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National Gallery’s Mellon Lecture Series Concludes Sunday

If it had been up to art historian Irving Lavin, this year’s A.W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, collectively titled “More Than Meets the Eye,” might have been the briefest in the 50-plus-year history of the vaunted National Gallery of Art series.

“The thing I was most tempted to do was get up at the opening of the first lecture, announce the title and sit down,” quips Lavin, a professor emeritus at Princeton University’s Institute for Advanced Study.

“If I could do that, then what people would have to do was think about the phrase and what it means and that’s really all I’m after, as a way of looking at works of art — that there’s more than meets the eye,” he adds.

Luckily for Washington audiences, Lavin — who will conclude his six-part series on Sunday by discussing contemporary art from installation artist Christo to architect Frank Gehry in relationship to the Baroque — decided against that course of action, choosing instead to slog on with his lambent illuminations of the more implicit points of some of the West’s artistic masterpieces.

Lavin — perhaps the foremost authority on the Italian Baroque sculptor and architect Gianlorenzo Bernini — is a towering figure in the scholarly world of Renaissance and Florentine art. But he is also a master of the general, who can pontificate with ease on everything from the late antiquity to Picasso.

Looking at art from Lavin’s perspective is something special. He doesn’t just show you a picture. He dissects it, pounces on its varied visual elements, then whizzes off in myriad directions, drawing on historical antecedents, biblical references, even mythology in his exegeses. During his inaugural lecture on the “story of O,” in mid-April, Lavin seamlessly invoked the 13th- and 14th-century Italian painter Giotto, the Fibonacci sequence, Albert Einstein’s lectures on the theory of relativity, and American pop artist Jasper Johns — all with the aim of proving a rather simple point: that the circle is universal.

“What he’s really known for is the depth of his inconographical instruction and discoveries,” says Henry Millon, the former dean of the National Gallery’s Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts and Lavin’s longtime friend. “In that sense, he’s a person who needs to be heard while he’s still alive.”

“Irving makes art come alive,” adds abstract artist Frank Stella. “He’s very lively, too.”

And it is Lavin’s impish ebullience that has carried his audience, relatively painlessly, through what have been sometimes rather esoteric presentations.

“I anticipated that this would be some great big failure because it’s pretty heavy stuff,” Lavin, who is 75, admits.

But instead, the National Gallery’s roughly 500-seat East Building Auditorium has been at or near capacity for all of Lavin’s lectures to date, with the audience consisting of a healthy mix of tourists and cultural cognoscenti.

Among the highlights of the lectures has been the attention devoted to “dissimulation” in the work of the 16th century Italian painter Caravaggio and other contemporaneous masters.

“What if reality itself is a disguise?” Lavin asked the audience at one point, before launching into an explanation of the means by which Caravaggio and others had played with the notion of “God as artificer.”

Many of Lavin’s disquisitions, particularly the ones focused on Caravaggio, have been so peppered with biblical verses that one attendee could be overheard telling the Catholic priest sitting next to him that the lecture was “like going to church.”

Lavin defends this approach, asserting that to truly comprehend the full measure of a work rooted in biblical narrative, it is necessary to return to the primary source.

“If you want to understand how they look, you have to understand what they mean,” he says of the works of art. “If you want to understand what they mean, you have to understand how they look — both.”

You get the the sense that Lavin, who possesses a preternatural talent for plumbing the obscure, is in a way testing his limits, trying to see how far he can push his audience to see, as profoundly as he does, “life through the eyes of artists.”

Nowhere was this more in evidence, he says, than this past Sunday when he discussed “The Infinite Spiral: Claude Mellan’s Miraculous Image.”

“I deliberately took as a title the name of an artist of whom no one has ever heard, and still they came,” he says with a hint of pride, referring to the obscure 17th century French engraver Mellan, whose most famous work — “The Veil of Saint Veronica” — depicts Christ’s face in one continuous line spiraling outward from the nose. “I knew what I was doing.”

Stella, who was in attendance at that lecture, said he’d expected some of his own works, such as the geometric spiral painting “New Madrid,” to make an appearance in the presentation on artistic spirals (his office had been phoned for the images, after all), but conceded that Mellan was the furthest thing from his own mind when he had constructed his iconic creations more than 40 years ago.

“Then, I didn’t even know who Claude Mellan was,” laughs Stella. “But I should have.”

Lavin’s final lecture, “Going for Baroque: Observations on the Postmodern Fold,” will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday in the National Gallery of Art’s East Building Auditorium.

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