Friday, July 8, 2011

Masterworks from the Dutch Golden Age at the Legion of Honor

Jacob van Ruisdael (Haarlem 1628/29–1682 Haarlem?), Winter Landscape with Two Windmills, ca. 1675. Oil on canvas, 15 1/8 x 17 1/8 inches (38.5 x 43.4 cm). The Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo Collection. Image courtesy Peabody Essex Museum

Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo began collecting horse carriages, until they completely filled their New Hampshire barn. So they switched to horse and sporting prints, until about two decades ago, when Peter Sutton, then curator of European painting at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, encouraged them to get into Dutch and Flemish art. It seemed a natural fit for the Marblehead couple -- she a native of Belgium, he a Dutch-born investor and developer who had co-founded the Boston investment firm Grantham, Mayo & Van Otterloo in 1977.

The result is the current exhibit at the Legion of Honor. nearly seventy paintings  from the 17th century.  It's the most astonishingly beautiful show that I've seen in San Francisco in a long time - and that includes the current Picasso show at the De Young and the Stein collection at SF MOMA (with a few exceptions for the Matisse pieces and the early Picasso). 

 Don't bother with the over-hyped show of "Baroque Masterpieces" at the Berkeley Art Museum. The show consists of eight poorly lit drawings, one of which showed some damage and is in need of conservation. You can barely see the work for the glare on the glass. The rest of the show consists of two third rate paintings by a largely forgotten painter. The show is frustrating to view, difficult to access and poorly documented. I have to make two exceptions; the Tiepolo drawing (also on the web page) is the best drawing in the show. The "St. John in the wilderness" by Caracciolo is amusing for its lack of any religious feeling. The boy in the painting is obviously a Roman rent boy and certainly for sale.  While lacking in Caravaggio's sly eroticism, he is gesturing with a finger that seems to say, in 17th century Italian, "You talkin' to me?"  What's with the red toes? But there's not a masterpiece in the lot.

Here's where some real art history scholarship would have been much appreciated. It's difficult to understand why Berkeley, with it's art and history departments couldn't find at least one student to do some basic research and write up more comprehensive wall tests. If the museum doesn't have the money, they could certainly find someone who would do it for class credit. This is even more important because the web site has only one brief essay, one small image and the guards are Berkeley are ever vigilant to make sure that you don't take a photograph (even with the flash off) or write with anything other than the soft, stubby yellow pencils that smear at the first touch.

Needless to say, I was underwhelmed. 

I can't say the same for the show at the Legion. I guess that the difference between the two is the difference between a museum that's basically interested in the new and trendy vs. a museum that displays classic art. One venue largely shows art that spends a lot of time telling you what it is because the artist is not skilled or talented enough to let the image do the talking. It's unfortunate that this is the case because the BAM has a wonderful collection of Asian art and maybe even a decent collection of European art but you'd never know by the way it is presented.

The other venue (the FAMSF) displays art that does not have to waste a lot of time in text because the artist is (or was) well enough trained to make a painting that's worth the proverbial 1000 words. Of course, this art is also beautifully documented because it's historically important and has stood the test of time. The contemporary art at "the other museum" will last, at best, maybe 25 years. By and large it does not deserve to last longer.

The Dutch masterworks comes to SF from the Peabody Museum in Salem where it was originally organized in conjunction with the Mauritshuis. Dr. Frederik J. Duparc was the guest curator, and Karina Corrigan, the H. A. Crosby Forbes Curator of Asian Export Art at Peabody Essex, was the coordinating curator.  The Legion's curator of European art has followed in their footsteps, hanging a show where every painting is in superb condition with an impeccable provenance.

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