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Renaissance for an Unknown

The Getty helps lift the work of 16th century Italian painter Dosso Dossi from obscurity.

April 25, 1999|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

What do you make of a little-known Italian Renaissance artist who paints beefcake and butterflies, Pygmies and mournful animals? An artist who portrays an anguished St. George with a bedraggled, gasping dragon; perches the goddess Fortune on a soap bubble; casts the Christ child in shadows, cuddling a rooster; and spotlights feet so often that he appears to have had a foot fetish?

A lot, if you are the Getty.

The artist, Dosso Dossi, is an eccentric but unusually inventive painter who lived from about 1486 to 1542 and worked in the court of Duke Alfonso I d'Este and the duke's son Ercole II d'Este in Ferrara, about 50 miles southwest of Venice. Until recently known mainly to scholars as a follower of Venetian masters Giorgione and Titian, he is becoming a star on his own terms, thanks to "Dosso Dossi: Court Painter in Renaissance Ferrara," the first broad survey of the artist's work in 400 years. The show, which was launched last fall at the Galleria d'Arte Moderna e Contemporanea in Ferrara and presented earlier this spring at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is the first major loan exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum's new home at the Getty Center.

Beginning Tuesday and continuing through July 11, 52 of Dosso's paintings--and five by his younger brother Battista Dosso--will fill the museum's second-floor gallery devoted to temporary exhibitions, and the museum has pulled out all the stops to make the event both a scholarly landmark and a popular success. If Dosso Dossi doesn't become a household word, it won't be for the Getty's lack of trying everything from an international symposium to street banners all over Los Angeles and special menu items at the Getty Center's cafe and restaurant.

Anyone for eel risotto or pumpkin dumplings? Those are only two of about 200 dishes from the Emilia Romagna region--many of them from the Este family cookbook--selected by the Getty's executive chef, Gwen Gulliksen, who just happens to have a master's degree in Italian Renaissance art history.

Why all the fuss over an artist most people have never heard of?

John Walsh, director of the Getty Museum, has lots of reasons. "We decided a long time ago when we were planning this museum that we would do loan shows, but they wouldn't be typical of large exhibitions that most big city museums use as magnets for heavy attendance. We were going to have heavy attendance anyway," he said in an interview at the museum. "We wanted to use exhibitions to let the public discover, and explore with us, new aspects of the history of art.

"We also wanted to do exhibition projects that would result in something lasting in the way of new work, new knowledge. We wanted our exhibitions to be a reason for scholars to work on problems that might not have been approached in quite such a systematic way.

"Dosso fits both those patterns," Walsh said. "He is unfamiliar to the broad audience, but he's an artist with an imagination, a sense of invention and surprise and humor that people who are unfamiliar with the subject matter of Renaissance painting are nevertheless going to be able to grasp."

Though his work is known to specialists, it hasn't been well understood, Walsh said. "There was a lot we didn't know about him before this project started. Art historians didn't even agree on what [painting] came after what, or who painted what, where the boundary gets drawn between the very young Dosso and other artists, or the aging Dosso and Battista Dosso."


In 1996-97, when the exhibition was still on the drawing board, the museum joined forces with the Getty Research Institute, then directed by Salvatore Settis, to stage a two-part conference on the artist in Los Angeles and Trent, Italy. "We cast quite a wide net and included all kinds of interesting people, not just art historians, because the paintings get into many aspects of court life as well as visual culture," Walsh said. "Dosso worked for princes who had complicated political, economic and social lives, which set the tone for the intellectual life of their time. All this is synthesized and epitomized in paintings that are often enigmatic and not at all conventional."

Staging the symposium well in advance of the show had the advantage of applying new scholarship to the exhibition in its formative stages, Walsh said. Findings have been published in a dense tome, "Dosso's Fate: Painting and Court Culture in Renaissance Italy," and incorporated in the much more readable exhibition catalog.

The oddities of Dosso's art still have scholars guessing, so the show is a continuing forum for debate. The exhibition is "a kind of traveling examination" offering "three different chances to really study the pictures in three different configurations," Walsh said.

In addition to these altruistic motivations, the Getty has its self-interest at heart. "One obvious reason we are excited about this project is that one of our paintings is the star," Walsh cheerfully admitted.

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