Explosive motion, exquisite stillness: two enriching exhibitions

Two very special exhibitions are enriching the New York art scene this summer: ``Master Drawings by G'ericault,'' at the Pierpont Morgan Library, and ``Luis Mel'endez: Spanish Still Life Painter,'' at the National Academy of Design. Both are serious and successful attempts to honor these artists, and they should surprise all those who know G'ericault only as the creator of ``The Raft of the Medusa,'' and those who hold that nothing of real quality was produced in 18th-century Spain before Goya. The big lesson to be learned from the more than 100 works on paper in the Morgan Library show is that Th'eodore G'ericault (1791-1824) was one of the great draftsmen of the 19th century. In one quickly dashed-off or carefully delineated sketch, drawing, wash study, or watercolor after another, he proved not only that he had assimilated what the past had to offer, but that he was able to bring what he had learned from Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Rubens, and Titian into the immediate present, and in ways that both advanced tradition and helped lay the groundwork for the greatness of mid- to late-19th-century French art.

His life may have been short, but his influence on other artists -- especially his younger contemporary Eug`ene Delacroix and the other members of the French Romantic movement -- was considerable. During his lifetime, however, the general public knew him only for a few published lithographs and three paintings, ``Charging Chasseur,'' ``Wounded Cuirassier,'' and ``The Raft of the Medusa.'' Since that time, public sales, exhibitions, and scholarly publications have brought to light some 220 paintings and many hundreds of drawings, most of them left in his studio at his death.

His paintings tended to be grand and impassioned, and dealt primarily with mythological and historical themes and dramatic current events. Among his favorite subjects were mounted cavalrymen, turbulent battle scenes, massed public spectacles, and horses in urban and rural settings. The last-named included thoroughbreds standing for their portraits or being exercised, heavy-set draft horses pulling wagons or being shod, or powerful stallions waiting to be sold at market.

But whatever his subject, it was given form and life in a style concerned as much with liveliness as with accuracy. As a draftsman, G'ericault was never static, never merely descriptive. Even his portrait studies and sketches of reclining models exude an aura of restlessness, as though being totally still was somehow antithetical to true art.

His technical approach ranged from the passionately direct to the unabashedly elegant, from the bluntness of ``Mounted Carabinier Seen from the Back'' and ``The Horse Market'' to the exquisitely subtle ``Horses Being Exercised.'' If the former embody raw vitality and power, and seem the epitome of masculine aggressiveness, then the latter represents the kind of delicacy of touch we have learned to appreciate in the drawings of Lautrec and Redon.

These qualities occasionally collided head-on, as in the truly extraordinary ``Horse Being Attacked by a Lion'' and ``Fight Between Cavalrymen.'' In both these images, maximum explosive energy and a subtle formal sensibility were kept in such exquisitely controlled balance that a viewer in 1985 can actually experience much of what G'ericault himself felt while working on these drawings roughly 165 years ago.

It is this sense of life and energy captured, distilled, ``packaged,'' and then released to the viewer with a startling sense of immediacy that dominates this exhibition even more than the display of brilliant draftsmanship that stamps almost everything in it. G'ericault had an almost limitless supply of passion at his disposal, but he was also able to modulate and direct it for maximum effect. Like a good boxer, he knew how to control his resources, how always to keep something in reserve until that one decisive moment when total effort was required. In this he had few equals, and one supreme master -- Rubens. If he was never able to match the Flemish artist's accomplishments, most of the blame must be laid at the feet of Rubens's mind-boggling genius. It is also true, however, that G'ericault might have come much closer had he not died at age 33.

After its closing at the Morgan Library on July 31, this superb exhibition travels to the San Diego Museum of Art (Aug. 31-Oct. 20), and to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (Nov. 9-Jan. 5, 1986). Luis Mel'endez

Except for the fact that both were painters, G'ericault and Luis Mel'endez had little in common. Whereas the former delighted in depicting action in highly extravagant compositions, the latter focused on the gentler and more static virtues of still-life painting, and in compositions that extolled the quietly monumental over the erratic or melodramatic.

Mel'endez was born in Naples, Italy, in 1716, but moved to Madrid a year later with his parents, and he lived and worked there nearly his entire career. His earliest training was with his father, Francisco, a painter of miniatures. This was followed by extensive formal schooling in portrait painting under Louis Michel van Loo, three years at the Royal Academy, and finally a prolonged visit to Italy to study the art of the past.

Although his career was far from impressive -- his one moment of glory was the acquisition of 45 of his still-life paintings by King Charles III -- the work he produced between the late 1750s and his death in 1780 have assured him a solid, if modest, place in Spanish art history.

The majority of his 90 known still lifes are highly realistic and relatively small oils of fruits, vegetables, and kitchen and dining-table utensils interspersed with fish and fowl ready to be prepared, occasional breads and cheeses, and almost anything else that might be lying about in an 18th-century Spanish kitchen. These were carefully, if apparently informally, arranged, and painted with an eye as much attuned to exact appearance as to the kind of coloristic and tonal nuances and subtleties usually associated with the very finest still-life paintings.

The result is a body of work that is remarkably solid, warm, and tantalizingly tempting to the touch, and that proves most conclusively that Spanish art between Vel'azquez and Goya wasn't quite the wasteland it has been accused of being.

This excellent exhibition was organized by the Meadows Museum, Southern Methodist University, and curated by Dr. Eleanor Tufts. It will remain on view at the National Academy through Sept. 1.

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