More Than Meets the Eye: Carlo Crivelli Comes to Birmingham
Updated: Jun 22, 2022
Crivelli: Shadows on the Sky is a small exhibition of Renaissance artist Carlo Crivelli’s (c. 1430-1495) works alongside contemporary pieces by Susan Collis (b. 1956), on at the Ikon Gallery, Birmingham from 23/02/22 to 29/05/22. The space has been curated by the Director of the Ikon, Jonathan Watkins, in collaboration with Amanda Hilliam, a consultant curator whose doctoral thesis on Crivelli coincided with the exhibition’s development.
The first aspect of this exhibition that interested me was its setting. The Ikon Gallery is a unique red-brick survival just around the corner from the superbly regenerated Brindley Place, which sits about the waterways next to Symphony Hall. These waterways engender the city’s claim to the (Renaissance appropriate) epithet, ‘The Venice of the North’. The Ikon is, prima facie, an unusual place to display Crivellis; it’s a contemporary art venue, with use of glass interiors, exposed redbrick, and the stereotypical white walls that one would expect from a gallery devoted to contemporary art. A plaque near the goods entrance spells out that it originally housed a school, though the façade of the building drops strong hints— the large triple-fenestration and neo-gothic silhouette are redolent of a Victorian schoolhouse. The gallery sits adjacent to the former Second Church of Christ Scientist, an appealing blue-brick structure that now functions as a nightclub, and this juxtaposition of school and church evoke the moral ideals of the 19th century, Birmingham’s formative epoch. The façade of the Ikon influences what one expects to be on the inside; it is redefined and curated, a projection of the process that occurs within the gallery rooms. The preservation of the Victorian shell acts as a souvenir, in a display of either nostalgic kitsch or apt revision, which perhaps suggests the interior will house something distant and detached. The works of the Vatican and National Gallery are on a very unusual holiday indeed, and that is why this small exhibition is unforgettable.
above: façade of the Ikon Gallery
The Crivellis on display are usually housed in predictable environments. Visitors to British galleries are used to seeing fine art in gilded frames, arranged by period or school on the sombre walls of a neo-Classical building. They are conditioned to accept other norms of fine art display that often go unnoticed: no windows, low light levels, captions that describe the scene, the juxtaposition of dark tones in wood and paint, the list goes on. Several of the pieces in Crivelli: Shadows on the Sky now have a home in these institutions; there are works on loan from the Musei Vaticani, and the exhibition is staged in collaboration with The National Gallery in London. We have become used to viewing these pieces in unintended and alien spaces. As co-curator Amanda Hilliam points out in the exhibition catalogue, these works are ‘stripped of their original frames,dismembered and dispersed throughout international collections’, and, on account of their being split up, refers to them as ‘fragments’. We have, in essence, created an association between the artworks and these lofty spaces to the extent that for us, those walls are where they belong.
For Crivelli’s ecclesiastical repertoire, however, these walls are a false home. An interesting aspect of the Ikon display is that his works are twice removed; Crivellis have been extracted from both their original contexts, and their fine art gallery walls, to find themselves in the white cube of the Ikon exhibition space. Many of the works were originally intended for church environments, specifically the Catholic churches of Italy. Crivelli’s most famous piece, The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius (a focal point for the Shadows on the Sky exhibition) for example, was painted in 1486 for the Church of SS. Annunziata in Ascoli Piceno, Marche. It is important to remember when viewing Crivelli’s works here the radical difference between the lavish gold ornament, polychrome, and intricacy of the Catholic churches of Northern Italy, and the blank, clinical unadornment of the Ikon walls. These frames are about as far away as they have ever been from clouds of soot and dripping wax. The causes for this exhibition’s jarring effect are therefore multiplex — an alien environment for ecclesiastic pieces, and foreign terrain for fine art of the Quattrocento.
Exploring the Crivellis as ‘fragments’ is intriguing; it makes an implicit assumption about what is ‘part’ of the artwork and what is not. Arguably, any artwork removed from the context it was created for is in some way fragmentary; it is not only the absence of other panels that make the work incomplete (as the catalogue suggests), but the complete extraction from its complementary environment. Perhaps the outstanding advantage of removing the panels from their original churchly contexts would be the ability to identify minute details in these now standalone panels, which would have otherwise been dominated by the central subjects of the polyptychs to which they belong.
Birmingham is an opportune setting for an exhibition of Crivelli’s works. The city proffers connections and themes that enhance the display of these quattrocento paintings. The attraction of the illusion of progress, and influence, might point to Burne-Jones, one of the city’s most famous sons, whose formative years as an artist happened to coincide with an increase in interest for Crivelli’s hand. Though a link previously overlooked, there is no doubt that Crivelli’s technical capabilities had an impact on Burne-Jones. An excellent essay in the catalogue by Stacey Sell, is one of the first to explore this link in any depth. Crivelli’s Annunciation and Burne-Jones’ King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid (1884), considered by his contemporaries to be his masterwork, make for a fruitful comparison. Elements of Crivelli’s Annunciation: from the illusionistic geometric architecture to the artisan tapestry and fertile shrubbery, are all present in Burne-Jones’ piece, now in Tate Britain. Both works also demonstrate the careful curation of figures, with the hierarchy of scale being utilised to focus the viewer’s eye on their eponymous episodes. One of Crivelli’s primary links to Birmingham is therefore through his influence on Burne-Jones, yet in addition to these reasons, Hilliam argues the case for Birmingham from another angle, making a comparison between the city’s recent blooming (some say ‘renaissance’) and the cultural life of Marche in the Quattrocento.
Reviews of the exhibition litter the press. Nicholas Penny, writing for the London Review of Books (LRB 7 April), described it as ‘a small exhibition but well judged as an introduction to the artist’. Though well-researched and enjoyable, the article is nevertheless perplexing. Crivelli: Shadows on the Sky is not just a collection of Crivellis, but also features a contemporary response by the artist Susan Collis, to the tromp l’oeil motifs of his work and the pieces that couldn’t make it to the Ikon for showing. For instance, her Missing Altarpiece, prima facie, appears as nothing more than a screw in the wall; on closer inspection the viewer finds not a wall plug, but a circle of precious jasper (similar examples can be seen here). This work, I assume, responds to the Demidoff Altarpiece, which is too fragile to travel from The National Gallery to Birmingham. Crivelli is known to have used gold and precious materials to embellish his works, so there are parallels evident. One wonders, then, why in Penny’s article there is no mention of Collis’ works at all.
A possible answer is that Collis’ works are not considered part of the Crivelli exhibition. This is appealing because it would allow for a complete separation, and the neat boundaries of the accompanying catalogue, which makes no mention of Collis, would be justified. This argument, however, does not hold up. Everything in the exhibition space is inextricably a part of it, from the lightbulbs to the visitors themselves. The inclusion of Collis’ works therefore prompts us to see the Crivellis in a different light. The first room of the exhibition features Saint Mary Magdalene (c. 1491-94) and Virgin and Child (c. 1480). In the former, Crivelli has painted tromp l’oeil cracks in the wall, something that is mirrored by Collis’ creation in the final room, which appears at first like a crack in the wall of the gallery, but on closer inspection is revealed to be an illusion. Virgin and Child depicts the virgin with an intricate veil, which is enhanced by gilt relief work, a technique evoked by the embellishments Collis adds to a broomstick for her work Dirty Dancer.
above: The Virgin and Child, Crivelli c.1480 (detail); Dirty Dancer, Collis 2010 (detail);
Mary Magdalene, Crivelli c. 1491 (detail); Untitled, Collis 2022 (detail).
One of the buzz-facts historians like to remind us about Crivelli is that he is missing from Giorgio Vasari’s The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects published in 1550. Art historians infer from this Crivelli’s status and regard at that time. Attitudes towards Crivelli’s works have fluctuated, but negative criticism has generally been sustained. In the 19th century, some critics considered them of merit because their intricate depictions of textiles could be used to inspire contemporary manufacturers. Crivelli is known for his consistent reference to artisan culture but was considered not to have contributed anything to the ‘progress’ of art. Crivelli’s absence from the Vasari biographies is not the only absence the visitor will notice, there are parallels all over the Ikon: Collis is missing from both the LRB piece and catalogue, and her works respond to Crivelli’s paintings missing from the exhibition. It is truly an exhibition of missing pieces, which changes our approach to what is present.
Ultimately, the way in which Crivelli: Shadows on the Sky is executed transforms the way in which we see Crivelli’s art. This is due to several factors, including the design of the exhibition space, which is fundamentally at odds with both the original contexts of the works, and their newfound homes in national collections. The inclusion of works by Susan Collis, though overlooked in the media, is similarly revisionary; it is engaging to compare the techniques of this renaissance artist with Collis’ contemporary response. Perhaps, however, the outstanding triumph of this exhibition is in its potential. The fruit of two evidently devoted curators, Amanda Hilliam and Jonathan Watkins, the display of historical ‘fine art’ in surrounds usually reserved for contemporary art has the power to redefine the relationship between art and its environment for visitors who may have never considered it. Crivelli: Shadows on the Sky is a real achievement for Birmingham at a time when its arts scene has suffered from the extended closure of its primary gallery (BMAG), and the impact of the pandemic, and will hopefully mark the beginning of a new era for revisionist exhibitions in the city.
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 Some of the current frames are later creations based on the paintings themselves; the pilaster reliefs of Annunciation have been used as an internal model. The viewer can now see the resemblance between the mouldings within the painting and the wood carving of the frame.  And I am not alone; see Flora Clark and Owen Evan’s letter (LRB 12 May), in which they suggest Penny simply fell for Collis’ illusion.
The Ikon Gallery, Birmingham — https://www.ikon-gallery.org
Crivelli: Shadows on the Sky — https://www.ikon-gallery.org/exhibition/carlo-crivelli
The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius — https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/carlo-crivelli-the-annunciation-with-saint-emidius
Vincent Jordan is an Editor and Contributor at Curation Space.