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ART REVIEW : Getty Portrays Changing View of Nature

June 23, 1995|WILLIAM WILSON | TIMES ART CRITIC

On its face, the latest of the Getty Museum's lovely little drawing exhibitions is a straightforward scholarly exercise. Titled "Drawn Toward Nature: Landscapes and Gardens in Ancien-Regime France," it portrays the period in the 17th and 18th centuries when landscape ceased its former function as a backdrop for human activity and became a subject in its own right.

That's certainly a sufficiently interesting hook for showing a number of books and some 27 rare and often unexpected drawings by such masters as Claude Lorrain, Jean-Honore Fragonard and Jacques Callot. But something of greater import seems to be afoot. Getty graduate intern Jennifer Milam organized the matter to become a rumination on Europe's changing relationship with the natural world.

The period produced such ripe and contradictory thinkers as Voltaire and Jean Jacques Rousseau who launched, respectively, the intellectual yin and yang of the Enlightenment and Romanticism.

One might assume that promoting nature to a major role would represent a philosophical breakthrough to the wisdom of Asia, where humankind has always been seen as subservient to nature. In the dynamic West, however, asserting the primacy of nature seems, in these pictures, to be the occasion of some consternation.

The first image on view is Callot's "An Army Leaving a Castle." A distant view, the army looks like a bunch of ants and the castle something of a barbaric scar on the landscape. The image seems to say, "Gee, you mean it's not humankind that makes nature look spectacular, but vice versa?"

Lorrain picks up the thread of this doubt in "View of Tivoli." The artist is famous for his reverence for the classical past, but the aura of loss that surrounds it has puzzled many. In this context the riddle seems to answer itself. Living individuals saddened by the brevity of their lives can take solace in belonging to a human line that stretches back many centuries. But what is that compared to the majestic age of nature? It seems to trivialize the greatest of human accomplishments.

Hubert Robert smilingly embraces the demotion of the species in "The Watering Hole by the Ruin." A peasant boy lolls, fishing from a rock. A servant girl walks through a crumbling ancient temple on her way to do the laundry. Numerous scenes show farmers happily subservient to mother earth. They dance and play under a great tree in Callot's "The Fair at Gondreville." In other images they obediently plant or bring in the harvest. Francois Boucher's rustic capriccio shows their little thatched cottages virtually burrowed into the land like the dwellings of small animals.

But there is another presence in the exhibition. It grumbles that such things may be fine for serfs but certainly won't do for the aristocracy. It looks at the sublime awe in Louis-Francois Cassas' "The Cascades at Terni" and whispers, "That's very impressive. I wonder how I can harness all that power?"

One way to channel power is to domesticate it, as in Jean-Baptiste Oudry's "Park Scene." Nothing like a nice man-made park for enjoying the charms of nature without unpleasant surprises like wild animals. Louis Carrogis de Carmontelle went further by playing with nature, artificializing it to delight the fops. He liked to make sketches of patrons, such as his "The Duchess of Chaulnes as a Gardener in an Allee." The point of the exercise was to make the subject look so winsomely inept everyone would realize this was all a game.

Then there is the ultimate ploy for taking power--absolute control and abject humiliation. Drawings by Jean Le Pautre show formal gardens that reduce nature to the estate of a tonsured lap dog existing only to show that his owner has money to waste. The ultimate acting out of this fantasy of revenge against nature is mirrored in the exhibition's final image, "Marly Machine," an engraving by Demortain. It depicts an elaborate and ruinously expensive project ordered by Louis XIV to bring water to Versailles. The point was to make Louis' fountains work at his whim. It was as if he looked at nature and said, "Oh yes, very impressive, I'll allow her to run my waterworks."

* The J. Paul Getty Museum, 17985 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu, through Aug. 27, closed Monday, parking reservations required, (310) 458-2003.

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