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Adoration Of 'The Annunciation'

July 06, 1986|WILLIAM WILSON

This is a tale of the triumph of innocence. It is wafted on the wings of hyperbole, thickened with the paste of metaphor and spiced with such digressions as may amuse the reader while instructing him in the tangled ways of that fabulous realm known as Artville.

It tells the picaresque adventures of a sweet, small painting from a distant place and a far-off time and how it came to rest in fair Malibu in the villa of the Getty where it astonishes wise scholars and simple folk with the reverent candor of guileless poetry. In it the angel of the Lord announces the good news with a wag of a finger while the Virgin makes a shy gesture of unworthiness. The figures are shown in a sonorous red room and wearing contemporary costume as was the custom of the day.

Looking at this heartfelt scene it seems impossible that it might inspire clever designs to prove it false or that it could--without malice or intent--play a role in bringing plans for a mighty exhibition to a grinding halt.

Our Candide is "The Annunciation" by 15th-Century Flemish painter Dieric Bouts. A shadowy figure and a delicate sensibility, he was until recent years renowned only among scholars, connoisseurs and cognoscenti. Born in Haarlem we know not when, he died in 1475 after a praiseworthy career working in Louvain where he left a legacy of diverse religious paintings and two sons, Aelbrecht and Dieric the Younger, who carried on his tradition. Bouts played an unassuming role in that great revolution that brought human thought out of the flattened symbolism of the Middle Ages into the daylight of a solid Renaissance world sculpted by sunlight and shade. He wedges into history somewhere between such giants as the Master of Flemalle, Rogier van der Weyden and the brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck.

Bouts' style is careful to the point of nervousness and unassuming to the point of shyness. People in such paintings as his "The Entombment" in the National Gallery, London, are homely and slightly proportioned. But these bland characteristics add up to an art of delicate sinew and quirky originality that seem to speak of the power of unvarnished faith. In Bouts' best pictures earthy little figures are transcendent and weightless as if entranced and about to float away.

There is no question that they deserve their quiet place in the museums. They are exquisitely rare, historically significant and kindred to certain special souls. One imagines the heroine of "The Glass Menagerie" finding them very pleasant.

The world being what it is, however, sweet little Dieric Bouts attained a certain boisterous notoriety in 1980 when the Norton Simon Museum acquired his "Resurrection." The purchase was made in London at a Sotheby's auction by Simon's wife, Jennifer Jones, who paid about $4 million for a canvas painted on linen. The combination of celebrity and big bucks was understandably irresistible to the press and so the humble painter from Louvain was made briefly into a media superstar, grinning sheepishly--so to speak--from the front pages of great newspapers and network news.

It happened again early last year when the J. Paul Getty Museum announced that its purchase of Bouts' "Annunciation" from Eugene Thaw, a leading New York dealer in Old Master art. The Getty keeps honorably mum about what it pays for art when it is privately purchased, but informed guesses peg the price at $7.4 million, clearly a significant rise over the figure set by the Simon Museum purchase. But something of a coup, at that, for the Getty. Such distinguished colleagues as the Metropolitan Museum and Fort Worth's refined Kimbell Museum had coveted the picture.

So had Ronald Lauder, a member of the Estee Lauder cosmetics family and recently appointed U.S. ambassador to Austria. Lauder had held the picture on consignment, even loaning it to the Met where it was on view for several months. Lauder showed it to an acquaintance, Alain Tarica, an art dealer based in Paris and New York. Tarica, so the story goes, took one look and pronounced the "Annunciation" a fake. Lauder returned the picture, which the Getty eagerly acquired.

Tarica then took his objections to Art and Antiques magazine where they were put forth in an article that also condemned the Simon Museum Bouts. Charges were rationally countered by Getty Museum director John Walsh, reported in the press, and that appeared to be that to anyone unacquainted with what turned out to be Tarica's extraordinary doggedness.

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