambiguous relationship with his craft, occasioned by his encounter with the reforming preacher, Savaranola, that returned him to painting religious themes.

However, what I most loved, were their brightness, life and a sense of harmonious balance. We are abroad in an enfolding cosmos of order and harmony that, however damaged by a disrupting sin, still glimmers through, giving to us our proper place as sons and daughters of God in a connected, abiding whole. Many of the elements of his sophisticated symbolism are either lost to us or lost in the see-sawing of scholarly controversy but what can be seen is a highly accomplished painter of the Renaissance whose art sings and touches the depths (with or without conscious understanding of message).

The other painting I admired (apart from the di Cosimos) was that of his German, younger contemporary, Albrect Durer.

This is Durer's 'Lot and his daughters' and it beautifully captures their unconsciousness - on they march, steadfast in not looking back and yet failing to notice their mother, on the road in the distance, advancing on her demise!


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