National Gallery Serenades 'The Chamber Music of Art'

Rare showing of prints, drawings by six masters from six centuries

No cymbals clang, no trumpets sound at the National Gallery of Art's "Six Centuries/Six Artists" exhibit. This is a show of mainly prints and drawings, and they're rightfully called the chamber music of art. They are often the artist's first thoughts, the birthing of his ideas and, as so, are tremendously exciting.

The 136 drawings and prints included speak in a subtle sotto voce, whether they are by German engraver Martin Schongauer (c. 1450-1491), German Renaissance master Albrecht Drer (1471-1528), flamboyant romantic Italian Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione (c. 1610-1664), French Rococo master Franois Boucher (1703-1770), painter-printmaker William Blake (1757-1827), or French modernist Jacques Villon (1875-1963).

These are breathtaking works of art from the 15th through the 20th centuries, rarely shown because of their fragility. They represent what Andrew Robison calls "a coming-of-age" for the National Gallery drawings and prints department. They also illustrate the collection's historical and geographic sweep.

The selection of this art was not an easy choice for Dr. Robison and his curatorial team. They have emphasized unique images, as well as recent acquisitions, in this graphics exhibit from the more than 10,000 drawings, 56,000 prints, and 2,000 rare illustrated books from the Gallery's works-on-paper cache.

The exhibit is organized as six mini-shows, with each room devoted to an individual artist. It is also a history of the National Gallery donors who have built this collection up so that it rivals those of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Morgan Library as well as the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

The 15th-century German Martin Schongauer is the first and, perhaps, the best. He's riveting in his Late Gothic spirituality and intensity, and his religious scenes - "Christ Crowned With Thorns," "Christ Carrying the Cross," "Christ Before Pilate," and others - are a triumph of the engraving technique.

His father was a goldsmith, and Schongauer learned the process from him. The cutting into copper plates from which the artist pulled his engraved prints reflects his metalsmith training, as does the force of his calligraphic line and textured compositional detail.

Rich blacks and whites intensify the images, especially those where Schongauer creates drama with architectural horizontal-and-vertical frameworks. The cross under which Christ almost collapses in "Christ Carrying the Cross" is a diagonal pointing to the close-up vertical of Golgatha.

Renaissance giant Albrecht Drer, whose prints, drawings, and books occupy the second gallery, admired Schongauer. Both he and Michelangelo copied his prints. Familiar engraved images such as "Adam and Eve," "Melencolia I," and "Knight, Death, and the Devil" shine here. Rare Drer drawings are included, as are two even rarer Schongauer drawings.

The Italian Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione takes viewers into the Baroque with his romantic energy. His religious and mythological subjects, such as Noah and Circe, are constantly on the move. Curator Robison has built up the Gallery's Castiglione holdings including three marvelous, oversized sketched drawings.

From Italy, the exhibit visits France with the pen-and-ink drawings and chalk sketches of Franois Boucher. Influenced by Castiglione, and a skilled Rococo draftsman, he drew the powdered and perfumed world of Madame de Pompadour, King Louis XV's mistress.

If Boucher showed the human spirit's lighter side, the Englishman William Blake illuminated its darker, visionary nature in the exhibit's engravings, watercolors, monotypes and pen-and-ink drawings. His series on Job is especially affecting.

The show's last artist, Jacques Villon is less well known than the others, although as first painter to King Louis XV, he had enormous influence in French artisitic circles of the mid-18th century. His drawings and shimmering color aquatints often show his lighthearted subjects to better advantage than his paintings.

* 'Six Centuries/Six Artists' is on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington through May 4.

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