Vive la Walters!


This week, the Walters Art Gallery is set to open an extraordinary exhibition that is both a testament to the depth of its collections and a brilliant collaboration by its curators.

Few institutions could produce on short notice a comprehensive survey of nearly 1,500 years of a major theme in art history using only the objects in their own collections.

Yet in "Vive la France: French Treasures From the Middle Ages to Monet," the Walters has done just that -- and done it, moreover, with hundreds of exceptional pieces to spare, making an incredibly ambitious project look almost easy.

"Vive la France!" is the Walters' spectacular response to the sudden cancellation of a long-planned exhibition of Georgian art that was scheduled to open this fall.

When that show fell through this summer -- at the last minute, Georgian nationalists in the former Soviet republic refused to let the country's historic icons and other sacred objects leave the country -- the Walters faced the daunting task of putting together a replacement exhibition.

That's when Walters director of education Diane Stillman came up with a brainstorm: Why not put on a show of French art from the museum's own collections that would rival the Georgian show they had lost?

Walters Director Gary Vikan immediately set about organizing a team of curators to put the new project together. The team consisted of Kelly Holbert, visiting assistant curator of medieval art; Joaneath Spicer and Nancy Zinn, who organized sections on Renaissance and baroque art; and William R. Johnston, who curated the show's 18th- and 19th-century galleries.

"It was just a fantastic reflection on the ability of our staff," Vikan said. "It's one thing to know the objects in the collection are there, but to see the staff actually do a show like this, and do it so well, is just phenomenal."

The combined package is an almost seamless survey of French art that focuses on objects from the seventh century to the beginning of the 20th century.

The extent of the team's success is apparent in the quality of the more than 100 objects in "Vive La France!" -- paintings, sculpture, jewelry, porcelain, carved ivories and illuminated manuscripts from medieval times -- and the care with which they are presented. Under almost any other circumstances, "Vive La France!" would qualify as a mini-blockbuster in its own right.

The earliest objects in the exhibition date back to the settlers who colonized ancient Gaul as an outpost of the Roman empire in the first century A.D. Gaul was an important part of the empire, producing a distinctive Gallo-Roman culture and art until the collapse of Roman rule in the fifth century.

A bronze statuette of the Gaulish deity Sucellus that dates to the first century is the oldest object in the show. It depicts the god of the underworld, draped in his wolf-skin garment with a mallet or hammer (now missing) in his upraised hand, standing before an oversized mallet with five smaller hammers radiating from it.

After the fall of Rome, migrating tribes known as Burgundians and Franks (who gave their name to modern-day France) moved into Gaul.

The Franks created portable objects of personal adornment, such as the stunning necklace of glass, ceramic, amethyst, bronze, gold and copper in the show, which was worn by a Frankish woman in the sixth or seventh century.

Examples of Romanesque and Gothic art include a severe limestone bust of an Old Testament king carved around 1140 for the abbey church of Saint-Denis near Paris, and a poignant head of Christ carved around 1500.

Stained glass, crucifixes, processional crosses, incense boats, reliquaries and magnificent carved ivory scenes from the Bible and painted secular subjects help fill in this compelling picture of the Age of Faith.

The Renaissance in France began as a continuation of the late Gothic style, but the close ties between the French court and Italy in the early 16th century led to the development of a French Renaissance style based on Italian artistic developments.

The revival of classical learning and literature resulted in depictions of ancient and mythological subjects, while the humanism of the period encouraged greater interest in man himself and close observation of the world around him.

French Renaissance altar piece panels by Jean Bellegamble (1470-1535) and Josse Lieferinxe (1470-1506-8), for example, seem to hover between the flat, stylized forms of Gothic art and the emancipated spaces of Renaissance perspective.

A beautiful bronze statue of a bather by Barthelemy Prieur (1536-1611) illustrates the rebirth of the nude during this period, while Leonard Limousin's "Feast of the Gods" shows the delight courtly circles took in Italianate images of leisure and elegant living.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, French art reached a pinnacle of inventiveness and virtuoso technique that set a new standard throughout Europe.

From the dizzying excesses of rococo porcelain to the Romantic passion of Delacroix and Gericault, to the revolutionary modernism of Manet, Pissarro, Monet, Degas and Sisley, French artists have defined a popular ideal of artistic beauty that continues undiminished to the present day.

The Walters' extensive collection of French art is the result of two generations' worth of collecting, starting with William T. Walters, who began commissioning works from leading French artists in the 1860s, and continuing with his son, Henry Walters, who amassed a formidable collection of French art ranging from illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages to masterpieces of 19th- century painting and jewelry.

If there's a criticism to made, it is that one wishes there were a stronger thematic narrative to tie all these objects together.

There's a broad sweep of narrative implied by any chronological survey, but the installation design of "Vive La France!" doesn't always connect the dots clearly.

In the medieval section, for example, there's a general movement forward in time as you walk from one end of the gallery to the other.

Some objects in display cases, however, are also grouped according to function. As a result, the narrative line loops back and forth in time as one makes one's way around the gallery, which will leave some viewers wondering how it all fits together.

But this is a minor quibble considering how well the show as a whole achieves its aims. This is a lovely exhibition that presents a breathtaking collection of rare and beautiful objects not often seen together.

French treasures

What: "Vive la France! French Treasures From the Middle Ages to Monet"

Where: The Walters Art Gallery, 600 N. Charles St.

When: Oct. 26 through Jan. 16

Hours: Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Admission: Adults $5; $3 seniors and students; $1 children under 18.

Call: 410-547-9000

Pub Date: 10/24/99

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