WHATEVER MAY BE your personal and/or political attitude toward women, the National Gallery of Art has got a great show for you.
Curator H. Diane Russell has combed the gallery's vast collection of old master prints for images of woman as saint and sinner, heroine and temptress, nurturer and murderess, lewd and chaste, worthy and witch, virgin and victim . . . .
A feminist who progressed from women's studies to gender studies, Russell says right up front that she did the show because she's a woman. She based her print selections on how, rather than how well, the women in them are portrayed. Yet the quality of the gallery's collection is such that there's not a second-rate work among the 152 on display, more than two-thirds of which came from the matchless Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection.
Many of the big guys are here -- Annibale Carracci, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Albrecht Durer, Hans Baldung Grien, Lucas van Leyden, Rembrandt -- but by using intellectual rather than aesthetic criteria Russell has leavened the show with dozens of artists known mainly to specialists.
And she achieves her aim of focusing our attention on what the prints show rather than what we know about the makers (all of whom are men). It's a deftly guided tour of old and enduring attitudes toward women that makes its points without prating or condescending.
The show pivots around the Virgin Mary, said to be the most frequently represented woman in the history of art, and Eve, her opposite and first runner-up. Try as they may, hardly any of the artists have been able to produce portraits rather than icons of Mary; she's pallid and ethereal, remote or icky sweet. Eve, now, hoo boy, she's for real, hot dog. She's supposed to be the bad girl who got us expelled from the Garden of Eden, but these lingering, loving limnings of her nudity suggests that any of these artists would happily have Fallen for her.
Here is Lucretia, a matron of ancient Rome who, having been raped, earned immortality by killing herself to preserve the honor of her husband and her father. Here is Susanna, a virtuous Old Testament wife who resisted two lecherous elders who surprised her in her bath, and nearly paid with her life. Most of the artists have portrayed these women as voluptuous, and have built into their postures and expressions an ambiguity that suggests they were at least partly at fault for being assaulted.
Venus has a split personality, representing both sacred and profane love, but curator Russell gives us the wanton who dallies with Mars in her marital bed while husband Vulcan labors at his forge.
Woman as the sinister sex certainly dominates the show. There's Phyllis making Aristotle play horsey in public, Salome contemplating the head of John the Baptist, Delilah giving Samson a trim, Judith beheading Holofernes . . . .
Russell serves it all up with relish, and that's the way it goes down.
EVA/AVE: Woman in Renaissance and Baroque Prints -- Sunday through April 28 in the West Building, National Gallery of Art. Open 10 to 5 Monday through Saturday and 11 to 6 Sundays. Metro: Archives.