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Arts / Museums

Botticelli to Braque

Five Centuries of Elegance at the Kimbell

BY // 07.31.15

A brochure at the ineffably gorgeous Kimbell Art Museum informs us: “‘Botticelli to Braque: Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland’ highlights 55 outstanding masterpieces from Scotland’s premier art collections — the Scottish National Gallery, Scottish National Portrait Gallery and Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh, Scotland.” That gives us the mere lineaments, the barest of bones regarding the exhibition. However, it in no way prepares us for the experience of being engulfed in beauty once we venture into the exhibition’s gallery and take in the Botticelli to the left of the entrance. (Or, more precisely, it takes us in.) The Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child, circa 1490, seems to be made of shimmering gossamer against which our usual and quotidian world falls away as mere brummagem. The soft folds of the Virgin’s mantle and pink robe are in sharp contrast to a stony construct that frames the painting on the right. For those who love the work of Sandro Botticelli, it will undeniably be one of the highlights of the show.

Another portrait operates almost as a branding motif for the exhibition. John Singer Sargent’s Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, 1892, is not just stunning; it’s absolutely mesmerizing. Unfortunately, historical information informs us that Lady Agnew died in 1932 after prolonged ill health. While this is distressing information, Sargent’s portrait was painted while she was in her prime and radiantly lovely. In contemporary vernacular, she gives off heat — enough to make one feel as if a generous dousing of protective flame retardant is in order. Her gaze is fixed, and her demeanor is both elegant and intimate. And it would be a genuine failure not to mention the array of prints and fabric and color that surrounds her. The Sargent painting is so gorgeous that it makes us wonder if we even know how to be decadent any longer. Mere coarseness seems to be the prevailing trend, which, by contrast, is oafish and simple. Sargent lulls us into a consideration of beauty-as-vice — and a welcome substitute for transcendence. If we’re honest, isn’t that precisely how beauty operates?

Velazquez_OldWomanCookingEggs
Diego Velázquez’s “An Old Woman Cooking Eggs,” 1618

This marvel of a show offers enough material to fuel several doctoral dissertations; it spans the Renaissance and sweeps us into modernity. There are so many works to focus on that choosing one eliminates a trove of other remarkable pieces. However, Édouard Vuillard’s The Candlestick, circa 1900, is particularly irresistible. In our overly digitized cosmogony, it reminds us of the marvel of physical things and the majesty of texture. The painting is nothing less than a path into a new way of experiencing the world. And, to quote the great philosopher Gaston Bachelard, “When the image is new, the world is new” (from his book The Poetics of Space). In a word, images educate — and when they’re thrillingly fine, they educate us well.

Other sumptuous works in the exhibition encompass the roll call of art history: Bonnard, Cézanne, Degas, Derain, Ernst, Gauguin, Hals, Matisse, Monet, Picasso, Pissarro, Raeburn, Ramsay, Rembrandt, Titian, Van Dyck, Velázquez, Vermeer and Veronese.

To put too fine a point on it, the show is a sheer embarrassment of riches. How fortunate can we be?

Botticelli to Braque: Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland” at the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, through September 20, 2015.

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