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ART REVIEW

Prints From British Museum Encompass Eclectic Vision

July 25, 1996|WILLIAM WILSON | TIMES ART CRITIC

The British Museum's traveling exhibition "Landmarks in Print Collecting" is on view at the Huntington Library. Good thing, too. Displayed at its own cavernous digs in London, this fine show might be upstaged by more physically prepossessing treasures like the Elgin marbles.

As it stands, we have the chance to savor this wonderful survey at leisure in the most elegant Anglophile surroundings on this part of the planet.

Sampler shows like this are not uncommon. This one is unique on several counts. It marks the first occasion prints from the British Museum's holdings have traveled outside the United Kingdom. The show is large at some 100 images and takes up the changing exhibition spaces in both the Huntington and Scott galleries, where it was installed by Huntington gallery director Edward J. Nygren. Works are displayed as usual in roughly chronological order but the presentation is unusual. It's organized around the British connoisseurs who originally amassed the works. The result is an exhibition that is at once personal and historical.

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Collectors range from an 18th century aristocrat like Sir Hans Sloane to a modern figure like Campbell Dodgson. Sloane earned a fortune as a physician and spent most of it amassing a collection considered the finest in the nation. It, along with works from the William Fawkener collection, became the basis of the museum's holdings when it was established in 1753.

Dodgson came from money and he became curator of the British Museum's print department in 1932 as well as a major patron. All these angels tended to be men of substance ultimately willing to subsume private passion to the general good.

The net effect of almost three centuries of generosity at the British Museum is a boggling holding of about 2 million prints. With a field like that to choose from, the repository was able to put together a compelling resonant exhibition. The show is at once printmaking's greatest hits and a kind of melange of the unexpected.

It includes works by big names like Rubens, Van Dyck and Hogarth. There are masterpieces like Rembrandt's "The Three Crosses." Oversize only as etchings go, it manages to attain the panoramic sweep of a huge fresco. Compulsive rankers of greatness only argue about which version is better, the light one of 1653 or the dark of 1661.

It's not surprising that an institution as venerable as the British Museum would have such classics as Albrecht Durer's "Nemesis" or a version by Girolamo Mocetto of Andrea Mantegna's "Judith and Her Maid With the Head of Holofernes." It's not even unexpected that, given the numbers, the collection is virtually encyclopedic.

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What's really gratifying here is the way the individual, sometimes quirky taste of donors and curators keeps things so lively. There are engagingly offbeat things. Adriaen van Ostade's 17th century print makes you wonder where Goya got his ideas. Martin Schongauer's 15th century "The Temptation of St. Anthony" looks like a blueprint for today's fear-thrill movies full of grotesquely lovable extraterrestrials. "A Boy Drawing a Bust of the Emperor Vitellius" is a print by Wallerant Vaillant after a painting by Michiel Sweerts. Surrealistically, the bust seems to come to life to leer lustfully at the innocent kid.

The 17th century's passion for the operatic Baroque led to the development of the mezzotint. The technique allowed printmakers to reproduce the virtuoso lighting of, say, Joseph Wright of Derby. "The Alchymist" reflects all the artists' fascination with physics in a version by William Pether. John Martin's taste for sublime apocalypse shows in "The Fall of Babylon." Done from his popular painting of 1831, the mezzotint proves Martin's conviction that such prints were not mere reproductions but works with a life of their own.

One might expect a collection so rich in old masters to lose steam in the modern department. This one, if anything, does the opposite. It not only includes such superb prints as Toulouse-Lautrec's "The Clown" and Edvard Munch's "Jealousy," it also reminds us of the sometimes neglected graphic work of Degas, Gauguin and Edward Hopper.

The show comes with a valuable 300-page catalog edited by Anthony Griffiths, the British Museum's current keeper of prints and drawings. He and fellow curators wrote the text. Together with the exhibition it proves that the good old British Museum just never lets you down. Even when it goes visiting.

* Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Garden, 1151 Oxford Rd., San Marino; to Sept. 29, closed Mondays, (818) 405-2141.

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