A TRAVELING exhibition of great works of art from a distinguished institution opens all kinds of doors to the imagination for the viewer. That's one of the reasons museums do them. It is one thing to see a Velazquez painting in a reproduction, but it is another thing to stand in its presence.
This, of course, is a truism about art in general. Whether it is dance, theater, music, painting, or sculpture, the work of art loses a lot in mere mechanical reproduction. Sometimes what is lost is a layer or two of meaning. Sometimes what is lost is the opportunity to respond to a work of art as deeply as the viewer has the heart to do so (and the work merits).
The Art Institute of Chicago is currently hosting a terrific traveling exhibit from the National Gallery of Ireland. "Master European Paintings" is an eclectic show offering 44 mostly exquisite examples of 15th, 16th, and 17th century master craftsmen's work. The paintings roam over mythical, religious, genre and historical subjects, formal portraiture, and landscape. There's scope here, all right, and room for the viewer's own reflections on the past, on truth and beauty, and on the pursuit of meaning i n art.
I cannot find a real thread of meaning - either aesthetic or moral - that leads easily from one piece to the next as I look at the work, except this: Once again, I feel among so many of the pieces that effort of the artist to reify profound truths, to participate in something great, or to picture forth what he understands of the nature of reality.
Not all these works are profound. But most still express something perhaps more scarce in our own time. "Spring and Summer" (1640) by Bernardo Strozzi is an over-door painting featuring two lovely, full-figured women as the personification of summer and spring. They carry the harvest of their respective seasons, their hair bedecked with flowers and wheat in exquisite disarray. They represent a robustness and joy in life that is neither sentimental nor decadent. As airy as the subject is, the light that e manates from this magnificently painted picture still manages to touch on some deep appreciation of nature.
The many portraits of the exhibition reveal as much of the sitter's character (even when they may have been meant to flatter) as they do of the artist's skill. Sir Joshua Reynolds's sumptuous portrait of "The Earl of Bellamont" (1773) features the vain seducer cloaked in pink satin over white, a plumed hat jauntily astride his arrogant head. The viewer's eye sweeps around the canvas, lingering on the rich details of costume and drapery, but all the finery of Solomon could not disguise the sensualism and hubris of this handsome strutting peacock.
In sharp contrast to the earl is Willem Drost's "Bust of a Man Wearing a Large-Brimmed Hat" (c. 1654). A student of Rembrandt, Drost captured his sensitive subject with the skill of the master, his golden light appearing to radiate from within the figure. The man seems to me to be intelligent, perceptive, perhaps touched by sorrow or some burden of the world, his beautiful eyes both frank and sad. He is costumed in some made-up finery, not of the period, possibly a studio prop such as Rembrandt himself o ften used.
In "Portrait of a Gentleman and His Two Children" (c. 1565) by Giovan Battista Moroni, the subject embraces his little ones in paternal care. The older girl watches the viewer with her father's steady gaze, her toddler sibling looks to her. There is such tenderness in this solemn family, some scholars have conjectured that it might be a self-portrait of the artist with his children. (The name of Moroni's hometown, Albino, is inscribed in the portrait.) But whoever it is, his soul shines through him.
Jacob Van Ruisdael's "The Castle of Bentheim" (1653) proposes a realistic-looking landscape that at no time actually existed. The masterly piece was painted when the artist was only 24 years old. He placed a real castle on an unreal mount and felled a tree in the foreground (a Dutch symbol for "vanitas" or the temporality of things), creating a heroic landscape.
Thomas Gainsborough's more natural (if luscious and dramatic) landscape of chalk pits near Suffolk borrows from Dutch 17th-century landscape painting. But its simple beauty speaks more to real experience than does the formal elegance and artifice of so many of the paintings.
For that reason, too, the genre paintings (scenes of everyday life) in the show seem, in some ways, closer to contemporary sensibility. What, after all, have we to do with aristocrats? Whether it is Jan Steen's agitating picture of abusive school discipline in "The Village School" or Hendrick Avercamp's rustic "Scene on the Ice" of village folk cavorting in winter games, the ordinary lives of ordinary people speak more to our own daily experience than fantasies of wealth and class.
And still the genre paintings miss something, too. They tell part of the story of human experience that may be most accessible to us today, but is still only a fraction of the drama - just as the more formal paintings disclose other aspects of the human drama.
And so I come to the one painting in the entire exhibit capable of opening it up for me like a door. It is Velazquez's "Kitchen Maid with the Supper at Emmaus" (1618).
This early work of the great Spanish master is modest in size (21.4 by 46.02 in.) and subject matter. A young Moorish maid pauses to listen, arrested in her menial work by something she overhears. In the background sits Jesus at table with a disciple. He holds a loaf of bread in his hand. He is about to break it.
In the story of Emmaus, as told in the book of Luke, the women followers of Jesus came to the disciples and told them that their master was risen. But the men did not believe them. Then, as two of the disciples walked to Emmaus, and as they talked sadly together, Jesus came to them and spoke to them of the Scriptures. But they did not know him. And then he sat down to dinner with them in Emmaus at their request. When he took bread, blessed it, and broke it, they recognized him at last, and he vanished o ut of their sight.
Velazquez painted many such genre scenes as the "Kitchen Maid," and there is a very similar painting (called a bodegon) without the figures of Jesus and his disciple in the Art Institute's possession. It is also a very great painting. But what the Irish Museum's painting holds over it is several more layers of meaning.
Velazquez's kitchen maid might be any poor girl hovering between childhood and young womanhood. But she is lowly, despised, very young, and female. And in the "Emmaus" piece, her drama is the drama of faithfulness, the drama of the women and children of the New Testament.
Standing in the presence of this painting is quite different from seeing it in the catalog or on a slide. Standing before it, I feel the somber colors of the maiden's dreary world threaten almost to envelop her. But she pauses, struck, perhaps, by Jesus' words or perhaps only by the tone of his voice. And light falls dimly across her face where she has turned toward that voice.
This maiden's mundane little world, so different from that of the highly dramatic world of the other religious pictures in the show - Mattia Preti's "The Beheading of John the Baptist" and Orazio Gentileschi's "David and Goliath," for example - speaks gently of weighty matters.
Still, the "Kitchen Maid" helps one look more deeply at a painting like "John the Baptist," as well. The soldier and the court official confer matter-of-factly in darkness. The soldier's sword is raised, but not yet to strike. John only is bathed in light, and he is not afraid. Standing before this painting, the viewer can see how Preti wanted us to understand that the drama is no fiction, but historical fact - that he wants us to experience it as fact. "It is a very raw, aggressive naturalism," says Lar ry Feinberg, associate curator for European painting at the Art Institute of Chicago. "He's making things more intimate than is comfortable for the viewer."
And that, of course, is one function of art (one among many), to shake up complacency, to cause us to think more deeply, and to remind us that real human beings faced the struggle for meaning bravely, like John, and faithfully, like the maiden. `Master European Paintings From the National Museum of Ireland' will be at the Art Institute of Chicago through Aug. 9 and then can be seen at the De Young Museum of Art, San Francisco (Sept. 14 through Dec. 6), the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Jan 13. through March 18, 1993), and the IBM Gallery of Art and Science, New York (April 27 through June 26, 1993).