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New Season for Art

National Gallery Opens Four Exhibits

As summer wends its way to its conclusion, the National Gallery of Art this month unveils a quartet of exhibits spanning five centuries of European art — from Florentine sculpture to Dutch still lifes to French prints — guaranteed to help Washington’s sun worshippers (there must be some out there) forget their coming woes.

So take a moment to mark the changing of the seasons with what National Gallery Director Earl Powell III calls “a geographical trek” through some of a continent’s most lavish aesthetic offerings. Your eyes will thank you.

‘Pieter Claesz: Master of Haarlem Still Life’

Bring an appetite to the 17th-century Dutch artist Pieter Claesz’s artistic table; you’ll need it. His 28 still lifes, which go on display Sunday, range from simple breakfasts of meat and bread to sumptuous repasts of floral-bedecked avian pies and are among the genre’s finest.

“It’s like your meal,” gushes the show’s Washington curator, Arthur Wheelock, gesturing toward one rendering of a half-eaten mince pie. “There’s all this sense of involvement.”

Much of that is due to Claesz’s mastery of eliciting sensual responses with his brush strokes. Whether it’s the delicate texture of an uncoiling lemon peel or the flicker of dying candlelight illuminating a stack of books, his images are crafted to both entice and beguile.

But it’s not all fun and games in Claesz’s still lifes. His “vanitas” pictures serve warning on the fleeting nature of earthly pleasures and the gravity of life. And in “Vanitas Still Life,” nearly every object from a skull to a watch to a candle is meant to drive that point home. (Claesz himself, though considered one of the greatest 17th-century Dutch still life artists, would drop “out of sight” in the 19th century, before being rediscovered by art afficionados the following century, noted Wheelock.)

In addition to Claesz’s work, the show, which opens Sunday, features still lifes by his predecessors and contemporaries, as well as several objects, such as glassware and porcelain dishes, similar to those depicted in his paintings. The National Gallery’s staff knocked itself out in an effort to bring the pictures to life, rummaging in freezers for hazelnuts and scouring homes for pipes and pewter plates to display alongside the paintings.

Notably, two of the show’s pieces — “Tabletop Still Life with Pigeon Pie and Delftware Jug” and “Still life with gilded covered cup of the Haarlem Saint Martin’s or Brewers’ Guild with watch and nuts” (the actual cup the painting is based on is also on view) are on loan from the collection of Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) wife, Teresa Heinz, who with her first husband, the late Sen. John Heinz (R-Pa.), amassed a remarkable collection of Dutch and Flemish art. In 1989, the National Gallery even hosted an exhibit of the Heinzes’ still lifes.

“Pieter Claesz: Master of Haarlem Still Life” is on view in the West Building from Sept. 18 to Dec. 31.

‘Monumental Sculpture from Renaissance Florence: Ghiberti, Nanni di Banco and Verrocchio at Orsanmichele’

After Orsanmichele, a famous church and civic center in Renaissance Florence, Italy, was rebuilt in the 14th century, the city’s trade guilds commissioned more than a dozen statues of their respective patron saints to ornament the facade.

Since 1984, these masterpieces of Renaissance art have undergone an extensive facelift to remove the debilitating effects of centuries of grime and oxidization. They have also been permanently relocated to Orsanmichele’s interior, with replicas created to stand in their former exterior niches.

Two decades after the massive conservation effort was begun, three of these rehabilitated early 15th-century statues — Lorenzo Ghiberti’s “Saint Matthew,” Nanni Di Banco’s “Quattro Santi Coronati (Four Crowned Martyred Saints)” and Andrea del Verrocchio’s “Christ and Saint Thomas” will go on view Sunday at the National Gallery. (Since 2002, the Orsanmichele has been closed to the public, but it is slated to reopen after the National Gallery show concludes at the end of the year and the statues are returned to Florence.)

The National Gallery exhibit marks the first trip abroad for two of the three statues — “Saint Matthew” and the “Four Crowned Martyred Saints.” The third, Verrocchio’s “Christ and Saint Thomas,” was previously on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Di Banco’s obscure, bearded patron saints in their flowing Roman-style garb invoke all the majesty and classicism of Caesar’s Senate. Once pure white marble with gilded hair, shoes and garment borders, the figures have been partially restored to their former glory, with much of their once “very, very dark and black” patina removed, said the show’s curator, Eleonora Luciano. Di Banco has captured the quartet of men (commissioned by the stonemasons and woodcarvers’ guild) in a somewhat mysterious moment: Two of the saints are touching cryptically and one of this pair’s mouths is agape. Meanwhile, the other two men look on with impassive glances.

Ghiberti, best remembered for his marvelous bronze “Gates of Paradise” on the east entrance to the Florence Duomo’s Baptistry, was certainly no slouch when it came to crafting some of the largest, most impressive bronzes of his age. His enormous, 8-foot, 10-inch Saint Matthew stares out imperiously (the restoration has brought out the silver inlay in his eyes) over the viewer, and was designed to outdo his earlier “Saint John the Baptist,” completed for a rival to the bankers’ guild. (Ironically, his contract with the bankers’ guild explicitly stated that its statue was to be as tall and beautiful as Ghiberti’s John the Baptist. He complied, but it ended up costing as much as a Florentine house.)

Finally, Washington audiences who remember Verrocchio’s “David” (which the gallery displayed in 2003) will be pleased to see yet another offering by this Renaissance master. His portrayal of the doubting Thomas confronting the risen Christ and his wounds for the first time — what Luciano termed a “frozen play” — is both lyrical and allegorical. The only sculpture not commissioned by a guild, the piece was done for a regulatory body, which oversaw the guilds, “similar to the FTC,” Luciano said. Appropriately, then, the resulting bronze depicts both St. Thomas’ search for truth and Christ’s forgiveness of his apostle’s lack of faith.

“Monumental Sculpture from Renaissance Florence” is on view from Sept. 18 through Dec. 31 in the West Building.

‘The Prints of Félix Buhot: Impressions of City and Sea’

If it weren’t for information desk volunteer Helena Gunnarsson, the National Gallery exhibit “The Prints of Félix Buhot: Impressions of City and Sea” likely wouldn’t have happened.

Since 1990, Gunnarsson, who is retired from the Swedish Foreign Office and now spends each Tuesday afternoon answering visitors’ questions at one of the NGA’s information booths, has donated or promised all of her nearly 100-piece collection of Buhot prints to the gallery. Two-thirds of the works in the Buhot show, now on view, are from her collection.

The prints, which the 19th-century French artist dubbed his “paintings in copper,” cover much familiar terrain: Paris’ famous Montmartre neighborhood, where Buhot lived and worked; London landmarks such as Westminster Palace; English piers; and the Brittany coastline (where he later bought a home).

But far from being standard interpretations, the images possess a dreamy, Whistlerian quality, with the atmospherics of nature — wind, rain and fog — delicately depicted in ink.

Indeed, when it comes to manipulating copper and ink to produce stunning little slices of city and sea life, few did it better than Buhot. The exhibit includes several impressions of the same print displayed side by side, demonstrating how with a few minor additions to the plate design or the remixing of his ink palette, Buhot, who was known for his strict work ethic, could dramatically impact a given scene’s mood.

Buhot pioneered the use of “symphonic margins” — borders printed around the central image — which allowed him to expand on the action taking place outside his main frame or just add extra ornamentation, said exhibit curator Gregory Jecmen. For instance, the border of one snowy Paris street scene includes a smattering of winter boots and tiny Parisians frolicking on a frozen Seine. Moreover, Buhot, who was known for his ability to merge various techniques in his printmaking, even used photo-mechanical reproduction to transfer images to his copper plates, which he then printed in ink.

“The Prints of Félix Buhot: Impressions of City and Sea” runs through Feb. 20, 2006 in the West Building.

‘Origins of European Printmaking: Fifteenth-Century Woodcuts and Their Public’

Even before Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press, artists in Europe, particularly in Southern Germany, were using wood and ink to create the earliest printed images en masse in the West.

And since last week, the National Gallery has had nearly 150 early European woodcuts (dating from 1420) on display as part of an international show, which will travel next to Nuremberg, on the origins of 15th-century printmaking.

Mainly religious in subject, the woodcuts, passed down through monasteries and private owners, include plenty of bloody and crude depictions of the Passion, as well as images of the Virgin Mary and the saints.

These religious pictures often were valued for their supposed protective powers. Case in point: On one 1470 image of “Saint Jerome and the Lion,” the Latin inscription assures the viewer that “the picture [is] so powerful that when it appears, the demon will fear and tremble.”

Of the exhibit’s five rooms, only one is devoted to secular subjects — and these are some of the most amusing images in the show.

Chief among these is the playful “Apes Performing on Horseback,” a piece which allowed the owner to reposition the monkeys by moving a strip of paper.

Others of these secular woodcuts served more useful purposes, such as the first printed medical illustration of the human skeleton and a guide for identifying counterfeit coins. Still others emphasize one of the more disturbing European prejudices of the time: anti-Semitism. In “Blessed Simon Martyr,” a young boy, allegedly murdered by Jewish residents in the Italian town of Trent, is depicted laid out on an altar in the buff, blood dripping down his body.

“Origins of European Printmaking: Fifteenth-Century Woodcuts and Their Public” is on view through Nov. 27 in the West Building.

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