One good reason to look at art closely

`Deja vu' exhibit reminds viewers how to really see

Art Review

October 07, 2007|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun art critic

The exhibition of French painting that opens today at the Walters Art Museum is the kind of museum show that's the opposite of a blockbuster. Instead, Deja vu: Revealing Repetition in French Masterpieces is a narrowly focused, intellectually rigorous and exhaustively researched inquiry into a topic few people other than art historians, curators and artists themselves ever think deeply about.

But if that sounds like a snooze, it's not. One reason is that the paintings on view are, for the most part, really good-looking artworks and some of them are quite spectacular. They're worth looking at, no matter what the curatorial premise is.

The main reason to go to this show is that it makes you look. Really look, that is, not merely glance at a picture while casually strolling past it, or trying to divide your attention between the artworks and the wall labels and text panels next to them.

Underneath its high scholarly trappings, this is really a show about learning to look at art closely, intelligently and - dare we say it? - with a kind of passion that usually only art historians, curators and artists themselves bring to looking at pictures.

There's joy in that kind of engagement with artworks that's a tonic to eye, mind and heart, and everyone should be able to experience it because it is, after all, the main reason art museums exist in the first place.

Take, for example, one of the prides of the Walters' permanent collection, Jean-Leon Gerome's lyrical depiction of the French equivalent of an Old West gunfight: Duel after the Masquerade.

On a snow-covered clearing bordered by dark woods, one of the combatants, dressed in the costume of Pierrot, a clownish stock figure that would have been familiar to Parisian theater-goers, collapses mortally wounded into the arms of his friends.

Meanwhile his opponent, wearing Native American garb, is hurriedly escorted from the scene of the killing.

The picture was the hit of the 1857 Paris Salon and it helped cement Gerome's reputation when it was purchased soon afterward by one of the royal dukes.

Two years later, museum founder William Walters acquired a slightly smaller version of the painting, which Gerome had produced along with scores of lithographic reproductions and photographs in various sizes, all of which helped spread the picture's fame to popular culture and literature.

Several of these variants are on view in the Walters show, and they reveal that Gerome inserted a number of significant changes in the copies he made of his original composition.

For example, in the first version, the departing victor seems to be accepting hearty congratulations from his companion for surviving the duel. But in later versions, he turns his head away as if shamed by his deed.

It's a small detail, and if the paintings weren't hanging side-by-side you might miss it altogether. But seeing them together makes you look, even if you just feel the difference without knowing at first exactly what it is.

Your eye searches the images for a clue to why they seem different, and when you find it, it's one of those Aha! moments. You feel like you've discovered something interesting with your eyes.

Practically everybody loves Monet, and, later in the exhibition, there are a couple of the artist's famous images of the Cathedral at Rouen, which he painted many times over the course of his career under different weather and lighting conditions.

But how did Monet manage to show that it's morning in one picture and evening in another, or that it's wet and foggy in one and bright blue skies in the other?

When you look just at the rainy-day painting or the night scene, you tend to take it for granted. You enjoy the picture, and who cares how he did it?

But when they're hanging side-by-side, it makes you want to explore the differences: How in one the painted highlights are slathered on in thick swipes of pink and gold that give the impression of the sun's slanting rays when it's low on the horizon; how in another it's all cool mauves and purples that re-create the shimmering effect of moonlight.

And you think to yourself: No wonder they called it Impressionism! When you pay that close attention to the surface, every dribble, rivulet and daub of pigment jumps out at you and you suddenly see what a magical concatenation of colors Monet orchestrated in order to produce the illusion of an ephemeral, transient perception.

There are all kinds of lessons to be learned from this kind of patient looking that really have nothing to do with the whys and wherefores of repetition in art history, or even with French painting for that matter.

There are also some cool new toys to pique your interest, including a cell phone audio tour, a video display that lets you eavesdrop on visitors to the Louvre Museum in Paris, where the original version of one of the Walters' masterpieces hangs, and an interactive computer terminal that lets you design your own exhibition of Monet's haystack paintings.

But what's important about this show is that it ever so subtly coaxes you to use your eyes to really look at what's in front of you.

Psychologists will tell you that we mostly see what we're told to see, or what we want to see or even what we're afraid of seeing.

The more we learn about human perception the more evident it becomes that there's no clear dividing line separating the nexus of eye and brain, and that what we perceive as being "out there" is in large part a function of what's already going on inside us.

You may not give a hoot for French painting, but learning to really look at what's in front of your nose, carefully, intelligently and patiently, is one of those basic skills we all need to practice from time to time, no matter how much we think we already know - about art or life.

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