There’s a crack from floor to ceiling in Birmingham’s Ikon gallery. Luckily, some workers are on the job fixing it. They’ve left a brush, a dustsheet and paint-spattered blue overalls while they get lunch. But is it really safe to hang Renaissance masterpieces by the 15th-century artist Carlo Crivelli in a space that’s in this much disarray?
It’s OK. The museums that have lent their treasures can relax. This is a witty bit of trompe l’oeil by artist Susan Collis. I watched her draw the crack in just two strokes with a steady hand and eye that might have impressed Crivelli himself. She has also made the brush, whose little encrustations of muck are precious stones, and the sheet and coat whose stains are embroidered. It’s a good joke because Crivelli himself is a whiz with trompe l’oeil. His Virgin and Child with a kneeling Franciscan friar, lent by the Vatican Pinacoteca, no less, on the other side of the same wall, has a brilliantly realistic crack painted into the marble on which the Virgin rests her feet, a dark rotting bloom of entropy.
You don’t expect to see an art installation that flirts with chaos in the middle of a Renaissance exhibition. What do you expect? Hard work, perhaps. A heavy catalogue. This show does have a proper catalogue but everything else about it stands the conventions of old-master shows upside down. And that’s the way Crivelli would have wanted it, you feel. His sly sense of humour delights in undermining his own purportedly religious works. Across the top of the Vatican picture is a swag of apples, pears and shiny olives, with no symbolic purpose at all, apparently just there because he liked painting them. They are more real than the Virgin and Child: real enough to touch, to taste, it almost seems.
Seeing a painting like this outside a museum or stately home, in a white space designed for new art, frees it. You look at it as if the artist were alive. And he is absolutely our contemporary, even though he died around 1494.
Crivelli was a naughty man. He came from Venice but had to leave this mighty republic after sleeping with another man’s wife: he was thrown in jail for six months as an adulterer. Clearly the husband had enough status to make his life in Venice impossible, for when he got out of prison he headed south and made a career in small cities along the Adriatic coast. His sexuality gleams from the first painting here, a small picture of Mary Magdalene that gives her narrowed eyes and long sensuous fingers. She’s not in the least repentant. How did he get away with it?
I suspect the exiled, sophisticated Venetian Crivelli saw his small-city clients as naive rubes who were too dumb to know he was mocking them. So long as they got the right number of saints and the requested quantity of gold leaf in their sacred commissions, they didn’t ask why the female saints were so eroticised or why he kept putting pieces of fruit everywhere.
The exhibition takes its title from The Vision of the Blessed Gabriele, in which a local saint of the city Ancona prays fervently in the foreground with beady eyes of piety almost popping out of his head. Behind him is a rocky landscape receding to a view of Ancona by the sea. In the sky floats his golden vision of the Virgin. But above that hang Crivelli’s beloved fruits, out of scale, out of place – and just to stress their disruptive nature, they cast shadows on to the sky behind them. That is, this is just a painted sky, and the fruits hang in front of it. This is more than a bit of fun. Crivelli places an ironic question mark over his depiction of Gabriele’s vision. It’s just an icon for a church. The real world, in the shape of those fruits, is far more substantial, in Crivelli’s eyes.
The trompe l’oeil games and that exuberant passion for a reality too big to be held in one picture or belief system go into joyous overload in his 1486 masterpiece The Annunciation, With Saint Emidius. We are on the streets of Ascoli Piceno, that is celebrating its freedom from Papal rule. It’s full of triumphal arches, pink loggias and marble decor. It is also full of gratuitous details: a peacock perches on a balustrade below two precariously balancing potted plants, while exquisitely painted objects on a shelf distract from the Virgin Mary praying. Even the doves gathering on a high perch, while perfectly justifiable as symbols of the holy spirit, look more natural than spiritual. And in the foreground, for no reason, are the fruit and veg.
Crivelli is a dazzling and mercurial artist but he painted a lot. The National Gallery alone owns 25 works by him. This exhibition makes a virtue of its small venue by being astute and selective, showing the National’s best Crivellis – including the Vision and Annunciation – alongside choice treasures from the V&A and Vatican. One loan didn’t turn up due to Brexit and Covid, so they’ve incorporated the empty wall space into Collis’s witty, sympathetic installation.