Why you must go to the museum

Art critics generally pay too little attention to the painterly touch, to the manner in which a master painter can create effects and illusions with a few brushstrokes or a daub or two of paint.

They would rather discuss the ''big'' issues of style and intent, influence and originality, and whether artist ''A'' or artist ''B'' first stumbled upon a particular idea for a painting.

They fail to understand, as indeed do many laymen, that much of what an artist wants to say can only be conveyed - and grasped - through the physical nature of the medium itself; that art is largely a physical expression; and that , to a certain extent, the artist ''becomes'' the paint used, the ink splashed, or the wood that is carved.

If this were not the case, if art were merely idea and overall image, there would be no point in visiting museums. One could just as well stay home and look at reproductions of great art.

No, art is very much a matter of painterly nuances, touches, and effects. Of exact adjustments of creams to pinks to browns, smooth surfaces to rough ones, and lines to mass. Painters sometimes spend days making certain a corner of a sky in a picture is just right, or that one area of gray-green precisely complements another area of salmon-pink.

All this can only be fully experienced in front of the work itself. No reproduction of a Cezanne still life, for instance, can adequately convey the subtle transitions of planes and color, the quality of modulated surfaces, that exist in the original. And no amount of brilliant analysis of Picasso's genius and originality can substitute for the actual experience of holding one of his etchings and savoring its crisp lines and velvety blacks.

If we respect an artist, we must also respect his or her wish that the full and precise nature of his or her art be imparted to the viewer. That won't happen, however, unless we viewers sensitize ourselves to the physical dimensions of art, to its painterly touches and daubs, its delicately balanced textural and coloristic relationships, and its overall presence and impact.

We must, in short, permit the artist who paints, sculpts, makes prints, or draws the same right to present his art under the best possible conditions that we allow artists in other fields. It makes little sense to exclaim over the beautiful tone a violinist can draw from a Stradivarius, or the sensitivity with which a conductor can interpret Beethoven, and then settle for a 6-by-9-inch mechanical reproduction of the Sistine Ceiling and declare that it captures the ''essence'' of Michelangelo's genius.

Art isn't that simplistic. One of the reasons printmakers cancel or destroy their plates after a certain number of impressions is to avoid weakening the print's impact and quality. The burr on a dry point, for instance, will generally begin to rub off after as few as three or four impressions, and etching lines often begin to deteriorate after only thirty or forty impressions have been pulled. The overall image may remain for several hundred more impressions, but the print's sensitive touches, its delicate nuances of line and tone, will gradually disappear - and with them perhaps 50 to 60 percent of what the artist wanted to communicate.

It's a simple fact: If one of an artist's greatest qualities is his or her sensitivity, then any work that distorts or diminishes evidence of that sensitivity cannot be said to represent that artist fairly.

Of no one was this more true than the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. I have yet to see a reproduction, and I've seen some superb ones, that can fully convey Monet's breathtaking sensitivity to light, Renoir's passion for skin tones, Manet's profound understanding of blacks and grays, Redon's exquisite manipulation of crisp against smudged pastel surfaces, or Lautrec's control of line, value, and hue against toned paper or canvas. And that is only the half of it, for each of these artists produced works that literally shimmer with other qualities as well that cannot be duplicated in a copy or a reproduction.

The same must be said of Degas, that great painter, draftsman, sculptor, and student of ways to capture and convey movement on flat, generally quite small surfaces. If ever there was an artist with an exquisite painterly touch, it was he.

No art lover who has seen his pastels and drawings of dancers, jockeys, racehorses, and women dressing or bathing, or who has seen any of his canvases, will ever forget the extraordinary vitality that radiates from them. They are so crisply alive, so remarkably animated, that one responds to them as though to a breath of fresh air.

His painterly touch was so sensitive, alive, and electric that it alerts and activates our sensibilities as well. Before we know it, we are empathizing with a young ballet dancer as she stands, hands on hips, waiting for instructions, or as she strikes a particularly difficult pose. We watch as Degas sketches her body with delicate and broad strokes, and then smudges his pastels to capture the shimmering effect her tutu projects in the reflected light of the window.

All this is crucial to his art. His genius expressed itself as much through subtle touches as through the overall dimensions of his art. To ignore these subtleties is to ignore a very real and substantial portion of his art, and apparently to feel that Degas's artistic sensibilities were no finer than those of any talented but mediocre painter.

That of course is preposterous. And I submit in evidence Degas' ''Portrait of Marguerite de Gas.'' It is only 7 1/2 by 9 1/2 in. in size and, I suspect, was painted in less than thirty minutes. But it is a radiant, minor masterpiece that glows with life and with a great painter's masterly touch.

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