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Raphael Rediscovered

An exhibition of drawings at the Getty Museum finds the Renaissance artist escaping the shadows of the more famous Leonardo and Michelangelo.


Most contemporary ideas of who and what an artist is and does are relatively new. Five hundred years ago, the High Renaissance in Italy set the standards.

Leonardo was the scientist-artist, a probing and inquisitive polymath who searched for a unifying mechanism by which the world could be understood in all its seemingly unrelated aspects--physical, spiritual, perceptual. Michelangelo was the misunderstood genius--isolated through temperament, sometimes volcanic and always larger than life.

And then there was Raphael, the third and youngest of the Big Three. He matched their skill at creating stunning rhetorical effects in painting, effects that went around established consensus on what mattered in art and instead directly engaged the emotional capacities of individual beholders. His ambitions, like theirs, were vast.

Yet Raphael was also very different from Leonardo, 31 years his senior, and from Michelangelo, who had just begun the heroic, solitary task of painting the Sistine Ceiling when Pope Julius II summoned the younger man to decorate the papal apartments. Raphael established a singular profile. He was the artist as a man of the world--literate, socially adept and capable of marshaling a large workshop of assistants to synthesize the pictorial innovations of his elders. His large fresco decorations virtually define High Renaissance art.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday November 1, 2000 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong number--One of the phone numbers for information for the Getty Center was incorrect in the review Tuesday of Raphael drawings. The correct number is (310) 440-7300.

Still, Raphael is today the least popularly known of the three. Leonardo's scientific bent has helped keep him in the forefront of our technologically driven age, while Michelangelo's brooding persona is the model for Modern artists ranging from Van Gogh to Pollock. But the globalizing art world might be setting the stage for renewed appreciation of Raphael's man-of-the-world character. Opening today at the J. Paul Getty Museum, a marvelous exhibition of drawings from the collection of Queen Elizabeth II is adept at showing this distinctive quality of Raphael's achievement and significance.

Of the 66 sheets, 20 are from Raphael's own hand. Another six are attributed to him or were produced in his bustling workshop. The remaining 40 sheets show the work of his teachers--notably his father, Giovanni Santi, and the gifted Umbrian painter Pietro Perugino--as well as artists for whom Raphael was master. Giulio Romano, Perino del Vaga and Polidoro da Caravaggio rose through his workshop and subsequently developed careers of their own.

One measure of the breadth and stature of the drawing collection at Windsor Castle is that so much important territory can be covered in such a compelling way.

Drawings are an exceptionally good means for understanding the art of Raphael (1483--1520). As his fame grew after he moved to Rome and the volume of his commissions mushroomed, he needed the help of assistants to execute the ambitious fresco cycles. Drawings, painstakingly worked out as guides to direct those assistants, were the surest way Raphael could maintain control over the process.

Especially when they're used in preparation for painting, drawings are also revealing as an indicator of the way an artist's thought develops. The first Getty gallery focuses on "Raphael's Masters and His Early Years," and it includes a svelte depiction of the mythological Leda and the swan based on Leonardo, as well as a double-sided sheet whose energetic figures of Hercules clearly echoes Michelangelo.


The gallery also features a sheet by the artist's father, who died when Raphael was just 11. One of only two known drawings by him, it demonstrates through contrast the magnitude of artistic change that would occur in the brief but frenzied period of the High Renaissance (roughly 1495 to 1520).

Giovanni Santi's static image of a woman in flowing garments, with one hand on her hip and the other gesturing, has the feel of an all-purpose emblem. Indeed, the show's excellent catalog explains that the drawing was used as the model for figures in several different paintings.

Hanging nearby, a Raphael drawing made during his four years of study in Florence isn't all-purpose anything. "The Virgin and Child With St. Elizabeth and the Infant Baptist" (circa 1507) dispenses with emblematic representations, in favor of highly individualized figures engaged in remarkably complex and specific interactions. Partly it shows what he had learned from Perugino, but its extraordinary composition goes far beyond that.

In addition to their individualized personalities, the four figures are laid out in a circular arrangement that is marked by a double X: the two parallel bodies of the women lean in one direction, the two parallel children lean in the other. The compositional bull's-eye that results is located in the lively intersection of space among the four figures.

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