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.

The dominant theme in Old Masters is Christian imagery, which Standring has sprinkled through the series of galleries. The first two rooms are filled with depictions of the Virgin Mary and scenes from the Old Testament. Another large gallery is devoted to scenes of the Crucifixion. Finally, in a fourth and final gallery, the lives of the saints are arrayed along with other religious scenes.

Some of the strongest pieces in the show are the paintings of madonnas in the front galleries. Devotion to the Virgin was all the rage during the period surveyed by the show, and Domenico Veneziano's "Virgin and Child," a tempera on panel from 1430-1435, is a case in point. The painting lays out many of the Renaissance innovations that emanated from the Florentine school, including perspective and luminosity. Veneziano captures an exhausted Virgin holding her unruly nude Child, who is seen pulling at her garments. "Virgin and Child" has a bad crack up the middle and is covered in crazing. Such scars are typical of the paintings in Old Masters, many of which display the ravages of both time and bombardment.

A gorgeous oil on canvas by Boccaccio Boccaccino has a different style than the Veneziano--it was painted nearly 100 years later, after all--but it takes the same subject and bears the same title. In Boccaccino's painting, a placid Virgin, her head cocked to one side, holds the Child's foot and head as he stands on a table. The faces of the Virgin and Child are beautifully done, and the classic composition, with the figures posed before drapery and an open window, is exquisite.

Even to students of the genre, Veneziano and Boccaccino will be obscure names. And many of the finest paintings in the Old Masters exhibit are by artists who could fairly be called minor players. However, the collection does include some big names. Perhaps the most important painting in the show is "The Holy Family with St. John the Baptist," an oil on canvas from 1620-1622 by Flemish baroque master Jacob Jordaens. In this painting--which does not derive from a biblical story--the Holy Family is posed in a circular arrangement, their faces lit against the deep, dark shadows of the background. This lends a theatricality to the piece that is a signature of the baroque movement.

Another big-name baroque artist, Pietro da Cortona, who worked in Rome, uses the same device in the wonderful 1641 oil on canvas "The Virgin Appearing to Saint Francis." In this painting, an apparition of the Virgin and Child descends via an angel-borne cloud into a night garden where Saint Francis is praying. The background, which was originally intended to be dark, has darkened still further over the years, obscuring many details and even some of da Cortona's original figures.

This same darkening effect crops up again in "Haman Begging the Mercy of Esther," a 1655 oil on canvas by Rembrandt. Questions of authenticity have plagued many purported Rembrandts, but this one has been cleared by Holland's authoritative Rembrandt Research Project. Nonetheless, it's in terrible shape, despite having just gone through a state-of-the-art restoration. The surface is so muddy and covered with cracks that it's hard to make out much more than the main elements, and some of the crisp detailing seems to indicate recent repainting.

The large center gallery, which is devoted to the Crucifixion, contains some compelling examples of early northern European painting. "The Crucifixion," an anonymous oil on panel painted in Southern Germany during the sixteenth century, is tremendous. Christ is seen in death on the cross; on either side of him are the two thieves. Below this tragic scene is a crowd that includes soldiers and the Virgin, who has collapsed in her lamentations. Though painted in the 1500s, there is no sense of real space--the figures are simply piled on top of one another. It appears that the artist was unaware of an Italian invention from a century before: pictorial perspective.

The same ignorance of Italian innovation is seen in another, later painting of the passion, this one done in Flanders. In "Christ Carrying the Cross," an oil on panel painted between 1553 and 1560 by the artist known as the "Master of the Augsburg Ecce Homo," the dominant compositional device is the strong diagonal created by the cross. The lack of perspective is obvious as Christ struggles on his way, beset by grotesque villains who dog his every step.

The grand finale of Old Masters comes in the last gallery, where a variety of religious works, including many of the important Spanish paintings assembled by King Carol, are on display. The two mannerist-style El Grecos are really something and have generated a lot of local word of mouth, even though there are questions about their authenticity--some of them raised by De Grazia's own catalogue entries.

The two paintings have been hung side by side, and this is fitting, even though their radically different styles reflect the thirty-some years that separated their execution. In the riotous oil on canvas "The Martyrdom of Saint Maurice and the Theban Legion" of 1580-1582, El Greco shows off a tortured and awkward handling of the figures and his taste for bold clear color. The composition has been conceived as a spiral, with the figures in the foreground linked by a battle standard to those who fly through the air in the background.

The other El Greco, "The Marriage of the Virgin," an oil on canvas from 1612-1614, is thoroughly different. The figures have been lined up horizontally across the picture and the details obscured in smudgy brush strokes. The palette is distinct, too--a dusty array of tones that stand in contrast to the bright shades used in the older work.

For obvious reasons, the Old Masters show seems particularly appropriate this time of year. So when the garish holiday display at the nearby City and County Building beckons, consider instead a trip over to the DAM. The attraction there is more subtle, but it comes much closer than the snowmen and reindeer to expressing the real meaning of Christmas.

Old Masters Brought to Light: European Paintings from the National Museum of Art of Romania, through January 25 at the Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 640-4433.

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