Walters exhibit shares secrets

June 04, 1994|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

Two early 19th-century portrait miniatures at the Walters Art Gallery contain secrets shared between the person pictured and the person to whom the miniature belonged. A portrait of Princess Louisa Carlotta, daughter of King Francis I of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, shows the princess in half length on the front. Turn it over and on the back -- the part that only the owner would have seen -- is portrayed the back of the princess.

Another, tiny early 19th-century English miniature shows only the eye of the subject. In that case, only the subject and the person to whom it was given would have known the subject's identity.

These are among the objects in "Secrets of Our Own," a small but winning Walters exhibit mounted to accompany the major traveling exhibition currently running there, "Secrecy: African Art that Conceals and Reveals."

Just as the much larger exhibit shows how secrets are related to African art, so this exhibit demonstrates, through objects in the Walters' collections, that secrecy can be found around the world. Although limited to nine objects, it covers a lot of territory, from Tibet to England, and a lot of time, from the Egyptian empire to the 19th century.

It's organized around different aspects of secrecy. The miniatures are examples of secrets kept by individuals. Another section is devoted to group secrets, with religious examples. Here we have secrets concealed and revealed in different ways. A German 13th century arm reliquary that once supposedly contained an arm bone of the third-fourth century St. Pantaleon, had the bone concealed within it. But the reliquary is in the form of an arm and hand, indicating what's inside.

A third century bronze hand dedicated to the Roman god Sabazios has all sorts of animals on it in plain sight -- a lizard, a snake, a lion, a ram, etc. But only those initiated in the worship of Sabazios would have known what they meant.

Elsewhere, a section on the kinds of secrets art conceals includes an Egyptian bronze statue of a falcon, symbol of the god Horos (664-332 B.C.) that conceals the bones of a bird within it.

Other items range from a Tibetan 18th century Buddhist personal protector statuette to an early 17th century Flemish painting of a collector's "cabinet," the room in which he kept his collection of objects from the worlds of nature, science and the arts. A 17th century viewer would have had fun discovering the painting's "secrets," such as how the five senses are indicated: a person sniffs a flower, a monkey eats grapes, etc.

This little exhibit leaves you wanting more -- which means it does its job well.

ART REVIEW

What: "Secrets of Our Own"

Where: The Walters Art Gallery, 600 N. Charles St.

When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, through July 17

Admission: $4 adults, $3 seniors, 18 and under free; free entry 11 a.m. to noon Saturdays

$ Call: (410) 547-9000

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