If you're used to the usual museum exhibit, you're in for a mild shock on entering the National Gallery's "Soap Bubbles of Jean-Simeon Chardin." It's natural, when walking into any of a show's galleries, to check quickly, almost without thinking, for the door to the next gallery. Here, you do that -- and you do a double take: There isn't any door except the one you came in.
This one-gallery show consists of exactly four paintings and two prints, plus supporting material. Just the opposite of a blockbuster, it is built around one work, Chardin's spellbinding masterpiece "Soap Bubbles" of 1733-1734.
And the effect on the viewer of this small package also is just the opposite of the blockbuster's. Emerging, dazed and footsore, from the dozen-gallery, 150-work show, one is apt to take away only a blur of images and a vague idea of what it's all about. The viewer of this exhibit is likely to take away an impression that will prove indelible.
The artist executed three known versions of it, now owned by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Metropolitan in New York and the National Gallery. The current show, organized by Los Angeles, brings them all together, plus the painting's companion piece or "pendant," "The Game of Knucklebones" (about 1734) from the Baltimore Museum of Art. The only other works of art here are the engravings done after both paintings by Pierre Filloeul in 1739, that of "Soap Bubbles" from the National Gallery and that of "Knucklebones" from the BMA.
Small as it is, one gets to know not only "Soap Bubbles" but Chardin through this exhibit, for the work well represents the artist. The subject matter, of a young person blowing bubbles, was scarcely new; it had been a popular one with 17th century genre painters. Such paintings had a dual theme: of the superficial nature of youth's amusements, and in a larger sense of the impermanence of life -- as fragile, vulnerable and destined for annihilation as a soap bubble.
Chardin's rendering of "Soap Bubbles" is both atypical of the subject and typical of him. Other depictions, from Willem van Mieris' in the 17th century to Francois Boucher's (contemporary with Chardin's), depict lighthearted figures whose gestures and glances reflect the frivolous nature of the pursuit.
Chardin's young man, however, is as solid and as still as the stone ledge on which he leans, and in his downward gaze at the soap bubble there is a seriousness that suggests he, too, may be ruminating on the symbolism of its transience. Thus, while he doesn't look out, he invites us into a world of shared thought which enables us to identify with this painting while we gaze at other versions as through a window on another world.
In this, as in his other works, Chardin's art is invested with what the exhibition's brochure calls a "quiet fullness of being" -- a depth and resonance missing in much other still life and genre painting.
It is more remarkable that Chardin could achieve such depth not once but three (or perhaps more) times with the same image; for here, as frequently elsewhere, he produced more than one copy of his work. In the case of "Soap Bubbles," despite some obvious differences -- e.g., the National Gallery painting is vertical and the other two are horizontal -- the basic image is the same. And in each case it achieves that "quiet fullness of being."
Research done for the current show reveals just how close the three figures of the bubble blower are. X-radiographs (photographs made by X-ray) of the images, superimposed, prove they are so close that they "would have required Chardin to use some kind of drawing as a template or pattern, even though transfer marks cannot be detected."
Moreover, the X-radiographs reveal that in none of the three known "Soap Bubbles" are there any "pentimenti," or revisions by the artist in the course of painting the work. This lack of revisions supports the theory that all three are based on a fourth version, a now-lost prototype (which would have had revisions) from which all three known versions were copied.
By contrast, the X-radiograph of "Knucklebones" clearly shows the presence of revisions to a number of passages in the painting. That the Baltimore painting shows revisions while the three "Soap Bubbles" do not also supports the lost prototype theory.
Peter Lukehart, one of the coordinating curators of the exhibit at the National Gallery, says, however, that the prototype theory is not conclusive so far. "We don't know that Chardin always
worked in a way that made a lot of pentimenti. Not enough of [Chardin's] paintings have been X-rayed . . . to make generalizations from."
Whatever scholars may eventually decide on that point, seeing "Knucklebones" and "Soap Bubbles" together reveals what perfect "pendants" they are. The existence of 1739 engravings of both indicates that they were exhibited together in Paris that year. The similarlity of subject matter and theme makes them natural companions. And, as the exhibit makes clear, they also complement one another in so many small ways: The downward glance of the young man and the upward one of the young woman, his inaction and her action, the large hollow bubble he blows and the small solid ball she throws in the air, the tear in the shoulder of his coat and the hanging flap of her apron.
The diminutive size of this exhibit makes it possible to study all of these things and more, to drink deeply of these works. While the show's brochure directs viewers to one of the National Gallery's 18th century painting galleries, where no fewer than seven other Chardins can be seen, the temptation to include them in an expanded "Soap Bubbles" exhibit was happily declined. One can concentrate on its few works undistracted by the pull of a door to another gallery, and then, when time permits, visit the other Chardins at leisure.
This type of show, what the National Gallery calls a "focus" exhibit concentrating on one or a very few works, grows more popular with the increasing expense of large loan shows. In recent years such focus shows have included the National Gallery's 1986 exhibition of "The Flaying of Marsyas," by Titian -- a one-painting show -- and the National Academy of Design's New York show earlier this year of Eastman Johnson's "The Cranberry Harvest, Island of Nantucket" along with about two dozen studies and related works.
We will be seeing the focus show in Baltimore before long. This fall the Maryland Historical Society will focus on its Jewish historical material by putting some of it in probably two lobby cases, with references to other materials throughout the building, according to chief curator Jennifer Goldsborough.
The Walters Art Gallery expects to do a focus show soon, probably on "a painting or a couple of paintings," Gary Vikan, assistant director for curatorial affairs, said last week, although he said specific works had not been chosen.
And while the Baltimore Museum of Art does not currently have a focus show scheduled, it is interested in the possibility, said Brenda Richardson, deputy director for art. In fact, it had hoped to get "Soap Bubbles." The BMA requested the show, but it ended up going to the three museums which own versions of "Soap Bubbles." Baltimoreans may wish it had come to us. But since it didn't, we can, and should, go to it.
Where: National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street at Constitution Avenue N.W., Washington.
When: Daily 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. through Sept. 2.