The Frick Collection has a temporary home in the Bauhaus-concrete Breuer Building on Madison Avenue in New York. It is replete with remarkable works of art collected by Henry Clay Frick (1849 — 1919), the coke and steel industrialist, who bequeathed his art collection and its residence to a Board of Trustees. The public may view all of it.
In Room 13 on the third floor of this quiet and sober building is Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert (c. 1476-78). The room is painted a flat battleship grey, an angled gash of a modernist window illuminating the space, the ceiling a subdued grid of grey recesses, barely noticeable, the floor a quiet patchwork of grey and brown slate tiles. A sumptuous gold frame, suspended on wires from above, holds the precious canvas. The work is big, at nearly 1.5 metres across and 1.25 metres tall. A black leather bench is provided at a comfortable distance in front of it; you may need it. (The Frick’s website will give you a glimpse of this set up.)
Separated from its traditional home on Fifth Avenue, the painting no longer competes for attention in a busy, overly decorative space. Instead, the flat, grey plane it now hangs in front of cancels all distraction. I may have stayed there for five minutes. No-one else interrupted the experience. I don’t recall if the frame held a sheet of glass in front of the canvas, but there was no reflection. One could approach for truly close inspection. The angled window was to the painting’s left. The azure of the sky in the top-left corner of the canvas was impossibly blue. The saint holds his palms open at his side, stigmata visible, face titled skywards to his right. Standing in front of this, feet planted relative to the painting more or less where Bellini’s own would have been, one is at eye-level with St. Francis.
The gallery’s subtle lighting — and the painting’s placement — worked its minimalist magic. Either light was pouring out of the frame, filling Room 13 with an ethereal brilliance, or it had entered through the window itself — as if projected onto the saint through that modernist opening. Or were both happening simultaneously? It was a perfect hanging, creating movement in the stillness, doing maximum justice to Bellini’s brushwork.
Detail is everywhere. Fig and olive trees, a vine, creeping ivy and a great mullein seek purchase in the arid landscape. A heron is perched on a crag; a donkey is becalmed in the middle distance. A solitary rabbit at the saint’s feet seems transfixed by the scene. A distant shepherd is caught staring towards the saint. Battlements and towers rise up from the plain, eventually populating four hilltops across the canvas’s horizon. St. Francis, risen from his lectern, leaving his sandals and walking stick behind, has turned, open-mouthed, to face the light of God, one assumes. It is the same light that bathes the whole scene and in turn projects this painting out of its golden frame into the space provided by the Frick Collection, where five and a half centuries later it leaves its mark.