Carlo Crivelli, "Virgin and Child" (c. 1480), tempera on panel, 19.1 x 13.23 inches (all photos Olivia McEwan/Hyperallergic)

BIRMINGHAM, England — The Ikon Gallery is situated in the pleasant dockland development of Birmingham, a couple hours north of London by train. Its mission statement is to “encourage public engagement with contemporary art through exhibiting new work in a context of debate and participation.” Past exhibitions have included cutting-edge contemporary art from British artists like Martin Creed and George Shaw, and international artists such as Krištof Kintera and Žilvinas Kempinas. Why then is it hosting an exhibition dedicated to Renaissance Italian artist Carlo Crivelli? Carlo Crivelli: Radical Illusionism in the 15th Century was Ikon’s 2019 winning entry to the biannual TAF award granted by the Ampersand Foundation, specifically created to offer institutions £150,000 and a chance “to produce their dream exhibition or visual art project … that curators and directors have always wanted to do but have been unable to achieve due to funding constraints.” According to the exhibition catalogue, Ikon director Jonathan Watkins, who co-curated the show with Crivelli scholar Amanda Hilliam, has “nursed [this idea] ever since being a postgrad student.” In February 2022, it was announced that Watkins is stepping down from Ikon. Though there is no explicit link between the exhibition and this news, one could say that his ultimate goal has been achieved. 

No matter how you look at it, though, the issue remains that Crivelli is a historical artist, and to bypass the museum’s very reason for existing — i.e., to deal in the contemporary — requires some seriously convincing arguments that should be clear to the casual visitor, the museum’s most important audience. 

Carlo Crivelli, “Saint Mary Magdalene” (c. 1491-94), tempera on lime, 14.76 x 7.3 inches
Carlo Crivelli, “Virgin and Child” (c. 1480), detail showing “pinned” on carnation

On a superficial level, the presentation is exactly like you might imagine from a contemporary gallery tasked with hanging and promoting historic artworks: nine Crivelli paintings, seven from the UK and two from the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, and the Vatican, hang on bare white walls, a la the fabled white cube. The show is renamed Shadows on the Sky, which replaces the 15th Century bit with something more contemporary sounding, and the press release has some absolute howlers of contemporary art-speak: “Shadows on the Sky highlights his experimental use of perspective, trompe l’oeil (optical illusion) and sculptural relief to create illusions of illusionism” and “such cleverness was conveyed with consummate craftsmanship and foiled by an extraordinary elegance.”

The exhibition guide tells us that Crivelli was born c. 1430 and worked in his hometown of Venice until he was brought to trial for committing adultery; upon serving his jail sentence he settled in the Marche region of eastern Italy. It draws our attention to Crivelli’s “pictorial play” and “complex visual systems and the metaphysical worlds which signal a reality beyond our immediate senses.” The technique of single-point perspective is consistently applied in the nine paintings, creating the illusion of a three-dimensional frame “behind” the picture plane, which is populated with saints and religious figures. Additionally, several trompe l’oeil tropes recur. Figures’ feet repeatedly protrude “out” of the picture plane toward us; flora and fauna, like flies or carnations, and bunches of fruit have drop shadows to give the impression that they are sitting “atop” the picture plane; Crivelli often paints cracks in marble or granite, occasionally with a stone fragment emerging “toward” us. In case of the “Annunciation, with Saint Emidius” (1486, National Gallery, London) the pictorial depth achieved by single-point perspective receding far back into the picture plane is bisected by a gilded line across the plane’s surface. In this case, the “cutting through” of the receded space signals the interplay between the divine, heavenly realm and our earthly “physical” one. 

Carlo Crivelli, “The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius” (1486), egg and oil on canvas, 81.5 x 57.76 inches
Carlo Crivelli, “The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius” (1486), detail showing vegetables protruding “out” of the picture plane

It is this breaking of the fourth wall, as it were, that seems to be the “contemporary” element of Crivelli’s work — the “meta,” self-reflexive self-awareness, though the word is never used — that is implied as the commonality between Crivelli’s thinking and that of contemporary artists. The press release states, “he used perspective symbolically. Its contrived and arbitrary nature was something that Crivelli exposed — along with the whole business of picture making.” Watkins develops this idea of self-awareness further, concluding that Crivelli’s “preoccupation with the nature of artistic representation anticipated Magritte’s seminal Ceci n’est pas un pipe by almost five hundred years.”

While it is indeed very believable that such visual trickery distinguishes Crivelli as an unusual figure in Renaissance art, such a specific link to Magritte treats both as existing in an historical vacuum, especially with regard to how artistic representation, and the role of the artwork, developed through time. First, trompe l’oeil is as old as art itself, with the earliest anecdotal examples dating back to Zeuxis and Parrhasius in ancient Greece. Second, during the Renaissance the role of religious artworks developed substantially, as did the sophistication of representational painting, notably with Giotto composing convincingly rounded figures in perspectivally accurate architectural settings earlier in the 14th century.

Carlo Crivelli, “Saint Roch” (c. 1480), tempera and oil on limewood panel, 15.24 x 4.37 inches

Crivelli was part of this arc, which saw the depiction of saintly figures, originally conceived as icons — literal embodiments of holiness — develop away from hyper-stylization and toward increased realism in the Renaissance and beyond, eventually representing the holy, rather than embodying it, a phenomenon explained by Hans Belting in the seminal Likeness and Presence. Later, following the Reformation in Europe, in which the representation of religious figures was condemned as idolatry, artists pushed the “meta” even further by “framing” paintings within paintings (for instance, Breughel “framing” a Rubens “Virgin and Child with a Garland” in c. 1621). In short, it appears that Watkins is asserting that Crivelli’s self-reflexiveness and questioning the nature of the image makes him a singular figure, anticipating the “contemporary.” This ignores many other artists throughout history who have adopted similar techniques.

The white cube format arguably allows closer inspection of Crivelli’s paintings than their original religious settings, in which they were often illuminated by candlelight and high up out of view. The white cube thus is not so superficial after all, forcing the “contemporary” reading by isolating the work from a historically based one. For example, many paintings are small pieces taken from larger altarpieces without context. Similarly, explanatory captions are very light on symbolic readings, which are fundamental to understanding Renaissance artworks; “Madonna and Child” (1482, the Vatican) includes pomegranates, pine cones, and coral, which all have specific meanings not explained here (fertility, resurrection, and foreshadowing the Passion, respectively). If Watkins is arguing for Crivelli’s distinction among Renaissance artists, providing some basic context may have helped this cause. I have a masters degree in medieval art history and am armed with this base knowledge; to the casual viewer the obscure symbolism isolated on white walls may feel doubly impenetrable. In the catalogue preface Watkins states that “the ways in which Crivelli’s paintings perform [give] them a contemporary presence that is perhaps more compelling than that of the work of any other Renaissance painter” and that this “is core to their meaning.” Exploring this key point more explicitly and consistently may have helped hammer home the desired reading.

Crivelli’s distinction is also reflected by his exclusion, noted in the catalogue, from Georgio Vasari’s hugely influential Lives of the Artists — which was instrumental in putting Giotto’s contribution to representational art on a pedestal. The exhibition calls to re-evaluate art history to account for this, and rightly so, given Crivelli’s clear sophistication and extraordinary inventiveness. Certainly, the show is important and worth visiting as the first dedicated to his work in the UK, and it is undeniably pleasurable to see the pieces together and up close. Yet it is difficult to rationalize spending these kind of funds on retrofitting a historic artist with a “contemporary” interpretation. 

Some concession is made by including contemporary pieces by Susan Collis, who takes ordinary objects like a broom and inlays them with precious stones. However, her works’ “interesting parallel with Crivelli’s use of gold, gems, and precious pigments, materials to enrich his altarpieces,” sadly undermines attempts to distinguish him, as this was commonplace in Renaissance art. Similarly weakly supportive is the inclusion of two works by contemporary artist Audrey Flack in response to Crivelli, displayed floors away through another exhibition in a small tower room. Ikon will also run a programme that invites Midlands-based contemporary artists to respond to the exhibition. 

Shadows on the Sky is clearly the realization of a curator’s longtime dream, and who is to deny the importance of showcasing an artist long overlooked by art history? But I wonder who this exhibition is for: the gallery going public; contemporary art; or the curators?

Installation view of works by Susan Collis
Carlo Crivelli, “The Vision of Blessed Gabriele” (c. 1489), egg and oil on poplar, 55.5 x 34.25 inches

Carlo Crivelli: Shadows on the Sky continues at Ikon Gallery (1 Oozells Square, Brindleyplace, Birmingham, England) through May 29. The exhibition was co-curated by Jonathan Watkins and Amanda Hilliam.

London based Olivia McEwan is a trained art historian with BA and MA degrees from the Courtauld Institute, now a freelance writer focusing on the London art world; this academic background contributing...