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A Very Full Week

At the National Gallery, Five Days of Permanent Pleasure

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 27, 2004; Page C01

When an art museum puts on a good, coherent, tightly argued special exhibition, I'm as happy as the next guy. But such events do tend to feel just a bit like work: There's a curator's thesis to be doped out, all that art to be absorbed and integrated before the show moves on to its next venue.

For me, the purest form of museum-going pleasure is a more old-fashioned kind: It comes from exploring a great permanent collection, hunting for new pleasures that you haven't had before or old ones that you want to wallow in again.

Among the works along a second-floor West Building hallway is Clodion's "Poetry and Music." (Courtesy of The National Gallery of Art)

_____Photo Gallery_____
Week of Wonders: Highlights from Blake Gopnik's week-long National Gallery tour.

That's why December is an ideal month for Washington's art devotees. The fall's special exhibitions are all winding down, so at last there's an excuse -- and maybe a few days of vacation time -- to head deeper into our favorite museums' holdings.

One recent workweek, I spent every morning in the galleries on the second floor of the West Building of the National Gallery of Art, and every afternoon jotting down some thoughts on what I'd seen. Rough job, isn't it, being an art critic?

Here's a day-by-day account of my hard labors.

Monday: Passion Play

My week at the National Gallery has to start where modern ideas on art began: with the pictures painted in northern Italy in the 16th century.

For the first time in history, Italian artists working after about 1520 had a full range of options for making realistic pictures. This means that, like painters working today, they could choose which options to ignore, which to explore and where to go with them.

In the three decades before his death in 1551, the Sienese painter Domenico Beccafumi took this exploration about as far, and as far afield, as any artist I know. His little painting of the Holy Family, tucked into a corner of Gallery 21, is one of the most peculiar pictures in the museum.

You can tell that the Virgin and her baby son have been painted by an artist who has basic realistic chops. The way they move and take up space has a credibility that you don't get from even the greatest late-medieval artists. There are also striking little light effects -- the complex play of light under the Virgin's chin, on Jesus's arms and on Joseph's open book -- that trumpet an awareness of how natural illumination works. I'm not saying Beccafumi's figures look like people you could take a photo of: The child's fingers have more than a touch of Dr. Seuss about them. But there's a framework of realism that underlies their peculiarities. Beccafumi had learned the lessons taught in the first decades of the century by Renaissance masters such as Raphael (whose stunningly natural portrait of Bindo Altoviti is around the corner from our Beccafumi). And then he moved on from there.

Beccafumi's overheated picture, probably painted not too long before his death, stands out from the classically illusionistic work of his predecessors. Instead of working hard to trigger true feelings in a viewer -- think of Michelangelo's great "Pieta" or Raphael or Titian's highly charged paintings of Jesus carried to his tomb -- Beccafumi's painting simply wants to flag how cleverly the artist has filled it with passions. This picture's sentiment is almost as garish as its coloring: There's the plangent face of Mary, seen as if through a Vaseline-coated Hollywood lens, Jesus's dimpled cheeriness and Joseph's black funk. The picture has some of the fantastic artificiality of a Renaissance madrigal, built from pungently expressed emotions but with a rhetoric so recherche we can't buy into them.

The brushwork in the picture is as extravagant as the rest of it: This early on, only a handful of Venetian artists displayed their painterly "hand" the way Beccafumi does here. You can count each of the 19 broad strokes that make up the pillow the infant Jesus is sitting on.

The baby's eyes, which look relatively credible from even a half-dozen feet away, are just a bare few shorthand squiggles when you come within arm's length -- which is where this picture begs to be viewed from.

Joseph's right hand becomes a radical array of splashed brown paint that looks as if it could have been laid down yesterday by Lucien Freud or Frank Auerbach or some other contemporary expressionist.

The painting's brushwork acts as a kind of flamboyant artist's signature. It says "Beccafumi was here," because you can trace each moment of his presence at the easel as he ladled on his paint. And all that messy paint almost overwhelms the sacred function of the work: The picture comes to be about artists and their craft, rather than the holy subject it shows.

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