Melbourne Calling

An Aussie collection of European masterpieces will grace the DAM all summer.

Truth be told, Standring, the museum's curator of painting and sculpture, is often out of the country. Sometimes he's pursuing British paintings in London for the Berger Collection, which is housed at the DAM but not owned by the museum. Other times, he's off in Italy doing research. Wherever he was, when he returned, the job of organizing the Denver version of the show fell to him.

And it has been laid out according to Standring's plan, with input from a variety of sources, including exhibition designers, marketing specialists and members of the DAM's infamous education department, which has included annoying interactive gimmicks in a number of recent big shows. Here, for instance, visitors can try on replicas of costumes seen in one of the paintings. (I shudder to think what visitors would be expected to try on were there a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit in the DAM's galleries.)

Standring gave me a tour of the show a week or so ago, while the very last touches were being put in place. (Australia's Dame Edna, in town for her Broadway revue, was scheduled to go through that same day.) Over the years, I've had an ongoing discussion with Standring in which I've been highly critical of his often outlandish installation decisions. He will, at times, create disorienting and odd comparisons in which two or more stylistically and historically disparate artifacts are presented together. He practices this approach in the permanent sixth-floor display he oversees.

"Weeping Woman," by Picasso.
"Weeping Woman," by Picasso.
"Portrait of Manuel Humbert," by Modigliani.
"Portrait of Manuel Humbert," by Modigliani.


Through September 9
For tickets: 1-888-903-0278
Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway

From my point of view, his installation style has never worked. But until I saw European Masterpieces, I hadn't fully grasped what he was attempting to accomplish. Now that I do understand what he's up to, I've been forced to alter my views. Whereas before I had been uncomfortable with his approach, I am now absolutely opposed to it.

Standring's self-professed goal is to "deconstruct art history." He said this to me as we began our walk through European Masterpieces...backward! (To fully understand this show, I had to return later -- without Standring -- and work from front to back, as exhibition visitors will, and not the other way around.)

The show begins with some of the oldest pieces and ends with some of the newest ones, but this is misleading, because it suggests the exhibit will follow an orderly, historical course, which it does not.

The first gallery, painted a deep terra-cotta red, is filled with exquisite paintings devoted to religious subjects, most of them by Italian painters. I disagree with Standring on many things, but there is at least one thing on which we totally agree: Sassetta's "Burning of a Heretic," a tempera and gold leaf on wood panel done in the 1420s, is riveting. The diminutive painting by the Siennese Renaissance master was originally part of an altarpiece. More stylistically advanced, since it was created in the late-Renaissance style of Raphael, is the sumptuous "Holy Family With St. Jerome, a Female Martyr and the Infant St. John," an oil on wood panel from the 1550s, by Bolognese master Prospero Fontana.

Also choice is a Flemish painting that's more late medieval than full-blown Renaissance, Hans Memling's "The Man of Sorrows in the Arms of the Virgin," an oil and gold leaf on wood panel from the 1470s.

But contemplation of these richly and subtly detailed works is viciously intruded upon by something in the second gallery that is clearly visible from the first. It stopped me dead in my tracks. On the back wall of the second gallery, Standring has created a pairing that is so violent from a stylistic standpoint that it constitutes a kind of aesthetic and historical terrorism that can't have been an accident. Facing us is a very sweet, anonymous Florentine tempera-and-oil-on-wood-panel painting from the 1540s that depicts a wealthy woman in profile. Though the topic is secular, it blends perfectly in style and tone with the religious subjects in the first gallery.

But next to this Renaissance painting, Standring has hung Picasso's surrealist triumph "Weeping Woman"!

Surely the most famous and most widely publicized painting in European Masterpieces, "Weeping Woman" is an oil on canvas from 1937 that's closely related to Picasso's "Guernica," done the same year. In both paintings, Picasso abandoned the fracture of pictorial space that had been his cubist signature and replaced it with a surrealist conception of the composition, which wound up being of supreme importance to post-war New York School abstraction, especially abstract expressionism.

Now, in a way, placing "Weeping Woman" so that it can be seen from the front of the show makes some public-relations sense, and the decision reminds me of something that Dianne Vanderlip, head curator of the modern and contemporary department, did in the Matisse show: She hung Matisse's "Blue Nude," from 1907, in the same place Standring has hung "Weeping Woman." But whereas the effect was magical in the Matisse show, it is tragic here. I believe Standring has cheated viewers by ripping the Picasso out of its historical context, because, like "Blue Nude," it is one of the most important paintings in the annals of modern art history to have ever been exhibited in Denver.

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