Artistic Collaborators of Different Eras
MASACCIO AND MASOLINO: A COMPLETE CATALOG By Paul Joannides Phaidon Press and Abrams 488pp., $195.
THERE was about an 18 years difference between their dates of birth. Yet they belonged to different eras in the history of painting. Their names are conjoined, because they collaborated on a set of frescoes. These were designed and painted for the Brancacci Chapel of Sta Maria del Carmine in Florence, Italy. The high reputation of Masaccio, the younger of these two artists (1401-28), largely rests on the Brancacci frescoes - or on those parts of them he painted. His career was short, and only a few other
of his works survive. But they are powerful and exceptional enough for him to be considered one of the more profound originators in art.
The older artist, Masolino, who was also the longer lived (1383- or 1384-1440) has the misfortune of being in his collaborator's shadow from posterity's point of view. However generous historians may feel toward Masolino, they can't help making him a point of comparison, even a measure by which to explain just what it was that made Masaccio such a great artist.
E. H. Gombrich, in his "The Story of Art" wrote of Masaccio: "He must have been an extraordinary genius, for we know that he died when hardly twenty-eight years of age, and that by that time he had already brought about a complete revolution in painting."
Gombrich then goes on to describe one of Masaccio's paintings (in Sta Maria Novella in Florence) as he believed the Florentines would have reacted to it when seeing it for the first time: "Instead of delicate grace, they saw massive, heavy figures; instead of easy-flowing curves, solid angular forms; and, instead of dainty details such as flowers and precious stones, there was nothing but austere majestic architecture. But if Masaccio's art was less pleasing to the eye than the paintings they had been ac customed to, it was all the more sincere and moving."
In this assessment, Masolino doesn't even get a mention. He gets similarly short shrift in H. W. Janson's massive tome, "History of Art."
Encyclopedias of art tend to follow this same pattern, focusing almost exclusively on Masaccio. He is seen, along with Brunelleschi in architecture and Donatello in sculpture, as one of three connected but individual artists of the early 15th century who broke from the Gothic styles of the medieval period and decisively laid the foundations of the Italian Renaissance.
Masaccio, as a painter, was in fact crucially affected by the work of the other two men. Brunelleschi's invention of the system of perspective, making possible in a painting the rational deployment of figures in a logically definable space, and the classical naturalism and intense expression of psychological states in Donatello's sculpture, were grasped by Masaccio and put to his own use.
Kenneth Clark, in his book "Civilisation," summed up the 15th-century Florentine ideal as "the dignity of man." He observed: "The grandest of all testimonies to the dignity of man is by ... Masaccio, in the series of frescoes he painted in the church of the Carmine. What characters they are: morally and intellectually men of weight, the least frivolous of men...." Again, Masolino isn't even mentioned.
There have been monographs devoted to the lesser artist, however. One or two books, either never published in English or long out of print, have discussed both painters. And a fair amount of research, discussion, even scholarly controversy, has been aired on the tricky, completely undocumented questions of which parts of the Brancacci frescoes are the work of which artist.
Now a new book in English is out: "Masaccio and Masolino: A Complete Catalogue," by Paul Joannides. This is an enormous volume that can be used in various ways. First of all, it has quite excellent plates. The cleaning of the Brancacci Chapel, from 1984 to 1990, has brought out the surprisingly bright and lucid colors of the frescoes, long darkened. This book shows the frescoes as a whole, plus a number of remarkable full-page details. The reader can therefore come up close to the frescoes, and to their brushwork, texture, and condition, as never before.
Then there is a substantial text in the first part of the book in which the author sets out his own opinions and conclusions about the two artists and their relationship. This is based on the scrupulously detailed catalogue that fills the larger part of the volume. Even if surviving original documents about both the painters are extremely scant, later analysis of Masaccio's few extant works in particular has been extensive, and Joannides is thorough in looking at them. This is no brief, skimpy study. Thu s the book belongs on the reference shelf along with other comprehensive catalogues raisonnes, and in libraries. The color plates, however, are what I will most return to and what one would expect to find thumbed and pored over by artists.
Although Joannides goes into extraordinary detail in his exegesis, the established characterization of Masaccio and Masolino and of their relationship remains more or less unchanged. It is even, perhaps, made more emphatic by both the author's attention to minutiae and by the vigorous language in which he describes their art.
He says, for example, of Masaccio that his "youth enabled him to become the pictorial proponent of a new art, harsh and emotive." Those two adjectives are probably chosen in order to show how unlike Masolino he was. Compare them with what he says about a head of Jesus that Joannides believes Masolino painted. It has, he says, "a softness and milky limpidity unparalleled in Masaccio's work." And he describes Masolino as "an artist of very different stamp in his conception of human form."
The difference, broadly, is that Masaccio conceived three-dimensionally. He thought sculpturally and architecturally - but in very subtle ways. He didn't let perspective (which he used as a tool to make the space and depth of his paintings convincing) become a rigid framework for his groups of figures; they move in and through space - through the air - so that the viewer is sure they have fully rounded bodies. They are not merely outlined shapes two-dimensionally placed on the surface of the painting as Masolino's were. Masaccio's figure groups only make sense if it is understood that they have a ground plan - that the placing of their feet on the ground in the picture space and the turning of their limbs and heads is not just guessed at or fudged but clearly known and described.
Masolino, Joannides says, saw the body as "a template, not a structure." Masaccio saw it as a structure with each part capable of mobility in relation to every other part. Like Donatello, Masaccio, in Joannides's words, was "supreme" in "drama and space composition."
And also like Donatello, Masaccio's "drama" involves a portrait-like manner of expressing the inner feelings of his figures. Having said this, however, it is here that Masaccio's departure from the sculptor is also most apparent.
In fact the words "harsh and emotive" might more accurately be applied to some of Donatello's sculptures of single figures, while Joannides's somewhat different ways of describing Masaccio later in his book seem truer to the painter. He writes that "demonstrative emotion appears only rarely in Masaccio's work" and that "he was devoted above all else to the heroic." Joannides points out how the apostle Peter (who is the central figure in all the frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel) moves through these narrat ives about his life apparently aloof from them. He is a symbol of authority, rather than a human protagonist.
Even when Peter is (as described in the book of Acts) healing the sick, Masaccio does not show this to be so much a matter of compassion as of unmistakable presence and potent conviction. When Peter is "chaired" - an apocryphal incident from the Golden Legend, not the Bible (presenting him in Catholic terms as proto-pope) - Masaccio gives Peter's expression all the grandeur he can muster.
In the all of the Brancacci Chapel, Masaccio's spirit dominates. Joannides talks of its "aura of stoic severity" and elsewhere of Masaccio as representing a "severe current in Florentine art." What remains extraordinary about the working relationship of Masolino with Masaccio is that the chapel has a definite unity, and that is in spite of their relative strengths and weaknesses. While Joannides revealingly charts the balance of power between the two artists as it developed, with the young artist becomin g gradually more dominant by the time of the Brancacci Chapel collaboration, the chapel's frescoes nevertheless show that they managed to combine their efforts with quite a degree of respect for each other.
Joannides dismisses, as most recent scholars have also done, any idea that Masolino was Masaccio's master, though this was once a longstanding tradition. If either learned anything at all from the other, it would be Masolino from Masaccio, though any such influence was only temporary even then.
MASACCIO'S fierce originality - and in such a brief career - witnesses to potent ambition and a free exercise of will. Joannides does touch on a possible reason for this freedom. Son of a notary, Masaccio's social level may have been above the general run of artist at that period. This might mean he side-stepped the usual process of apprenticeship. Certainly it has been no easier for Joannides than any other authority to identify a painter who might have been Masaccio's master. So the author concludes th at Masaccio may have seen the practice of art "less as a trade than as a field for experiment and self-expression." He was freer to look far back to an artist like Giotto as a predecessor, rather than to the immediate Florentine painters of his own time.
Michelangelo, a century later, would leapfrog the years to look back at Masaccio in a similar bid for independent inspiration. Geniuses - and Masaccio has often been counted as one - shout to each other in such a way over centuries; and in their lifetimes they tend to dwarf their Masolinos.
Thanks to Joannides' study, though, Masolino is given a consideration and even an appreciation that his successful association with Masaccio suggests he deserves. He may well, after all, as the senior partner and with an established reputation, have been responsible for providing Masaccio - still apparently little patronized for his own sake - with the opportunity to work at all in the Brancacci Chapel.