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All in One

Ponce masterpieces at the Brooks.

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Masterpieces of European Painting from Museum de Arte de Ponce," the largest and one of the most accomplished exhibitions ever mounted at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, covers nearly 600 years and every major movement of European painting including Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Neoclassical, Romantic, and Modernist art.

Complex symbolism, powerful storytelling, expressive brushwork, and poignant, sometimes merciless, emotional realism make the paintings in this exhibition masterpieces in every sense of the word.  

One of the show's most honest and unforgettable works is Dutch architect, poet, and painter Salomon de Bray's close-up of three Old Testament co-conspirators, Jael, Deborah, and Barak. The commander of the Israelites, Barak, stands in the shadows watching and waiting. At center, the fierce and determined prophet Deborah prays without ceasing. In bright light at the front of the picture plane, Jael narrows her eyes, twists her mouth into a scowl, and summons the rage necessary to drive a tent peg through the temple of the Canaanite commander who has taken refuge in her tent.

There's nothing picturesque about the jaundiced, misshapen bodies and brutish expressions of Two Boys with Pumpkins, Pedro Nunez de Villavicencio's compelling record of the constant struggle to stay alive on the streets of 17th-century Seville.

The hero in John Everett Millais' The Escape of the Heretic, 1559 is a man in a hurry and in love. He has bound and gagged a priest who sentenced a woman to burn at the stake for heresy. With awkward body language, the man frantically wraps the woman in the priest's robes. While the symbolism at first seems paradoxical, Millais is getting at deeper truths as desperate young lovers defy men of the cloth who have become instruments of torture rather than grace.

Other particularly iconic and accomplished works in the show include Florentine painter Francesco Granacci's subtle and graceful Madonna and Child with St. John the Baptist, which brings to mind portraits of the Holy Family by Leonardo da Vinci as well as Raphael. In the Head of the Oldest of the Three Kings, Flemish baroque master Peter Paul Rubens envisions the magus' limpid eyes and long white beard as rarified as the gift of gold he brings to a messiah whose message is redemption instead of power.

Three of the Ponce collection's most prized paintings are the panels making up "The Briar Rose" series by Pre-Raphaelite visionary Edward Burne-Jones.

In this sensual, languid triptych, a prince enters a woods and discovers a king, his beautiful daughter, their knights, and ladies-in-waiting all slumbering in what Burne-Jones describes as "a beautiful romantic dream of something that never was ... in a light better than any light that ever shone ... in a land no one can define or remember, only desire." The far-right panel of the triptych, Sleeping Beauty, is one of the most luminous and delicate works in the show.

Lovis Corinth's 1909 oil on canvas Pregnant Woman marks a pivotal moment in history and art when sexual attitudes were no longer dictated by Victorian or religious ideals. You'll find no intimations of sin or shame in this image of full-frontal nudity in which a woman touches her pubis and cradles her breasts. Nor is this painting designed to tantalize. Instead, Corinth, one of the leaders of the avant-garde group Berlin Secession, ushers modernism into Germany with a portrait of his pregnant wife Charlotte savoring her own powers of procreation.

"Masterpieces of European Painting from Museum de Arte de Ponce," at the Brooks through January 10th

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