Exhibitions: Masterpieces of European Painting

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1828, "Birchington-on-the-Sea" from the Museo de Arte de Ponce

Luis A. Ferre had a successful iron works business in 1950.   But, while in Europe in 1950, Ferre conceived the idea of bringing a healing force to landscapes in his native Puerto Rico that were  “scarred” by the works of man.  To “soften the scar,” Ferre brought European art  to Puerto Rico.  Over the next several years, Ferre collected an impressive collection of art from all over Europe that became the Museo de Arte de Ponce.

A selection from  Ferre’s Museo de Arte de Ponce is on exhibit at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, Tennessee.  I’ve seen Renaissance-era paintings in books before, but never original paintings in the flesh, so to speak.  The power and beauty of these paintings overwhelmed me.

The first thing that hit me was how old the paintings were.  Many of the paintings were from the 1400’s through the mid-1800’s.   I could see the spider-web cracks in the centuries-old paint so it was clear what I was seeing was indeed old.  But, the subject matter, the color, the detail that defined each piece had the power of the immediate.  The colors – blues, reds, ochres – were as vivid as if they’d been painting just moments ago and the paint were still wet.   Many of the  pieces seemed to be lit from within.  With an almost photographic quality, I felt like if I’d dared reach out and touch the painting, I would have felt the rich fabric of draped robes, or the coldness of a golden chalice.

In the exhibit hall next to the Arte de Ponce exhibit was an equally astounding exhibit of ancient Greek artifacts that told the stories of mythical  Greek heroes.  To juxtapose these two exhibits is to create a stark contrast.  The rich, boisterous and fantastical Greek myths are illustrated with flat profiles in solid black or orange on terracotta.  There’s no expression on Odysseus’s face.  There’s no flirtatious aspect about Helen as she brings down a bloody war between Sparta and Athens.  These pieces — various kinds of vessels with traditional Greek decoration — speak so eloquently because of the history and the  stories behind them.

But, the art in the Ponce exhibit speaks to us because it is alive.  Painters of this era moved beyond flat 2-D images and brought forth  fully formed human figures capable of expressing complex emotions through the tilt of a head, the slope of a shoulder, or the drape of a robe.  Yet, the most amazing aspect to me was the vividness of color that has lasted for centuries.  The painters’ ability to light a figure from within brings the figures to life in a way that the Greeks might have mistaken for the work of gods and goddesses.

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