How lucky we are that Vermeer was plucked from obscurity to become famous once again. A similar situation is taking place with another, earlier artist, and its epicenter is the Morgan Library, owner of the largest collection of illuminated manuscripts by Jean Poyet.
Jean Poyet (active ca. 1483-1503) lived in Tours, France, and served three successive kings of France, Louis XI, Charles VIII, and Louis XII. Their reigns spanned the years from 1461 to 1515. Poyet was a draughtsman, painter, designer of festivals and an illuminator. This last position is central to "Jean Poyet: Artist to the Court of Renaissance France," now at the Morgan.
In his own time and at his death, presumably in 1503, Jean Poyet, was a celebrated artist and head of a workshop, famed for turning out luxurious Books of Hours for the king and court. By the 1600s, he was forgotten.
Before the 1980s, a lack of documentation gave almost all refined manuscripts of Jean Poyet's period to his hometown rival, Jean Bourdichon. Since illuminators did not sign their works, connoisseurship is responsible for the changes in attribution for pieces that are now seen as Poyet's and his workshop. How important this artist is to the Morgan can be judged by its giving Poyet its first show ever devoted to a single illuminator.
And the work deserves it, whether or not each piece is Poyet's or not. There is plenty of material here to contemplate, so everyone can form his or her own opinion.
Poyet did go to Italy and absorbed some of the sensibility of the northern Renaissance, yet his work at times retains some of the stage-like qualities of the late Gothic. His sure sense of space, use of rich colors and gold, graceful figures, and that most elusive of talents, imagination, will allow viewers to overlook any momentary stiffness.
The exhibition's centerpiece is Jean Poyet's Hours of Henry VIII, from around 1500. When well-to-do readers were proud to follow along church services with newly printed books, kings and members of their court used articles like this sumptuous volume with 55 paintings. This treasure, traditionally said to be a gift of the Holy Roman Emperor to Henry VIII, cannot be proved to have been owned by Henry. If he had known about it -- with its rare colors and realistic and sometimes downright witty pictures, he would have swooped down and grabbed it by whatever means necessary.
A calendar with the dates of important saints' days begins the book. My favorite is February, in which a landlord has lifted his garments to warm his backside by the fireplace only to be surprised by a servant dragging flagons of wine to his table. The artist pays close attention to clothing and lovingly records architectural details here as elsewhere.
The pages all have well-worked monochrome and gold borders, with a circular niche on the bottom for the month's zodiac symbol. May is notable for the way that Poyet portrays Gemini, the twins, as male and female nudes embracing. This twosome echoes the image of a handholding pair gathering flower branches, a traditional activity for May first.
In the Hours of the Virgin, Poyet delivers a horrific Massacre of the Innocents yet manages to spotlight a distraught mother in profile that looks as beatific as Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca. All this while the flight into Egypt takes place in the background.
And there are great monsters. Amid the suffrages, prayers to saints seeking help, Poyet's St. Philip Vanquishing Idols and a Demon and St. Margaret Taming the Tarasque give his creativity free rein. The tarasque (half-dragon and half-fish) is shown with its mouth open and a pair of legs in blue pants disappearing into its maw.
Roger S. Wieck, curator of Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts at the Morgan Library, presents many of the illuminations here in light boxes, so you don't have to squint. I'd still recommend bringing a magnifying glass, although one is provided for the proposed last remaining leaf from the Petites Heures of Anne de Bretagne, a documented commission for Poyet and the linchpin for Wieck's persuasive show. In addition to illuminations by Poyet, the exhibition includes five drawings attributed to Poyet, works by members of his workshop, his competitors and successors. You can put your own eye to the test.
Wieck is the main author of two new books, The Hours of Henry VIII: A Renaissance Masterpiece by Jean Poyet (George Braziller in association with the Morgan at $60 or $29.95 in paper) and a facsimile of The Prayer Book of Anne of Bretagne for $650 in a leather case. A facsimile is in the show, and it's a joy to hold in your hands.
The exhibition remains on view through May 6 at the Morgan Library, 29 West 36th Street, New York, N.Y. 10016.
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The Drawing Center's Drawing Room is presenting about 50 pencil-on-paper drawings by Norval Morisseau, who also goes by the name Copper Thunderhead. Morrisseau, the grandson of a shaman of the Anishnabee people (called Ojibwa or Chippewa in the past), left school after the fourth grade but absorbed plenty of teaching from his maternal grandparents, who raised him in a remote town in northern Ontario, Canada.
The pressures of assimilation were destroying the culture of the Anishnabee. Morisseau set out to reclaim what he could for future generations by compressing myth and shamanistic wisdom into drawings. The artist first exhibited his works in the 1960s. This set was made in 1972-3 while he was in prison. They are all torn from a single roll of now-discolored paper.
The images, however, remain icy sharp, filled with tension and suspense. Each is a transformation scene distilled to a contour drawing with x-ray visions of the interiors of the animals and people that appear in them. Curlicue lines represent communication between humans and spirits, while shorter, wavy ones evoke transformative energy from humans or their possessions, animals or spirits.
All are untitled and only fully knowable to Anishnabee. Because dance, song and ritual activities were outlawed for so long, many Anishnabee may not know exactly what is happening themselves. But no one can miss the energy emanating from them. Each tableau creates its own force field. And it's easy to guess what the general situation is.
The fact that these powerful drawings exist and that they exist in the arena of art between cultures does provide hope for a fuller appreciation of them and what they represent by Natives and non-Natives alike. "Draw & Tell: Lines of Transformation by Norval Morrisseau/Copper Thunderbird" offers a rare opportunity to see these exciting works.
The show is on view Feb. 24-Apr. 7, 2001, at the Drawing Room, 40 Wooster Street, New York, N.Y. 10013.
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It's always a pleasure to see the work of "Ray" (R. A.) Hamilton (1919-1996). Once Hamilton discovered art at about age 63, he made drawings for the last 13 to 14 years of his life. Nothing stopped him.
Hamilton made drawings of figures, alone and in groups, out of simple shapes, mostly in ballpoint pen with pressure so strong, the pen strokes are almost incised. He also drew groups of animals and objects, just objects, and sometimes peppered backgrounds with numbers. The perpetually smiling, soft-spoken artist called the ones with numbers, "Add-ups."
"Ray Hamilton: Works on Paper" at K. S. Art in Tribeca is not a retrospective, but manages to show some outstanding examples from both halves of the artist's career. A stroke in 1989 damaged Hamilton's right hand, but he taught himself to draw with his left and reuse the right in alternation with it. Afterward, the drawings employ the same subjects, but become a little less intense overall, as pencil and veils of watercolor replace more heavily worked ballpoint in the interiors of forms. Their lighter touch and more expansive range of color are lovely in a different way.
Hamilton was a master organizer of positive and negative space. He rarely let forms overlap and when he did, he did so for maximum effect, as in his Untitled (Seven Objects, Three Animals). Another stunning drawing is a black house, obviously created with a ruler. It's an Ur-dwelling, with a slim, horizontal slice of blue sky that's reminiscent of Anne Truitt's paintings. It's pure magic.
The drawings are most often 11 by 14 inches or 18 by 24 inches. They range in price from $1,000 to $4,000.
The show opened on Feb. 24 and runs through May 5, 2001, at K. S. Art, 73 Leonard Street, New York, N.Y. 10013.
N. F. KARLINS is a New York writer and art historian.