Bold color, stunning images Art: The Walters Art Gallery has acquired a dazzling manuscript from Ethiopian art's finest period

Fine Arts.

September 29, 1998|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

Across from the first page of his gospel is the picture of St. John. He sits writing the gospel with a red pen in red ink. He's dressed in robes of bright blue, yellow and red, a red and yellow halo encircles his head, and his huge black eyes stare out of the page with a penetrating gaze.

It's a bold image that makes an indelible impression and typical of the rare Ethiopian Gospel Book from which it comes. This latest acquisition of the Walters Art Gallery will go on view for the first time during the Walters' First Thursday hours this week.

The manuscript was created during the greatest period of Ethiopian art, the 15th and 16th centuries. "It's the best I've ever seen, and it's in stunning condition," says Walters manuscript curator Will Noel. "It consolidates a core group of objects in the Ethiopian collection."

The Walters has been building a collection of Ethiopian art for several years and now has 43 works, including a 15th century cross, an icon from about 1480 attributed to the artist Fere Seyon, and a rare liturgical fan from about 1500.

Bought from a manuscript dealer in London, the work comes to the Walters at a good time. When the 1974 building, now closed for renovation, reopens in 2001, Ethiopian art will have its own display area, and it will include a manuscript.

Because of their sensitivity to light, manuscripts cannot be on permanent display. They must be rotated. Until now, the gallery has owned only two Ethiopian manuscripts, and it needed one more so that there can always be a manuscript on display. The others are from the 14th and 18th centuries.

The newly acquired book, 12 1/4 by 10 inches, has 11 full-page illustrations and 12 other ornamented pages. Aside from pictures of Gospel writers Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the illustrations deal with the life of Christ, from the nativity to the crucifixion.

"You can see these pictures from a long way away," Noel says. "They have very bold, bright colors, simple and large-scale figures. But at the same time, seen up close there is a variety of delicate linear patterning. From 20 feet or three inches away, the eye is never bored.

And there is a monumental quality to these images, but they are also genuinely charming. I think they will be easy for Baltimore to appreciate and understand."

The Walters Art Gallery, at 600 North Charles St., is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. The Ethiopian manuscript will go on view for the first time from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday (during the gallery's First Thursday opening) and will remain on view through the end of the year.

During First Thursday hours the gallery is open free. Otherwise admission is $3 adults; $2 seniors, students and young adults 18 to 25; $1 ages 6 to 17. For information call 410-547-9000.

Bodies of water

For more than a decade, photographer Connie Imboden has concentrated on the nude, usually women, usually in water. Her black-and-white images, incorporating distortions and reflections, work on several levels. They show the nude in ways never seen before; they often possess a dreamlike surreality; sometimes they probe psychological depths; and their abstract lyricism of line, form and volume can create a kind of visual chamber music.

In her most recent series, now on view at Gomez Gallery, Imboden goes further in the direction of abstraction than ever before. She photographs individual parts of the body -- the palm of a hand, a foot, even a heel -- so that they may appear to be other organic or inorganic forms, or simply pure abstract form in light.

Number 3 in the Gomez show (these are all untitled) actually consists of a finger, a heel and their reflections, but photographed so that they seem to be a hand holding an elongated, almost fluid leaf glowing with an inner light.

Another image of a heel and its reflection, Number 8, might be an abstract sculpture by Constantin Brancusi. But then one notices the hairs at the bottom of the picture that suggest this is part of the human anatomy.

Strangely, these works combine seductive sensuality, eerie repellence and lyrical beauty. One always expects Imboden to exhaust her body-and-water subject matter, but she never does. Here, she's as freshly creative as ever.

Nancy Scheinman, also at Gomez, has taken her art to a new level, too. Her narrative paintings are larger now, and so they look less like medieval manuscript illuminations. But they still contain some aspects of medieval art: multiplicity of scenes, shifts in scale, elaborate borders.

Typically, as in "On a Summer's Eve, Three Travelers III" and "The Moon Was in Her House," a Scheinman painting contains a major figure around whom are scenes that seem to be from her life. These pictures don't require deciphering so much as stories that might explain them. Scheinman's narrative is for implication and suggestion, but her visual gift is bold, brightly colored images filled with flora, fauna, human figures and patterning in sensuous profusion.

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