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ART REVIEW : Raphael's Craftsmanship Is Bathed in a Halo's Glow

November 30, 1987|WILLIAM WILSON | Times Art Critic

NEW YORK — In this brazen town a few voices prove that silver-tongued modesty still speaks sweeter than brass-mouthed ballyhoo. One is the Pierpont Morgan Library, whose collections of rare manuscripts are legend and whose quarters in the old mansion at 29 East 36th St. are more homey than conceited.

Like the Frick collection, the place remains a haven from the hoo-ha descended like a circus tent on many of the town's larger museums. Everything about the Morgan Library inclines one to pay attention when they announce an exhibition with the somewhat hesitant assertion that it is probably the most important they have ever done.

Called "Raphael and His Circle," it is on view to Jan. 3 and consists of about 90 drawings from British and North American collections by the great Italian Renaissance artist or those influenced by him. The question of who actually did which drawing is crucial to historians and connoisseurs but to the poetic browser, it is less important than the consistency of the personality that envelopes the whole. Drawings here not by Raphael are so infused with his spirit that it almost doesn't matter.

That spirit is one to bring joy and solace to any guy whose appearance in beardless youth inspired school-yard bullies and campus thugs to call him a sissy and an arty egghead. Raphael was the sweetest and most agreeable of artists. Born in pastoral Urbino in 1483 and elevated to artistic apotheosis in Rome, he painted religious and allegorical subjects with an eye so humane that real people are as lovely as angels and angels are as real as you and I. When citizens seeking culture in extension courses first encounter him, billed with Leonardo and Michelangelo as one of the three great geniuses of the High Renaissance, they take it on faith from the professor but in their hearts they don't believe it. Leonardo's creativity and Michelangelo's passion are easily grasped by modern eyes but who was this guy with his Madonna of the Goldfinch, Madonna of the Pigeon, Madonna of the Speckled Grackle? They all look alike with their Gerber baby food infants and their virgins as perfect and perfectly boring as a Beverly Hills hostess.

Poor old Raphael. The perfect gentleman in a era when everybody knows the gentleman is a dope. Musta been some kinda fop. Copied everybody from his teacher Perugino to his two titanic contemporaries. Probably overrated even if he did cut a major swath through European painting for the next four centuries to the point where some 19th-Century English artists had to rebel by calling themselves the Pre-Raphaelites. The truth is that Raphael's legacy carried on the balanced spirit of the ancient Greek classical world that set the ethical and aesthetic standard for the West until the whole illusion crumbled in the world wars.

Anybody who's taken their morning Murine ought to be able to disabuse themselves of the notion that Raphael was boring by one look at his magisterial frescoes in the Vatican's Stanza della Segnatura. They certainly can if they see the Morgan Library exhibition first.

It proves that perfection need not be juiceless. A renowned drawing of a kneeling woman flows as decoratively as an abstract arabesque without losing a jot of anatomical accuracy. And its physical correctness does nothing to interfere with its energy or sensuality. The only thing it does not do is insist on itself. I has the extraordinary grace to assume that we will know a great drawing when we see one.

There is a languor about Raphael that's very Italian. Something they put in the water maybe. Or the wine. It's deceptive. Makes you think he's not working hard or thinking. But then you see a sheet like "The Massacre of the Innocents" with a dozen figures, nude and clad in complex athletic poses and you find yourself wondering how he drew all those models at once or captured them in such detail when they were moving. The action is so beautifully orchestrated and interwoven it just doesn't dawn on you that he probably did what most artists would do which is to draw one male and one female model at a time in differing poses.

There are a couple of stiff bits in the depiction of a soldier running next to two others on horseback that lends some credence to one scholar's notion that it is by an artist named Penni, not Raphael. If so the dramatic cropping of the figures and abstract thrust of the composition makes us want to see more of Penni.

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