Saturday, March 2, 2013
March 4, 2013 Issue
Pauline Kael, in the Introduction to her great For Keeps (1994), said, “I’m frequently asked why I don’t write my memoirs. I think I have.” Peter Schjeldahl could say the same thing. Bits of his life are embedded here and there throughout his reviews. For example, in his splendid “Warhol In Bloom” (The New Yorker, March 11, 2002; included in his 2008 collection Let’s See), a review of the Tate Modern’s 2002 Andy Warhol retrospective, he hints at the circumstances that clinched his decision to become an art critic:
Announcing that pleasure will be the show’s keynote, De Salvo [Tate curator] begins with a group of Flowers – large silk-screen paintings from 1964 and 1967 that ring changes on a motif of flat hibiscus blossoms against a grainy ground of grass blades. (Warhol cribbed the image from a tiny black-and-white ad in a magazine.) The choice elated me, because a Flowers show in Paris, in 1965, was one of two experiences I had that year that inspired a vocational devotion to art. (The other was a Piero della Francesca fresco in Tuscany.)
Now, eleven years later, we learn the details of Schjeldahl’s epiphanic Piero della Francesca encounter. In his lovely “Heaven On Earth,” in this week’s issue, Schjeldah writes:
One hot August, when I was twenty-three, I traversed Tuscany on the back of a Vespa driven by a painter friend, George Schneeman. We had seen Piero’s magnum opus, the “Legend of the True Cross” frescoes, in Arezzo, which I found bewildering, and were headed northeast, to the artist’s home town of Sansepolcro, the site of his famous “Resurrection of Christ” (“the best picture in the world,” according to Aldous Huxley), which I also failed to make much of. Then we stopped at a tiny cemetery chapel, in the hill town of Monterchi, to see Piero’s highly unusual “Madonna del Parto.” An immensely pregnant but delicately elegant young Mary stands pensively in a bell-shaped tent, as two mirror-image angels sweep aside the flaps to reveal her. One angel wears green, the other purple. Here was the circumstantial drama of a ripeness with life in a place of death. George told me a sentimental, almost certainly untrue story that the work memorialized a secret mistress of Piero’s who had died in childbirth. This befitted the picture’s held-breath tenderness and its air of sharing a deeply felt, urgent mystery. In another age, the experience might have made me consider entering a monastery. Instead, I became an art critic.
That “held-breath tenderness” is inspired! Schjeldahl is one of The New Yorker’s most distinctive stylists. I enjoy his work immensely. And to think it all began forty-eight years ago with Andy Warhol and Piero della Francesco – amazing!