Sacred Allegory (detail), about 1500-1504, Giovanni Bellini, tempera (?) and oil on wood panel. Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence. Photo credit: Scala/Ministero per i Beni e le Attività culturali / Art Resource, NY
D.K. Sole has worked at UNLV's Marjorie Barrick Museum since it changed its focus to fine art in 2012. An artist and former resident of Melbourne, Australia, she held her first one-woman Las Vegas show, 'Some Time Ago," in 2015 at Clark County's Winchester Gallery. She was co-manager for the highly praised downtown Las Vegas gallery, Satellite Contemporary. She loves art.
By D.K. Sole
I was haunted all last year by a shape – by the roughly triangular patch of air framed by the elbow of the woman in [Jean-François] Millet's "Shearing Sheep" (1852-53). I saw the painting at the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art in February 2017. . It teased me, the way this central triangle seemed to concentrate and focus – like a prism – the foggy atmosphere of tenderness that hung over the rest of the picture.
Why did I grip that detail? Did it seem so infinitely suggestive to other people? I never discussed it with anybody.
Instead – and this turned out to be something like a substitute for discussion – I visited the small Bellini exhibition at the Getty in January 2018. Here was an artist who had devoted attention to small areas of intensely-realized appearance. This exhibition, which was named "Giovanni Bellini: Landscapes of Faith in Renaissance Venice," asked you to look at the painter's intelligent use of the countryside around his city. "One of the most influential painters of the Renaissance, he worked in and around Venice," explained the text, "and while his landscapes are highly metaphorical, they also accurately reflect the region’s topography and natural light."
I found that I wanted to look at the little things he had made: the judicious crumbs of light along the side of a reed-like plant growing out of a crack in the rock, or a single skull as carefully shaded as the rocks around it, in the bottom third of a crucifixion.
No one who came across a real landscape like the one in "St Jerome Reading in the Wilderness" (1505) would see a lizard, a pebble, and a cliff with riveting, equal clarity all at once, as the painting does. The implied glance in the Millet is more casual: the colouration of the scene suggests a hazy blur, telling us we have scanned it rapidly and come back with a convincing, incomplete impression, softly stirred by our emotions. The softness of this painted glance exists in tension with the stern, buried architecture of the composition. But Bellini's attention fuses attention with the viewer's eye. He paints a stare. He puts his areas of attention in a more ambiguous emotional territory.
This St Jerome asks: are you capable of the intensity he has assigned to you? Does intensity evade the devotional purpose of the painting or help to define it? These smart treasures scattered across the countryside of the work are a machine to save the devotee from boredom.
You look. The tiles and fenceposts in "Sacred Allegory" (c. 1500 – 1504) are so neat that you imagine him tracing along the edge of a ruler, as if his hands are still remembering the day when his teacher showed them how to make perspective. You decide that teacher must have been his father, Jacopo, since painting was the family business. Thinking about the amount of time it would have taken to create the work you conclude that the family was stable and prosperous, with a reliable clientele. There must have been physical space dedicated to Bellini's work and people around him who respected what he was doing. He had some area that functioned as "a room of one's own." No wonder he appealed to Ruskin, so quickly moved to anxiety and a sense of loss. Nothing is lost in Bellini, you think. When he wants to pull your attention away from something he often just blots it a little darker. That's why the red trousers on the shepherd in the background by Christ's wrist in "Christ Blessing" (c. 1500) are less noticeable than the clear brown tips of the curls on Christ's shoulders. Online reproductions make the trousers look like mud.
Christ's eyes point in different directions and the area around the one on the left is asymmetrically large. The Getty's label says he is "gazing straight at the viewer as if lost in thought." As I stood in front of the painting I imagined this a little further. The weird set of the eyes meant that the figure was not gazing at me even though his face was aimed in my direction. It was difficult to say if this was the expression of a person who was seeing or thinking anything at all. Rising from the dead, his brain was still trying to bring the physical world into focus. A point about the division between material and immaterial worlds had been made through the invention and subsequent tolerance of this physiognomic strangeness.
Looking around the room with that in mind, I felt that the uncanny amount of attention Bellini paid to everything had given each stone or house its own state of invisible, private interior being, concurrent with its presence in the visible world of landscape and sea. They were insistently with me but I would never be able to absorb them. He preferred the three-quarter view of heads, the face that turned to the viewer and still meditated on itself. (Did the odd distance between Christ's eyes come originally from this habit of depicting people with their heads turned? Bellini: Cubist.) That was the style of the age, but this shadowy room at the Getty isolated it in Bellini alone, and I was surrounded by faces half-aside and stones that existed both in and behind their shading.
In Bellini, unlike Millet, the prisms of attention suggested individual thingness rather than the existence of a wider emotion. The Venetian treated his objects with the mindfulness that French painter's woman gave to her half-shorn sheep, tracing the contours of its skin with care and never jabbing the surface with her scissors.
Giovanni Bellini, "Christ Blessing," circa 1500. Getty Museum