In Review

Carlo Crivelli: Shadows on the Sky – work ‘considered centuries ahead of its time’

Ikon Gallery exhibition argues that Crivelli should be ‘celebrated for taking his own route’

The Italian painter Carlo Crivelli has been largely erased from art history, said Hettie Judah in The i Paper. “A true maverick”, Crivelli (c.1430-95) was a master illusionist with an unrivalled mastery of the trompe-l’œil style. His work “pits eye against brain” and “seems to bend space”, flaunting “the structure of his own illusions”.

Yet in the centuries since his death, Crivelli has been “dismissed”: he painted in tempera rather than oils, and by embracing obvious artifice and visual trickery, he did not “fit into the established narrative of the Italian Renaissance”, which tended towards “greater naturalism”.

This fascinating exhibition at Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery argues that, instead, Crivelli should be “celebrated for taking his own route”. The show brings together a selection of his illusionistic master­pieces in a “spirited” attempt to rehabilitate his art. It argues that, far from being art-historically irrelevant, his blurring of artifice and reality can in fact be “considered centuries ahead of its time”.

A Venetian by birth, Crivelli left his home city after being jailed for adultery, said Stuart Jeffries in The Spectator. He ended up in the city of Ascoli Piceno in the eastern Marche region, a relative artistic backwater. Yet instead of being creatively cut off, it could be argued, Crivelli “thrived precisely because he was outside the Venetian mainstream, able to play with ideas and dream up innovations that went beyond those of his contemporaries”.

And what innovations they were: in The Vision of the Blessed Gabriele (c.1489), Crivelli paints a “campy trompe-l’œil swag of apples and pears” hanging in the painted sky above the head of the eponymous monk. In his portrait of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, meanwhile, we see a fly that has landed on the wall; it is “oversized” relative to the saint, but life-size from the perspective of the viewer.

More intriguing still is The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius (1486), a “huge masterpiece” depicting a “complex urban landscape”. In its centre, we see Saint Emidius, a “proud local” of Ascoli, showing the angel Gabriel a model of the city, while the Virgin Mary relaxes “in the study of her town house”. A surfeit of weird detail – a peacock on a ledge, an oversized cucumber – subverts the picture, while a diagonal shaft of light from the heavens “shatters the perspectival illusion” – not tricking the eye so much as disabusing it of its illusions.

There’s something deeply “puzzling” about Crivelli’s paintings, said Waldemar Januszczak in The Sunday Times. While certain details are so viscerally realised as to seem almost tangible, his religious figures could never be accused of looking “realistic”: in one instance, we see a “particularly beautiful” Madonna in an impossibly “ornate” outfit depicted in “an unreal manner that stresses her divinity”; yet in the same picture, Crivelli paints a peach “that is so evidently juicy you can feel yourself biting it”.

This show “sees this from a contemporary angle” as a postmodern “conceptual game” – which ignores the powerful religious dimension in his work. Crivelli was attempting to suggest the existence of two different realities: in other words, “one style describes God’s world and the other describes ours”. Despite this blind spot, the exhibition is an impressive celebration of Crivelli’s “beautifully achieved illusions”.

Ikon Gallery, Birmingham (0121-248 0708, ikon-gallery.org). Until 29 May

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