I paid a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art yesterday to see the exhibition of the three restored panels from Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise, on loan from the Baptistry of Florence. While I was there, I visited some old favorites, Ingres’ portrait of Madame de Broglie being preeminent on that list. Two tricksters playing with our heads, these artists.
Standing in front of the noblewoman, listening to the comments of the people passing buy, I hear over and over again, “It looks so real…amazing!” Truly, Ingres was a master of paint. The rendering of the textures of the silk dress and chair are absolutely dazzling, but are they realistic? Does silk ever look quite that voluptuous? We live in an age when photographic imagery saturates our time and space – we know what “realistic” looks like. In his day, Ingres was faced with cameras as competition – some people said that painting could never measure up! He wasn’t phased. He painted as if cameras were both irrelevant and paltry. “You want realism – I’ll give you realism you can’t get from a camera!” So, he draws us in with his technical mastery, his delight in surfaces and color, and he paints a woman whose arms seem to be made of rubber – do they have bones? What’s with that right arm, hand tucked away, the wrist looking like it’s twisted all out of shape? That neck, a bit elongated wouldn’t you say? Is that natural? He gives us the image he wants to create – realism is the least of it.
As for Ghiberti, he lived in a time when the “realistic” representation of space with formal perspective was a thrilling device. Look at the architecture in this image of Issac from the same set of panels.
Notice the grid lines in the floor, receding to infinity like parallel railroad lines – this was exciting stuff six centuries before we became accustomed to virtual reality! In the panel at the top, showing the creation of Adam (left), the creation of Eve (center) , and the expulsion (right) the figures are in various stages of relief to indicate their distance, the architecture is radically distorted – the arch on the right where they are being kicked out of Eden looks like something from an Expressionist nightmare, and the beautiful, classical maiden, like Botticelli’s Venus, rises weightlessly from Adam’s side, drawn out by God the Father.