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3 Special Exhibitions : Golden Oldies, Getty Style

June 04, 1987|WILLIAM WILSON | Times Art Critic

Curious that the J. Paul Getty Trust, so prominent by virtue of its immense wealth, has a public face that is shy to the point of invisibility.

Most of its projects in conservation, education and humanistic studies--although they're out to change things for the better--produce nothing readily observable in the larger world. The Getty's present museum is tucked away in Malibu and a new facility will be a hilltop aerie in Brentwood.

Sometimes it seems the Getty is better conceived of as an extraordinarily well-endowed think tank and ambiguous force than as an art museum for the general public, although folks seem to have a perfectly fine time when they get there. It doesn't seem to bother anybody that the permanent collections are surrounded by a curious aura of tentativeness that seems to say, "This is not what we really want to be; this is just to give you an idea of what we would like to be."

The special exhibitions seem a little out of whack too, without having anything intrinsically wrong with them. On the contrary, they are admirable little scholar-connoisseur demonstrations with, at the moment, one each devoted to monkish manuscripts, Old Master drawings and early French photography.

"Monasteries and Manuscripts," "Sixteenth-Century Drawings" and "The Flowering of Early French Photography, 1840-1870" are the kinds of shows that make the Huntington Gallery lovable. Such exhibitions evoke images of passionately dedicated, threadbare scholars and a board of trustees chosen by the casting director for "Masterpiece Theatre"--kind of dotty and adorable.

At the Getty, however, you can't quite escape the fantasy that this is a small museum-run Renaissance, but the medium becomes the message in "Sixteenth-Century Drawings," which effortlessly shows a Europe now preoccupied with light and atmosphere wrapped around weighty human bodies.

The content remains often religious, but Raphael shows Christ as a noble Greek figure and Duerer depicts the good thief as a poor stiff trapped in a carcass of meat and sweat. The show (through June 28) gives us post-Renaissance man from the lucid grace of Andrea del Sarto to Lucas Cranach's earthy sympathy for a goat.

If you keep letting the medium be the message, then modern times have to be represented by the photography show, and its message is that life has become mechanical and ephemeral. "The Flowering of Early French Photography, 1840-1870" coincided, among other things, with the transformation of Paris from a rabbit warren of tangled streets to the magnificent metropolis it remains today. Several shots attest to the fleetingness of even great cities.

At first, traditional French reasonableness seems to overcome photography's insistence that this too shall pass. For one thing, these sepia-tinged albumen prints have a pictorial density lost in all but the best contemporary photography. For another, the French desire to normalize things is strong.

Gustave le Gray captured magnificent landscapes, Romantic by any measure, but his classicizing compositions make grand phenomena seem natural, as indeed they are. Nadar's portraits have a bit of Manet's objectivity so that big-ego subjects like Gustave Dore appear to express themselves without photographic interpretation and thus become a normal part of human taxonomy.

A perky little nude peeking over her shoulder is natural, and so are a pair of lesbian lovers that remind one of paintings by Gustave Courbet. In the end, the French view of human behavior as a branch of natural science, and thus ultimately reasonable, joins the detachment of the camera and combines with an emotion so French that we use only their word for it. It makes one wonder if poignancy is not a feeling exclusive to modern society, and perhaps the only one the camera is really capable of expressing. The show passes away June 28.

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