The Fortunes of War

If things had gone slightly differently on the night of December 22, 1989, the Denver Art Museum's current show Old Masters Brought to Light: European Paintings From the National Museum of Art of Romania would never have happened. Because that night, as the iron grip of reviled Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was being forcibly loosened, the museum that housed these old masters came under mortar and tank fire and was partly destroyed. Miraculously, only a handful of paintings were lost, though more than fifty were damaged, some of them severely.

The partisans who attacked the museum did so because the building doubled as the presidential palace where Ceausescu and his wife, the equally hated Elena, resided. The Ceausescus had already fled by the time the museum came under fire. Despite their hasty retreat, however, they were soon caught, and were tried and executed on Christmas morning.

It's interesting to note how little is made of these events--so relevant to Romania's National Museum of Art--in either the Old Masters show or in the handsome accompanying catalogue. In fact, dictator Ceausescu is not even mentioned. But such amnesia concerning recent history is not entirely unexpected. After all, forces representing the current Romanian government are the ones who directed rocket fire into the museum that winter night. That's something the Romanian government would now like to forget, and without its cooperation, this show could not have left Bucharest. So we'll go along with the DAM and let bygones be bygones.

Though relatively small and surely no blockbuster, Old Masters has been handsomely installed in the new Frederick C. and Jane M. Hamilton Exhibition Galleries and is well worth seeing. Organized through the Virginia-based Art Services International, a nonprofit group that facilitates loan exhibitions from around the world, it was guest-curated by Diane De Grazia of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

De Grazia, a renowned authority on European art, had her work cut out for her, and not just because she had to pick through a collection that was the target of an artillery barrage. There was also the fact that this collection isn't really a collection at all, but rather fragments of dozens of collections that have been patched together over the past century.

The core of the original collection consists of paintings gathered by King Carol I, who ruled Romania from 1881 until his death in 1914. When Carol died, his artwork became the property of the state and formed the basis for the Royal Picture Gallery. Working with Felix Bamberg, a German diplomat turned art dealer, the king had been active in purchasing pieces from members of the European nobility who were hard-pressed for cash. In this way, artifacts from the homes of the Marquis of Salamanca and the Duke of Dalmatia made their way to the Royal Palace in Bucharest.

King Carol had frequently commissioned copies of famous paintings he couldn't afford to buy, proving in the process that he was no connoisseur. Luckily for Romanian posterity, Bamberg was. And it is the German diplomat as much as the king who is responsible for many of the best things in the Old Masters show, in particular the rich assortment of Spanish art.

During the time that King Carol was putting together his collection, a number of wealthy Romanians were also buying European art. Several of these private collectors eventually wound up opening their own small museums, and by the 1920s, these institutions, which included the Simu Museum and the Stelian Museum, dotted the capital city.

The catastrophic upheavals of World War II had a profound effect on the Romanian national collection. During the war, the country was run by Nazi collaborators and occupied by German troops. Both the collaborators and the Nazis were eventually routed by the Soviet army, which propped up Romania's small communist party and put it in power. In 1947 the People's Republic of Romania was established, and the monarchy, then headed up by King Michael, Carol's grandson, was abolished.

In the early 1950s the new government seized the Royal Palace and converted it to the newly founded National Museum of Art of Romania. The government then closed many of the country's small museums, including the Simu and the Stelian, and merged their collections into the National Museum. The National Museum was further expanded with works confiscated from rural mansions.

Choosing from that artistic hodgepodge, De Grazia selected 27 paintings for Old Masters that cohesively survey European painting from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries. She made her selections in part with an eye toward including works that haven't left Romania in generations, and none of the paintings in the show has been seen in this country before. De Grazia has done her job so well that you'd never guess these works were originally brought together by bureaucrats rather than curators.

De Grazia initially divided the works according to where they had been painted, but as installed by DAM European-art curator Timothy Standring, the exhibit is organized according to subject matter. There are obvious pitfalls to that sort of approach--just look at the DAM's confusing display of its own European collection on the sixth floor--but downstairs, Standring has sidestepped them all. The show actually makes better sense in the Hamilton Galleries than it does in De Grazia's catalogue.

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