The Fortunes of War

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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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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia