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ART & ARCHITECTURE

An Era of Restrained Sensationalism

Review: 'Mastery and Elegance,' an exhibition of 17th and 18th century French drawings, packs a punch the way today's films do.

March 05, 2000|WILLIAM WILSON | William Wilson is a regular contributor to Calendar

An exceptional show of Old Master drawings at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art delights while suggesting a brace of engaging thoughts about culture, media and history. "Mastery and Elegance: Two Centuries of French Drawings From the Collection of Jeffrey E. Horvitz" presents 70 artists in 111 works spanning the 17th and 18th centuries.

Initially one is struck by how well the selection fulfills its title. The ensemble is masterful beyond any reasonable expectation. A jolly "Banquet of Esther" includes dozens of figures, a table full of beautifully costumed guests, an orchestra in the balcony, energetic servants, muscular guards, exotic pets and various extras. Sebastien Bourdon whipped it all into shape without apparent effort.

To honor a more ceremonial occasion--Louis XIV's victory in a long-forgotten battle--Charles Le Brun prepared for the event by drawing classical sculptured figures, columns and a monumental obelisk all arranged to join solemnity to celebration.

After such tours de force anything in between is duck soup. Ah, monsieur desires a slightly naughty farce? How about this: "Seance: A Visit to the Medium" by Pierre-Antoine Baudouin? It's in full color, and it's an interesting variation on the look and style of a standard erotic boudoir painting.

How does it happen that virtually everything here combines flawless technical virtuosity with expressive elan? Well, these artists trained mainly in the rigors of the French Academy, at the time the world's greatest artist-making machine. By the mid-19th century it's methods would calcify into a heartless rote of moneymakers. The Impressionists would rebel and "academic" would become a dirty word.

But historical fashion forgets that in its heyday, the academic system produced vibrant talent. Le Brun, for example, was first painter to Louis XIV and acted as a kind of quality-control czar over French Baroque art. Once ranked with Bernini and Rubens, he's forgotten outside scholarly circles today.

Subsequent generations have learned to look to art for qualities other than the well-mannered bravura of these drawings. Principal among them are a taste for things dark and personal. Two drawing exhibitions coincidentally on view in neighboring LACMA galleries illustrate the drift. "The Age of Piranesi" includes the 18th century Italian's haunting imaginary prisons. None of his French contemporaries allowed themselves such license. Nicolas Le

Jeune's "The Feast of Absalom," in the Horvitz collection, depicts a horrifying murder, but its style is too polished and restrained to be intrinsically dark or frightening.

"Drawn to Painting: Leon Kossoff's Drawings After Nicholas Poussin" presents a contemporary Briton's variations on another master collected by Horvitz. While Poussin submitted himself to the classical tradition, Kossoff uses the Frenchman's work as a foil for eccentric reinterpretation.

Such changes in taste suggest why so few artists in the Horvitz compendium will be familiar to the casual viewer. But never mind, the show depends for its punch on something much more interesting--even surprising--than artist name recognition. Seeing it is like discovering a trove of 400-year-old art that seems curiously familiar. There is a kind of restrained sensationalism about this work that feels like mainstream big-screen filmmaking a la James Cameron of "Titanic" or David Lean.

The French drawings and the movies share a sense of self-confidence in their ability to do anything and do it in a way that's at once grand and intimate, thrilling and tasteful. Each gracefully commands the visual techniques that in their day touch the most people. Today the fun of participating in movie magic is knowing that what looks real is a gigantic special effect involving millions of dollars, thousands of elaborate optical tricks and hundreds of people. The awe generated by the drawings is by contrast--realizing they achieve the same range of mind-, heart- and eye-boggling effects with just one person manipulating paper, brush, ink, pastels, a few props and a couple of models.

That page of enchanting cherubs was just Michel II Corneille scribbling away. A sentimental happy-ending garden scene cloys but doesn't detract from our admiration for Philibert-Louis Debucourt's fine motor control. How is it he can make an ordinary-size piece of paper look like a back porch, while Charles-Joseph Natoire makes the same space into a ceiling full of winged actors?

These French drawings are particularly adept at getting things down to human scale while expanding the definition of genius.

The international traveling exhibition was organized by the Harvard University Art Museums. Its fully illustrated catalog includes a particularly sensitive and insightful interview with the collector. The LACMA presentation was overseen by prints and drawings curator Victor Carlson.

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"MASTERY AND ELEGANCE: TWO CENTURIES OF FRENCH DRAWINGS FROM THE COLLECTION OF JEFFREY E. HORVITZ," Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd. Dates: Ends April 23. Prices: $1 to $7; children under 5, free. Phone: (323) 857-6000.

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