In recent months I have been increasingly drawn to the Sienese artist Sassetta. I think he was a super smoothie and well ahead of his time. His use of electric pinks and hot greens transports me to 70’s, Scarface Miami rather than early Renaissance Italy, although both were probably equally hot and violent…
My favourite Sassetta painting is “The Blessed Ranieri Frees the Poor from a Prison in Florence”, probably because it has this beautiful balance of grey and orange – to me the most perfect colour combination of them all.
I remember the first time I noticed the synergy of orange and grey. It was on a beach towel hanging in the window display of a pound shop in Florence. I suppose I must have liked the two colours before but I was never conscious of that perfect collaboration between them until that moment. That was a long time ago but you could say I am addicted to anything grey and orange ever since..
Sassetta harmonises the two different greys of the prison walls by using this glowing orange on the garment of the escaping prisoner. The dark woody browns of the praying figure at the base of the painting work like ballast, keeping the painting grounded, especially with the strange flying figure overhead. The left is all drama and the right is peace and quiet.
I first came across Sassetta’s work in The National Gallery in London. I went to look at The Battle Of San Romano by Paulo Uccello. The Uccello panel is very powerful and dynamic. It easily fills the room it hangs in. Nevertheless, as I was standing there looking at Uccello I kept being pulled by a flickering on my left, like a pink firefly demanding my attention. It was a small piece by Sassetta called ‘Saint Francis renounces his Earthly Father”.
The pinks in these pillars resonate so perfectly together they could be a hard-edged abstract construct. The dusty, dark pink placed next to the lighter, fleshy pink and the two shades of green at the base of the pillars are simply mind-blowing. Like suddenly finding that great metaphor that takes you to a place that feels familiar but where known words can’t get to. It’s this reaction that only survives while the colours are together changing each other in a way that doesn’t exist.
Sassetta’s work made me take notice of the way sunlight hits a building and creates sharp contrasts within the same colour. Walking down the street I am now suddenly so much more conscious of all the geometric possibilities that surround me. The everyday transforms into the abstract, offering itself to be included in new work.
Another great painting that evokes this strong sense of colour apposition is “The Wolf of Gubbio”. It’s wide open to a bit of bootlegging. The two greys of the arch have the weighty dominance of bouncers. Where those shocking pinks cross that business-suit-grey they clash so beautifully it’s almost like colours creating sound. The earthen foreground is perfect in its simplicity. Then high above all this you have the flying objects making that swirl shape in the sky. A purely abstract movement, bringing so much lightness to the painting. A whiff of abstract helium 500 years ahead of its time.
To me, elements of Sassetta’s paintings are like distant medieval cousins of Joseph Albers’ highly evolved colour studies. Albers’ paintings are purely magical. One recently stopped me in my tracks. An art dealer in London had an orange Albers hanging in the window and it literally pulled me across the road. I have always been mesmerised by the vibration of Albers’ work but it was Sassetta that eased me further into seeing the space between colours and the abstract world light creates around me.
And so I realise it is very much Sassetta that is influencing my work at the moment. I have made plans to work in Italy this summer and I can’t wait to hang out on Sassetta’s home turf. Might go looking at a few more beach towels as well…