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Art review: Huntington's 'Face to Face' reflects deeply on Renaissance

The small, illuminating exhibit highlights the effect of travel and trade between Italy and other European countries on artworks.

October 01, 2013|By Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times Art Critic

Renaissance art made in Florence, Italy, more than half a millennium ago wouldn't look the way it does without art and artists working elsewhere in Europe.

It's easy to forget that travel and trade between Italy and other countries was frequent, including travel by artists and trade in art. Yet cosmopolitan interchange played an indispensable role in the blooming notion of a Renaissance.

One of the most important of these interchanges is the subject of a newly opened exhibition at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino. The result is a knockout, the fall's first great museum show.

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Modest in size, it nonetheless digs deep. "Face to Face: Flanders, Florence and Renaissance Painting" is the first in the United States to explore the late-15th century effect of paintings by Rogier van der Weyden, Hans Memling, Petrus Christus and other artists working in the Low Countries of Northern Europe, especially modern-day Belgium, on such Florentine painters as Domenico Ghirlandaio, Filippino Lippi and Pietro Perugino. Choice loans were obtained from 17 European and American museums.

Paintings on wood panel — typically oak in the north and poplar in the south — are fragile, since the organic support is susceptible to changes in ambient temperature and humidity. Huntington curator Catherine Hess and independent British scholar Paula Nuttall, who co-organized the show, assembled 29 examples. Six illuminated manuscripts and five map-books showing Flanders and the cities of Bruges and Florence from the 15th through the 17th centuries enlarge the context.

Somewhat surprisingly, the Huntington's own distinguished collection inspired the event.

The Huntington is usually identified with its incomparable collection of aristocratic British paintings, especially portraiture. Yet Arabella Huntington was even more enamored of Renaissance and Old Master art. Much of what she once owned eventually ended up in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, and some was sold after her death; but a small group remains in San Marino. Three of those paintings bracket the show.

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"Face to Face" opens with "Virgin and Child" by Rogier van der Weyden, probably the finest early Renaissance painting in Los Angeles. Set against a golden background that would shimmer in candlelight, Mary dandles a rambunctious baby Jesus.

In a clever narrative device, the child toys playfully with the metal clasp on a closed Bible as his wistful mother looks on. A newborn is about to open the story of Christian salvation.

Half of a devotional diptych, the panel is reunited for the first time on the West Coast with the "Portrait of Philippe de Croÿ," who commissioned it around 1460, near the end of the celebrated painter's life. Philippe's pale face, a stilled image of solemn piety whose downcast eyes are lost in grave contemplation of divinity, emerges from the sumptuous gloom of a dark velvet tunic within a darkened room.

A diptych is the pictorial cousin of a book. When its two wings are opened, a visual text can be studied. What's odd here is not the sweetly sorrowful image of mother and son but the adjacent portrait of the ruminating nobleman who commissioned it.

With the diptych opened in the privacy of his chamber, Philippe could contemplate the mysteries of Mary and Jesus — plus gaze on his own image of Christian devotion, as if reflected in a mirror. Van der Weyden, brilliantly exploiting the potential for oil paint to create naturalistic illusions of human beings and material objects in luminous, atmospheric space, gives powerful new meaning to "the word made flesh."

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At the end of the exhibition, a second pair of paintings has brought us from Flanders to Florence. Two Ghirlandaio portraits — made to celebrate the marriage of an unidentified young man and woman — are also from the Huntington's collection, and they date from a full generation after Van der Weyden.

By then, a host of innovations from Flemish painting had been absorbed into Florentine art. The most obvious is the landscape setting for these half-length portraits. The landscape device became most famous in Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa," but it was conceived and popularized decades earlier by Memling in Bruges.

Ghirlandaio seated the husband before an expansive view, with a road winding off in the distance over his right shoulder and a harbor or river dotted with boats behind his left. The wife's portrait shows her inside a room, wedding gifts tucked into shelves, with a landscape only glimpsed through a window. The man is freely located in the world at large, while the woman is held within the domestic realm.

The couple gaze at one another across time and space, although not exactly face to face.

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