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ART REVIEW : 'Portrait Drawings' at Getty Offers Rich Contemplation

February 10, 1996|WILLIAM WILSON | TIMES ART CRITIC

In a strident world, there's a lot to be said for understatement. The J. Paul Getty Museum's latest exhibition of 26 master drawings from its collection is modestly titled "Portrait Drawings: 1500-1900," which raises one's expectations no higher than lukewarm.

One look, however, and you realize that where you would have settled for a nice browse, you've been offered superb contemplation. The show--deftly organized by curator Nicholas Turner--is a rare combination of small masterpieces by artistic titans and exceptionally fine work by lesser-known people. To spice things up, there are even a couple of sheets once ascribed to Albrecht Durer that are now given to relatively obscure contemporaries. The lesson here is that they lose no expressive power in the process.

Attempting to pinpoint the finest work in such an assembly is foolhardy. All the same, for sheer intensity and dramatic circumstance, it's hard to beat Jacques-Louis David's "Portrait of Andre-Antoine Bernard, Called Bernard des Saintes, July 24, 1795." The specific date is significant because at the time, both the great master of Neoclassicism and his subject were in prison for their part in the French Revolution. It wasn't a time either would be likely to forget. Later, in 1816, both were permanently exiled for voting in favor of the beheading of Louis XIV in 1793.

David shows his friend in profile, a view that bespeaks both psychological coldness and headstrong determination. Bernard's nose is long over a thin, collapsing mouth. There's a puritanical cleanliness about the features, partly shadowed under a broad-brimmed hat that is at once sinister and romantic. The image is in dark browns and blacks. The obsessive intensity of the rendering reminds us that David was an artist known to work up his figures from the skeleton. The image is an angry spring wound too tight.

Fortunately, it's not necessary to be under David's kind of stress to make a moving portrait. Edgar Degas rendered his own head while traveling in Italy around 1857, when he couldn't have been more than 23. Painted in oil, it only qualifies as a drawing because it's on paper.

The visage is enshrouded in shadow. Perhaps that suggests an artist still in youthful obscurity. It certainly has the effect of dramatizing the shape of his head and the astonishing roundness of his small, bright blue eyes. He looks a little like a peeled egg with wispy whiskers and a wet mouth.

The image stands in marked contrast to the picture hanging next to it, a similar young Turk's self-scrutiny by an Italian called Michetti. All bravura brushwork and swaggering self-confidence, it might have seemed to predict a great future for the now-forgotten Italian. In the long run, concentration does better than braggadocio.

Portraiture has a long history of being hated by its practitioners. The problem of patrons who think they ought to be depicted a little younger, grander, sexier or taller is eternal, but things got worse during the period when the academies ranked art by subject matter. History painting was king, and portraiture was for daubers.

The master of French classicism, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, hated being financially obliged to do portraits when he was studying in Rome, but the one on view makes us glad he was a little broke. His mature portraits are still considered among his finest works, psychologically penetrating, optically sumptuous and so elegantly calculated as to prefigure modernism. Here we see a study for his monumental portrait of Mme. Moitessier now in the National Gallery.

Ingres' somewhat snobbish disdain of portraits was vividly contrasted by the empathetic Vincent van Gogh. Here we see a drawing of one of his best-remembered subjects, the Postman Roulin of the village of Arles. Van Gogh's dogged, sincere draftsmanship captured the corpulent functionary and transformed both his subject and his line into something like a rustic Chinese paean to the simple life.

Van Gogh's humanity is echoed and reinterpreted in works by a number of the less prepossessing artists on view. A portrait of a man by Lucas Cranach the Elder is at once earthy and refined. There's a wonderful bravura celebration of images of young boys and men by the Italians Federico Zuccaro, Gianlorenzo Bernini and G.B. Piazzetta.

These portraits offer the double pleasure of looking at art for its own sake intertwined with psychological interpretation. Why do humans persist in the assumption that they can tell things about people by just looking at them? Maybe it's because we can.

* The J. Paul Getty Museum, 17985 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu, through May 12. Closed Mondays. Advance parking reservations required, (310) 458-2003.

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