'Small' art can be exhilarating

Great art takes time to appreciate, even if it is as straightforward as a Persian miniature or a Renaissance portrait. Two exhibitions on view at the National Gallery Art in Washington, "Wonders of the Age: Masterpieces of Early Safavid Painting, 1501-1576" and "Old Master Paintings From the Collection of Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza," are small in size but so rich in content that they exhaust the viewer even as they exhilarate him with their intricacies. They ably prove the point that abstract art, although more abstruse, is often easier to analyze than the figurative masterpiece.

Illustrations from the "Book of Kings," the "Quintet," and other, lesser-known works such as "Rose Garden" are among about 80 paintings and drawings on display. they are on loan from such major public institutions as the British Museum and the Metropolitan.

The Thyssen collection is also the fruit of a father-son collaboration. Heinrich Thyssen, son of a German steel magnate, first begana collecting in the 1930s, having acquired through marriage and adoption by his Hungarian father-in-law a new nationality and a new name, Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza. German primitive, early Flemish, and finally the Italian Renaissance painting formed the core of the collection of 900 works, which are on view in the family villa of La Favorita on the outskirts of Lugano, in Switzerland. But the elder baron believed that art decayed in the 18th century, and it fell to his son, the current Baron Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, to pick up the standard of modernism.

The result is that the collection now embraces even the abstract expressionists and is considered in toto the finest private collection in the world, second only to that of Queen Elizabeth II. The gallery is showing 57 paintings, ranging from the 14th through the 18th centuries and concentrating on the Old Masters.

The exhibitions thus have in common an atmosphere of tension, in which both the second-generation Shah and the second-generation Thyssen struggled, between aesthetic and moral values. But there are other intriguing parallels as well. Many of the paintings in the Thyssen show date from the same period as the Persian exhibition, the 16th century, and one could hardly hope to find a more dramatic illustration of cultural differences between East and West than a comparison between Palma Vecchio's High Renaissance "Portrait of a Young Woman Called 'La Bella' and Mirza-Ali's "Youth With a Golden Pillow." The exquisite detail, brilliant coloration, and lavish patterning that mark the miniatures in Persia's national epic influenced the ornamental tendencies of later Safavid portraiture, in which individuality was subordinated to design.

In the Italian and Flemish portraits that dominate the Thyssen exhibition, however, we are dealing with three dimensions rather than two, psychologically and physically. The subject is definitely separate from the background, not a part of it, and the emphasis is upon his or her uniqueness as a human being.

Given the international situation with regard to Iran, the exhibition offers the American public an opportunity to familiarize itself with the Islamic tradition through its greatest artworks. The National Gallery admits that it did go through a period of "soul-searching" before it opened the exhibition in December, but decided, according to a spokesman, that "if it didn't open we would be bowing to politicization." (The gallery is not impervious to politicization, however, as the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tehran has demanded the return of two works by de Kooning and Dubuffet which it lent the gallery. But because of President Carter's block on the release of all Iranian assets, the paintings have not gone back and the matter has been referred to the Treasury Department.)

But in the final analysis the most important aspect of these two exhibitions is not their political implications, their religious ramification, or even the interesting comparisons they suggest. Quite simply they permit the visitor to see examples of the best Persian and Western painting under one roof. While some of the most spectacular paintings in the Thyssen collection were considered too valuable to travel to this country (such as Frans Hals's "Family Group," which once belonged to an American collector), there are consolations of such quality that they make that catch-all word "masterpiece" once again meaningful.

How does one single out for special comment paintings by Duccio, Van Eyck, Cranach, Memling, Bellini, Titian, Rubens, Rembrandt, Goya, El Greco, Watteau, Fragonard -- the list goes on and on like a who's who of Western European painting.

For anyone who loves painting, who has forgotten what feeling in a portrait or religious painting looks like, this is a show that cannot be missed. My three personal favorites from "La Favorita": Petrus Christus's Eyck's annunciation diptych in the ghostly grisaille, or "gray painting," he invented to imitate stone sculpture, and Carpaccio's "Young Knight in a Landscape," the earliest full-length, life-size portrait painted in Italy -- in texture and detail as rich as a medieval tapestry, in aura as portentous as a dream.

The Thyssen exhibition will continue at the National Gallery through Feb. 17, then travel to the Detroit Institute of Arts, March 8-May 11; the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, May 29- Aug. 3; the Cleveland Museum of Art, Sept. 2- Oct. 26 ; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Nov. 15-Jan. 18, 1981; the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, April 25-June 28, 1981; the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery in kansas City, July 18-Sept. 20, 1981; and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Oct. 9-Dec. 6, 1981.

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