The Kress Collection
At the Denver Art Museum
(University of Oklahoma)Samuel Henry Kress was the Sam Walton of his day. He built stores --- what he called 5-10-25 Cent Stores --- throughout America. Like Walton, he brought his goods to smaller cities and towns. But he was unlike Walton in one respect. He loved high art, and each one of his center city stores was architecturally distinct: a work of art in its own right. No strip-mall magnate this.
By the time he died in 1955, Kress had built an impressive collection of Medieval and Renaissance art which he insisted on personally installing in over forty galleries in the cities where his stores had made him rich. Denver was one of the beneficiaries of this largesse, and the local art museum received dozens of paintings and sculptures. Thirty-five appear here in this volume, with appropriate notes.
I don't know if you have ever seen Medieval paintings, but I want you to know they are weird ... more or less 14th century R. Crumb, with an overlay of Lucian Freud and hints of Dali and Francis Bacon. Take one of my favorites --- the "Adoration of the Magi" [Fig. 1] created by an anonymous Spanish painter from the era of Columbus. The three wise men with a slightly crazed look in their eyes appear before Mary and the Child. The visitors all seem to have hangovers.
Melchoir from Persia offers an empty gold cup, his eyes turned away from the babe, a look of wariness on his face. Balthasar of Ethiopia holds what is possibly an astrolabe. Caspar (or Jasper) from Afghanistan kneels in his golden robe with a scimitar at his side, presenting a jewel-encrusted beer tankard.
The Holy Babe looks diffident, and Mary appears quite beat. Imagine having to go through post-partum depression with these nut-cases coming out of the woodwork claiming to have been invited to visit by a passing star. She obviously wants to get back to the manger where she and her new offspring can be done with these crazies.
In the background, the seediest character of them all is a bored and sour-faced holy figure, dressed in a monk's robe, possibly a representative of the Mother Church (only he knows the future path of the child's new faith) --- although it may be Joseph going through his own post-partum trauma. The requisite cow and horses are looking on, but the setting is quite hoity-toity. No homeless peasants these: Mary's garb is definitely uptown, as are those of the onlookers.
The hit of this book as far as I'm concerned is a six-panel set of frescoes, representing --- according to Ms. Daneo --- Love, Chastity, Death, Fame, Time and Divinity ... cassoni drawn from a poem by Petrarch, quoted here. The panels date from the mid- to late-fifteenth century. In the Triumph of Love, blind Cupid is about to zap an arrow into Jupiter's fanny. He is buck-naked, and is being drawn along by two lovely white horses. Chastity is hauled along by two equally lovely unicorns; a bystander with a flag shows the figure of a marmoset (the editor says it's an ermine but I know a marmoset when I see one).
The Triumph of Fame offers two elephants topped by an angel (complete with exquisite green wings) holding a book of History, perhaps the very History of Italian Art that put me to sleep back in college in 1950, back when they still taught history. Time is shown as an old man, with a crook'd back, carrying a cross (or a telephone pole), pulled along by stags.
But the best of them all is a Brueghel character, a skeleton, holding the usual scythe, being moved along with a fancy casket as pulled by two black bulls, tromping on a dozen or so corpses, including a monk in his rose-colored chasuble, perhaps just visiting from the magi painting above.
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With its 100 reproductions of canvas, drawings, sculptures, and panels, this volume is itself a work of art. My only regret is that the University of Oklahoma Press chose to make it so small. I would have preferred a large folio, one with pictures big enough to hang on my walls to admire as I watched myself passing along past the six famous triumphs.--- Paulina Ocampo, MA