Hard times have their consolations. In response to a vision of leaner budgets the L.A. County Museum of Art, like most major American museums, is devising ways to get more mileage out of their permanent collection, while enhancing the art experience.
One of its brightest ideas is "Masterpiece in Focus," an ongoing series that spotlights one great treasure at a time, juxtaposing it with related works and bringing out a scholarly paper. In this case, the work is a 17th-Century French painting: Georges de la Tour's "The Magdalene With the Smoking Flame," inarguably among LACMA's finest and most moving images.
It is paired with "Repentant Magdalene," on loan from the National Gallery of Art. The little show's richly informative brochure is by former LACMA curator Philip Conisbee, whose departure from here to the Washington museum is among the sad fruits of the museum's recent troubles. Oh, well.
The paintings depict the biblical courtesan Mary Magdalene, who was turned from her wastrel ways by Jesus to become a most fervent follower. Although she gets short shrift in the Gospels, she has long been identified as the unnamed woman who anointed Christ's feet at the feast at the house of Simon the Pharisee. Present at the Crucifixion, she was the first to see Christ after the Resurrection.
La Tour was born in 1593 so this event tips its hat to his 400th birthday. He died in 1652 after a successful career in unsettled times, when religious wars sparked awful contrast between the sensuous magnificence of Catholic Baroque culture and the privation that follows violence like a hungry dog. No one knows how much of the artist's oeuvre was destroyed when his adopted town of Luneville was gutted during the Thirty Years' War. His surviving legacy is as small as it is precious.
La Tour undoubtedly learned his basic pictorial moves at second hand from the great Baroque innovator Caravaggio. La Tour picked up the Italian's use of everyday people posed as exalted religious icons. He absorbed Caravaggio's dark settings dramatized by spotlighting and back-lighting. In their younger days both liked gamy lowlife scenes of cheats, mountebanks and cutpurses. Unlike the violent Caravaggio, La Tour never killed anybody that we know of. His art is contemplative, heartfelt and magical in its description of slow, still volumes. If he was a provincial Caravaggio, he was a sophisticated Piero della Francesca.
He painted several variations on the Magdalene theme, suggesting it was meaningful to his patrons. They might have seen a converted whore as a timely metaphor. Conisbee discusses other versions in his paper, including the Metropolitan Museum's "Magdalene With Two Flames" and the Louvre's "Magdalene With the Lamp," a close look-alike to LACMA's version.
What fascinates here is the demonstration of how relatively small changes in lighting, pose and arrangement of accouterments can subtly but definitively alter the emotional mood and meaning of a picture. It's a lesson in the stagecraft of painting.
Surely it was the same model for Mary in both pictures with her long, straight dark auburn hair, short nose, rounded cheeks and sensual body. She faces opposite directions in the pictures, but is similarly composed, seated at a desk, lost in candle-lit thought, her chin in one hand. With the other, she touches a human skull. Somehow we know it to be male.
But the National Gallery version, although newly cleaned, is darker. Its candle flame is nearly hidden from us by the silhouetted skull that rests on a book, suggesting a thoughtful mood. The deeply shadowed lower half of the canvas keeps focus on the Magdalene's face. She regards not the skull itself but its reflection, in a mirror as if she has just realized that death itself is an illusion. This Mary is newly wise and mature. She has just touched the metaphysical.
In the L.A. picture she remains spiritually younger. She strokes the skull cradled in her lap like a lover after lovemaking. We see her bare legs and exposed shoulder. Her gaze goes beyond the candle flame to a rope lash resting on a wooden crucifix. She has just mortified her flesh to tame it after catching herself in smolderingly pleasant thoughts of the old days. She forgot she was already forgiven.
\o7 * Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd.; through Feb. 6, closed Mondays and Tuesdays, (213) 857-6111. \f7