A Different Perspective Art beat: Museum guards can quickly tell you what they like and why -- and more.

April 06, 1996|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

The American artist James McNeill Whistler had a wit like a lash. He once said of critic John Ruskin that since his pretentions to knowledge of art derived from the fact he spent his life surrounded by pictures, then the policeman at London's National Gallery might make an equal claim.

Maybe Ruskin deserved the stripe. But not the cop -- for not all of the people who watch over the art in museums are immune to its effects or ignorant about what they guard.

Consider R. Hanson Ludwig. He stands in the Walters Art Gallery before a canvas by Maerten van Heemskerck titled "Panoramic Fantasy with the Abduction of Helen" (1535).

"It runs the gamut of objects from myth and reality. There's the Colossus of Rhodes, the ruins of Atlantis, the Hanging Gardens. I like the action in the foreground -- the sacking of Troy and the carrying off of Helen."

Mr. Ludwig is all confidence. He has spotted a joke in the painting. It involves pigs.

"I think it's the artist's way of saying that despite our best efforts life will go on with or without us."

And who is R. Hanson Ludwig to offer this interpretation? He's one of the Walters' uniformed security officers.

Mr. Ludwig drifts up to a 1640 painting by Trophime Bigot titled "Judith and Holophernes." It's the tale of the Jewish heroine who beheads an Assyrian general to save her people.

"I like the immediacy of the painting. The action. I like the fact that it is fraught with passion but at the same time passionless. If you look at his [Holophernes'] face he obviously is in terror. He's dying. But look at the women. They've come to do a job, and they're going to do it. There's no passion in their faces."

Patricia Lockhart is one of Mr. Ludwig's custodial colleagues at the Walters. She leads a visitor to her second favorite object in the museum (her favorite, a Faberge egg, is on loan). It is "View of an Ideal City." It is very popular with the public. It is an unattributed work of an Italian city square which the literature says "exemplifies Renaissance principles of urban planning."

"It gives you the illusion that you could step right into the painting. It makes you think of a city back in the old days when people got along and would just walk around minding their own business or come up and say hello."

She smiles and thinks of Mount Vernon Place in spring. She is 39 and likes to describe herself as "a versatile person."

Ms. Lockhart has worked at the Walters for six years. She moves to the next gallery and draws attention to Raphael's "Madonna of the Candelabra" (1513-14). She believes the painting reveals how Raphael's art was evolving at the time.

"This painting has more dimension. It's more modern. It has a softer look."

"It makes me smile"

When William Landrum comes to work at the Baltimore Museum of Art on a rainy day, he heads straight for Frank Stella's "Abra Variation III" (1969). It hangs in the new wing. It has been described by an expert as "tough and even grating."

Not to Mr. Landrum. The 41-year-old Baltimorean actually visits "Abra Variation III" every day. "Somehow it makes you smile. At least it makes me smile."

"Abra Variation III" was one of the first pictures he saw when he started at the BMA two years ago.

"When I walked in, the picture jumped right out at me. There is something about this particular painting that I do like."

He is asked, why?

"It's the colors [colors described by the same expert as 'conventionally pretty pastel tones, normally innocuous and decorative']. The very bright colors. It just makes you feel happy. It's a cheerful painting."

Mr. Landrum has learned a lot at the BMA. He was made aware that the Cone Sisters were hometown girls, and he's proud of that. As he rotates among the museum's 11 galleries, he learns more and more and develops his own opinions. He becomes confident in sharing them.

"Take the Old Masters. When you look at the pictures there and the people back in time you see how they used paintings as photography. They couldn't take pictures so they had to paint. To me it's educational; I pick up a lot of things."

Mr. Landrum's favorite among the older paintings is Anthony van Dyck's "Rinaldo and Armida" (1629). He likes the story, derived from an epic by the Italian poet Torquato Tasso. He likes the romance of the work. He likes the bigness of it. He likes the fleshy goddess Armida and her sleeping lover in breastplate probably dreaming of the pleasures he will wake to.

Mr. Landrum understands. "It's a myth. It's a story of a warrior. He goes out to fight and they send a goddess out to kill him. But eventually they fall in love. There's a whole story behind it."

He points to the wild roses and lilies. He sees the sleeping Christian knight and the goddess doting over him. All this is set within a context of billowing clouds and fluttering Cupids.

The picture has captured Mr. Landrum as surely as Rinaldo has (( captured Armida.

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