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RICHARD EDER

Making Art Perform : PIERO DELLA FRANCESCA Poet of Form by Jacqueline and Maurice Guillaud (Clarkson N. Potter/Guillaud Editions: $100)

December 25, 1988|RICHARD EDER

Painting is the only art that presents itself outside of time. Music, theater, film and dance move past or through us in time of two kinds: duration and rhythm. When we read prose or poetry, time is more flexible and less noticeable, but it is there; it is inherent in the very notion of beginning at the beginning and going on to the end.

We look at a painting for 10 seconds or an hour; the choice is ours; it doesn't belong to the painting. It does not move through us with the implicit warning--"Give me the time I require; I'll soon be gone"--nor does it ask us, as a book does, to move through it with the implicit warning: "Give me the time I require or you won't see me at all." Those are dramatic, mobilizing warnings.

For a dozen years or so, Jacqueline and Maurice Guillaud have experimented with ways of bringing the same kind of dramatic mobilization to the viewing of art. They introduced time or--which is much the same--movement into the experience.

For a while, they did it in their art center in Paris, the Centre Culturel du Marais. Visitors would move through--or in one case, where a tiny train was used, be moved through--exhibits of Goya, Turner, Hokusai, Caspar David Friedrich, Degas. They mounted scaffolds, climbed steps, groped through blacked-out corridors to sudden revelations at the other end. These devices made the art, in a sense, perform.

More recently the Guillauds have been turning out a series of art books on Matisse, Goya, Rembrandt and others. The extraordinary care and quality of the reproductions drew wide praise. So did an innovation: the use of rice paper for the frescoes of Fra Angelico and Giotto. For the first time, the stony, powdery quality of the wall paintings was transferred to the pages of a book.

This aside, the most original aspect of the books, particularly the more recent ones, was the authors' introduction of time and movement by alternating blown-up details of a painting with complete or partial views. It makes a kind of rhythmic pattern. Going through these books takes on the quality of cinema. The effect is a montage of close-ups alternating with long views--of cinema.

All of these elements--the high quality reproduction, the special grittiness of the frescoes, the rhythmic alternations of close-ups and longshots--come together in the Guillauds' latest book. It contains Piero della Francesca's grievously damaged masterpiece, the sequential murals of the Legend of the True Cross in the Basilica of St. Francis in Arezzo.

Their methods, whose purpose is to display art as time and motion, seem made for Piero. More than any other Renaissance artist, it was time that he painted. His figures, with their heavy-drawn and delicate features, look forward and backward.

In the scenes of the True Cross legend, which links Adam's tree to Christ's cross and takes it forward into the early centuries of Christianity, the faces of Eve, the Queen of Sheba, Solomon, a young soldier or a defeated general--these are all premonition.

Massenzio, the rival of the Emperor Constantine, flees on his horse and looks back. The defeated Persian, Cosroe, awaits execution. Their past is in their faces; so is what is to come; they remember the future.

In the Annunciation, the beautiful, almost sensual figure of the Virgin is arrested, literally, by the upraised hand of Gabriel. She too sees her destiny with a sudden remembrance. It is there all in her hands; two birds flying away and suddenly netted.

The Guillauds' close-ups catch these hands and others, taken from different parts of a mural and juxtaposed in a chorus of gesticulation. Out of a battle scene, the warring banners will be focused upon and grouped side by side; so will close-ups of horses' hooves, men's feet, the hand of a dead soldier.

The mouths are in high enlargement. Piero's mouths are unmistakable with their heavy curve. They are assertive everywhere but at the corners. There they grow indistinct, as if time was undermining every assertion.

The dramatic movement of the Guillauds' montage is stepped up by a kind of poetic commentary that winds along some of the pages facing the plates. It can be evocative, but mostly, as realized, it seems a misjudgment. Too often it turns drama into rhetoric, and its highly colored language interferes with what is going on. A clumsy translation makes matters worse.

This apart, though, the book is an extraordinary work of restoration.

A visitor to Arezzo will almost not see the frescoes. They are high up and badly lit; but above all, they are hideously disfigured by centuries of dampness, corrosion and quick restorations. One of the panels has as much as a third of its surface blotted out; in others, essential portions cannot be seen.

In the book, we see each one entirely, with all their disfiguration. And then, out of the enlarged details, we begin to put them together. We see what is there, not what is not there. It is like putting your ear close to the lips of someone grievously ill and hearing a transfiguring message out of what had seemed like mumbling.

It is a sobering and terribly moving book. We see art itself afflicted by time; as Piero's figures were afflicted by time. It brings us very close to them.

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