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Eye-opening lessons, taught by some of the masters

Richter's abstracts and Friedrich's landscapes at the Getty highlight varying perspectives.

October 14, 2006|David Pagel | Special to The Times

The best thing about art history slide lectures is that they let professors juxtapose works that would be nearly impossible to bring together in reality. The downside, of course, is that viewers see only reproductions.

Art museums let you look at real paintings and sculptures but no museum has such an extensive collection that every object can be juxtaposed to best effect.

At the J. Paul Getty Museum, a fantastic exhibition of 54 paintings and two sculptures delivers the best of both worlds. "From Caspar David Friedrich to Gerhard Richter: German Paintings From Dresden" is an ambitious art history lecture in which the slides have been replaced with actual masterpieces painted in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries by renowned artists from Germany, France, Italy and Norway, as well as England, Switzerland, Denmark and the Netherlands.

Co-organized by the Getty and the Galerie Neue Meister in Dresden, Germany, the thrilling show sets up so many unexpected side-by-side, compare-and-contrast exercises that the world looks different: You see things with fresh eyes.

The exhibition's centerpiece and its heart and soul is a pair of adjoining galleries. The first contains a suite of 12 abstract canvases painted in 2005 by Gerhard Richter, who was born in Dresden in 1932, educated there and is the most influential German artist working today. The second contains eight modestly scaled landscapes painted from 1807 to 1831 by Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840), who worked in Dresden and founded German Romanticism with his breathtakingly beautiful images.

On the surface, the two artists' works could not be more different. Yet sparks fly between them.

Richter's are big, vertical, unframed abstractions made with gobs of synthetically tinted oil paint that have been dragged, raked and scraped across the canvas with industrial-strength squeegees, shovel-like spatulas and broom-size brushes. The vigorous, whiplash gestures seem too big to be man-made and appear, instead, to be the work of Faustian machinery. Each painting is the same size, just more than 6 1/2 feet tall and 4 feet wide, and is part of a series titled "Wald," which means forest, woods or woodland.

In contrast, Friedrich is a pre-modern painter who did not work in series but made unique, singular images. His intimately scaled paintings are lavishly crafted. Devotion is visible in every detail. These picture-perfect illusions have the presence of magical windows that are as fragile as glass and open onto a world of soul-stirring serenity. All but two are horizontal and all are set in ornate gold frames; the most lavish, around "Cross in the Mountains," includes five sculpted cherubs, grapes, grain, a pyramid and a cosmic, all-seeing eye.

The pairing of Richter and Friedrich is brilliant. Walking back and forth between the galleries does not feel like time-traveling across a couple of centuries. Instead, it seems as if you are seeing the same world from different perspectives: up close and immersive (in Richter's room) and far off yet intimate (in front of Friedrich's crystalline pictures).

Richter's installation wraps itself around you; Friedrich's contemplative images make room for your eyes and mind to move freely. The combination of cool, post-Pop abstraction and disciplined Realism is scintillating. Call it the icy sublime.

Photography links the works. Friedrich brought the scientific precision and unsentimental clarity of photography into focus in the decades immediately preceding its invention. Richter belongs to the digital age. The blurry passages in his works often suggest over-enlarged photographs, paintings not quite in focus or X-rays. The melancholic pang of his predominantly gray works matches the mood of Friedrich's chilly romanticism.

The rest of the exhibition consists of 14 paintings from Dresden juxtaposed with 22 works in the Getty's collection. These mix-and-match groupings hang in 10 galleries scattered throughout four pavilions. It's a bit of a scavenger hunt to locate them, but well worth the effort. Maps provide foolproof guidance.

The juxtapositions, however, are not as felicitous or as moving as the pairing of Richter and Friedrich. Thematic and conventional, they recall the back-to-basics, school-masterish side of art history.

In one gallery, the claustrophobic hollowness of modern life takes pointed shape in Karl Schmidt-Rottluff's angular painting of a rural village and Edouard Manet's stark picture of an amputee hobbling down an empty Paris street festooned with French flags. Nearby, a pair of portraits by Max Liebermann and Pierre-Auguste Renoir is a study of opposites: the happy-go-lucky charm of a country bumpkin with a large appetite for life versus the debonair impeccability of an urbane sophisticate with a taste for refinement.

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