D.C. exhibit succeeds in creating 'an image of the world around 1492'

October 20, 1991|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

Washington -- In a way, "Circa 1492" at the National Gallery is the Lyndon Johnson of art exhibits.

Johnson wanted to do everything -- win a war, nourish the poor, right the wrongs done to minorities, make himself universally loved -- all at once. And the ambition of "1492" is certainly comparable: Its 600 objects drawn from 200 lenders in more than 30 countries purport, in the words of the gallery, to represent "the full spectrum of the creative arts at the dawn of the modern era." Or, as gallery director J. Carter Brown put it, to "present an image of the world around 1492."

In fact those are not quite the same aims, but this exhibit tries to accomplish both. And unlike Johnson it largely succeeds. From Leonardo's exquisite "Portrait of a Lady with an Ermine" to an elegant pair of lions with leaflike ears of the Edo peoples of Africa; from Japanese lacquerware and Chinese paintings to Aztec sculptures and Inca textiles, the show indeed brings us the arts of five continents at about the time of Columbus.

And from cartographers' maps of the swiftly expanding known world to Durer's demonstration of perspective, from the flower-covered borders of a Spanish book of hours to the Chinese artist Shen Zhou's drawings of plants, animals and insects, the show tries to reflect as much as possible what the world in all those places was like. What's more, it shows that while there are differences between regions -- in religions and in styles of art, for instance -- there are also similarities: the fascination with nature in all its garbs, or the exploring fervor that motivated the seven voyages of the Chinese admiral Zheng He (1405-1419) as well as Columbus.

Perhaps only in America, with its passion for bigness, would such a show be attempted. And the extraordinary thing about "Circa 1492" is that on its own terms it's a stunning success.

It is logically organized, brilliantly installed, filled with objects of great beauty, and clearly explained in texts, labels and brochure for those reluctant to wade through the telephone book-sized catalog.

No doubt the scope was partly motivated by a wish not to be Euro-centrist, not to overpraise Columbus and the other explorers who brought with them subjugation, disease and death, not to elevate the motives of the monarchs who sent them in the hopes of glory, power and gold. If so, we are the beneficiaries of that wish, for surely seldom has there been a show of this scope and size with so many peaks and so few -- if indeed any -- valleys.

The only valley the viewer may well encounter is that of his own flagging stamina. For all its logic, clarity and beauty, the show stumbles over its own sheer size. As Lyndon Johnson gave his adminis tration an impossible task, the National Gallery gives us a task that's impossible to accomplish, at least in one session.

If one spent an average of only one minute with each of its 600 objects a visit to the whole thing would take 10 hours. Obviously even those who have the time haven't the attention span for such a marathon. So the recommended approach is not to rush through it all, resulting in an inevitable blur, but to see its three sections, if possible, at three different times. And if you can't go three times, see only part of it but see that part well.

The first section deals with "Europe and the Mediterranean World," and begins with maps and objects reflecting the Europeans' curiosity about the world and its wonders: Abraham Cresques' "Catalan Atlas" (1375), which of course doesn't include the Western Hemisphere (from such maps it's easy to understand why Columbus thought he'd get to Asia quickly by sailing west); a jug made of an ostrich egg (14th century); an Indian rock crystal elephant with European gold mounts (15th century).

Following are subsections on Portugese explorations of Africa, Spain and its imperial ambitions at the time of Columbus, and works from Africa and the Islamic near east.

The first part also includes an area devoted to intellectual explorations, and ends on a sustained high note with a gallery of 40 works by two great artist-scientists of the age, Leonardo da Vinci and Albrecht Durer: Leonardo's renderings of anatomy, animals, machinery, man-made and natural disasters; Durer's investigations of perspective, of people and nature, of state of mind. This room culminates with Leonardo's "Lady with an Ermine" (about 1490), one of his three positively attributed surviving female portraits and one which comes to this country (from Cracow, Poland) for the first time.

The middle section, "Toward Cathay," treats four Asian countries in the order in which Columbus would probably have reached them had the Western Hemisphere not intervened: Japan, Korea, China and India. As in the European section, there are a range of arts but also individual artists such as Shen Zhou in JTC China and Sesshu Toyo in Japan, and subject matter that also explores religion and the natural world.

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