Discovering meaning between brush strokes of a familiar painting


January 19, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

Anyone who wants to know how much a work of art can tell u about itself and the extent to which it can shed light on the art of its time must see "A Renaissance Puzzle: Heemskerck's 'Abduction of Helen' " at the Walters Art Gallery.

Although this spectacular painting has been on view all along at the Walters, it has in a real sense been brought out of hiding by this show, organized by Renaissance curator Joaneath Spicer.

By assembling nearly 30 other related works dating from antiquity through the 18th century from the Walters and other collections, the curator has revealed many aspects of the painting's meaning that today's museum-goer is not likely to understand without help. She also shows us how it reflects the combination of forces that shaped it, and to some degree both northern and southern European art of the mid-16th century.

fTC This is the first in a series of what the Walters calls "curator's choice" shows, elsewhere called "focus" shows, that study a single work of art in depth. But Spicer has done more than some who have tackled this format; she broadens the focus beyond the work itself to deal with related issues, and a conservator's report showing how the painting was made adds another level of insight.

Admittedly, that's a lot to take in. Some may think it's too much, as ideas are piled on ideas and we proceed quickly from ancient sculpture to northern Renaissance landscape, from paintings and prints to stained glass and majolica. But variety keeps interest from flagging, and clear explanations ensure that the careful viewer won't become confused.

And -- something new to me -- there is an ingenious set of two-tiered labels, with once-over-lightly information above and more detail below for those who want a deeper understanding. This first entry in the "curator's choice" series sets a precedent that will not be easy to follow.

The "Abduction" is an enormous and amazingly detailed canvas, about 5 feet by 12 1/2 feet, painted in Rome in 1535 or 1536 by the Dutch artist Maerten van Heemskerck (1498-1574).

The nominal subject, confined to the lower part, is the procession of Paris and Helen toward the sea that, as Spicer says, seems more like an elopement than an abduction. It has been theorized that the picture represents a rumination on the fleeting vanities of life, but the curator prefers the idea that it was painted to celebrate love, possibly as a wedding commission, and it certainly looks more like that.

The painting is filled with representations of and references to antiquity, quite aside from the tale of Paris and Helen. The vast landscape that occupies most of the canvas contains depictions of wonders of the ancient world -- the pyramids, the Colossus of Rhodes, the lighthouse at Alexandria and, possibly, the hanging gardens of Babylon.

But Spicer finds a further meaning in the painting. Members of the Paris-Helen procession carry to their ships two pieces of classical sculpture, a representation of Venus and a male torso resembling the famous torso of the Belvedere at the Vatican, which inspired so many Renaissance artists.

This, Spicer interprets, is Heemskerck's way of saying what he ++ had gained during his four years in Rome, 1532 to 1536, during which the "Abduction" was painted. Spicer shows through two later Heemskerck paintings that he continued to use images of the male nude inspired by antiquity, and specifically drew on the Belvedere torso.

Further, she demonstrates how the fully muscled figure embraced at this period in Rome differed from an earlier, slender concept of the figure, which lasted longer in the north of Europe. The show also indicates the predominance of the figure in Italy, as opposed to the greater importance of detailed landscape in the Netherlands.

Heemskerck's "Abduction" is a combination of influences. Its full-formed figures and ancient monuments are a product of his stay in Italy, while the importance of landscape reflects the north.

It is also a product of its time. The depiction of ancient monuments and the seascape are elements in a painting in which the narrative was at least the nominal focus. Later, these elements could stand as independent subject matter, as shown through 17th- and 18th-century examples.

The conservation analysis, by Melanie Gifford, contributes additional knowledge about this, the earliest known oil painting on canvas by a northern painter. But this approach, important as it is, cannot be our final experience of it. Wisely, the show is set up so that we must exit through the entrance. After we have learned all the "Abduction" can teach us, we pay it another visit.

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