A failure of context, but not of content Exhibit: A fine show of 15th-century manuscripts doesn't fulfill the promise implied by its title.

January 25, 1998|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

With his second exhibition, the Walters Art Gallery's recently appointed manuscript curator, Will Noel, takes the Walters' continuing series of small manuscript shows to a new level of significance.

But he also, strangely, leaves unaddressed a central question the show raises. The result is a fine but at the same time somewhat frustrating show.

Called "The Origins of Dutch Painting," it complements "Masters of Light," the Walters' current exhibit of 17th-century paintings from Utrecht. As the 17th century was the great age of Dutch painting, the 15th century was the great age of Dutch manuscript illustration, and "Origins" presents a group of 15th-century examples.

This series of shows has always showcased illuminated manuscripts from the Walters' own collection, the second-largest in the United States after the Pierpont Morgan Library's in New York. But this exhibit includes works borrowed from four other collections: the Morgan, the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Johns Hopkins University and a private collection.

The items on loan, seven of the show's 22 works, add breadth and depth, giving a fuller dimension to the show's exploration of works from several centers, showing stylistic differences, outside influences and works by leading masters. (The masters are often identified not by their names but by a characteristic of their work, such as Masters of the Dark Eyes, or by the name of a famous person who owned one of the artist's books, such as Master of Catherine of Cleves.)

But the show doesn't address the question implied by its title. If these are the origins of Dutch paintings, are there characteristics that carry over from these works to 17th-century painting in Utrecht?

Question remains

The answer is largely no. One of the paintings in the Utrecht show, Hendrick Ter Brugghen's "The Crucifixion With the Virgin and St. John" (about 1625), looks back to earlier northern art. It has something in common with the manuscript show's "Crucifixion" by the Zweder Masters from the Missal of Eberhard von Greiffenklau (about 1430-1435). One can see similarities, such as the elongated, copiously bleeding Christ figure.

But the eyes of 17th-century Utrecht were on Italy, especially Caravaggio, so these manuscript paintings qualify as "origins" of later Dutch painting primarily by reason of being from the same place at an earlier date. Had a statement to that effect been made somewhere in this show, the viewer would not be left wondering whether some crucial aspect of later Dutch painting that carried through from the 15th century had been left unexplained.

Otherwise, however, the show can hardly be faulted. It begins with a half-dozen works from Utrecht, pointing out stylistic differences between, for instance, a work from the school of the Master of Margaret of Cleves (about 1410-1420) and one by the Zweder masters (about 1435-1440), the later one somewhat influenced by Flemish artist Jan van Eyck. Works from Delft and Haarlem follow. The soft tones and subtle borders of Delft are easy to distinguish from the intense colors, spiky lines and eye-catching, even razzle-dazzle, borders of Haarlem.

A section on influences offers some arresting comparisons. A German engraving by Israhel van Meckenem of "Christ Washing the Feet of the Disciples" (about 1480), with the Last Supper shown in the background, was clearly the basis for the illustration of the same subject in a 1488 Dutch Book of Hours. Not only are the two depicted scenes the same, but the pictures share many details, from the clustering of figures to the arched opening, the beams overhead, the checkerboard floor and the rectangular window with a cross motif in the background.

The show ends with several examples from Leiden, including two works by the curious Masters of the Dark Eyes. One can certainly see how they got their name, for the eyes of the figures are clearly outlined with dark color, as if sunken.

Noel says he hopes this show will be followed by more loans VTC among Baltimore institutions and between the two greatest American illuminated manuscript collections, the Morgan and the Walters. If so, the institutions and the viewing public will inevitably benefit.

Manuscripts

What: "The Origins of Dutch Painting: Manuscripts From the Fifteenth Century"

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

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; through April 26

Tickets: $6; $4 seniors; $3 college students; $2 ages 6-17

Call: 410-547-9000

Pub Date: 1/24/98

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