An unprecedented tour of Picasso, Rembrandt and the European Masters arrives in Colorado

Traveling exhibitions! They're part of every museum's calendar, and every museum likes to create 'em. It's a simple process; you just go down into the storage vaults (after all, 90 percent of most museum collections are not on public view at any given moment), and figure out a theme -- "Masterpieces of Late Classic Navajo Weaving," "Boucher and His Circle," "The Prairie Printmakers." Having done so, you find a few museums to buy the show, pack it up, and send it on its way. It's an amiable little dance party for the institutions, and museum-goers get to see mildly interesting stuff from other collections.

Then, of course, you've got the blockbuster shows -- "Impressionism!" "Van Gogh!" "Vermeer!"-- expensive, exhaustively promoted, crowded and chaotic. Animated by the spirit of P.T. Barnum, curators become carnie barkers, hawking culture with a capital "K." These shows are the fast food of the museum business: accessible, ubiquitous, flavorful, profitable, and not particularly good for the consumer.

There's another category of traveling exhibition, one so rarely encountered that it might as well not exist. These are shows with important art, meticulously curated, generously displayed in spacious galleries, full of new discoveries and new perceptions.

That, happily, is what the new show at the Denver Art Museum, European Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia, brings us.

A little background: The National Gallery of Victoria, located in Melbourne, was founded in 1861. For the first few decades of its existence, it was an unremarkable provincial museum, collecting works by English academicians, pre-Raphaelites and the like. Like most such institutions, its acquisitions budget was modest, its ambition limited.

In 1904, the museum received a substantial bequest from a Melbourne businessman, Alfred Felton, who directed that it be used, without restriction, for the purchase of art. In today's dollars, the purchase fund thus created would be worth tens of millions.

Amazingly, the curators and directors of this sleepy little institution rose to the challenge. Over the next 50 years, they used Felton's bequest to build one of the finest museum collections in the world. They bought major impressionist works before World War I, when few museums would even consider such purchases. In 1932, when Stalin was reduced to selling masterpieces from the Hermitage to pay the Soviet Union's bills, the NGV's director bought Tiepolo's great "Banquet of Cleopatra," for 30,000 gold dollars. In the early '50s, the NGV acquired major works by Balthus and Francis Bacon, when few collectors were aware of either of these 20th-century titans.

Thanks to a major building project, the National Gallery decided to send a portion of its collection on tour. And what they chose to send is absolutely amazing, the core holdings of a great museum. There's a great Rembrandt portrait, a fine El Greco, a stunning Tintoretto -- and that's not even the beginning. There are 88 paintings in the exhibition, ranging from Paolo Veneziano's "Crucifixion" (1349) to David Hockney's "Second Marriage" (1963). Any one of them would be the best piece in most small American museums; any one can be a magical experience for museum-goers.

You'll find that the vast majority of these works are entirely unfamiliar; they've seldom been reproduced, and most have never traveled before. Consider, for example, "Profile Portrait of a Lady," executed c. 1490 by an unknown Florentine. It's a radiant, luminous work, compellingly beautiful. Five centuries separate us from its young subject, whose shimmering golden hair is bound up in a pearl-encrusted hairdo of astonishing complexity. Her clothes and jewelry are magnificent; her expression, one of calm repose, unreadable. It's a powerful image, all the more so because of curator Timothy Standling's decision to hang it beside Picasso's "Weeping Woman" (1937). Executed after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, and just before World War II, the painting is jangled, fragmented, nervous -- a Dionysian counterpart to the Apollonian calm of the Florentine masterpiece.

Much to the credit of the Denver Art Museum, the exhibition has been given more than adequate amount of space. Last year's impressionist exhibit saw scores of paintings jammed into a few overcrowded galleries, problems that shouldn't recur in this show. For example, what may be the best piece on display, Rembrandt's "Portrait of a White-Haired Man" (1667), is given an entire wall to itself, as is Bastien-Lepage's "Potato Gatherers" (1878). In any case, the DAM's spacious, high-ceilinged galleries are appropriate and necessary, given the size of the paintings. For the most part, these are not drawing-room pieces; take a look at Allan Ramsay's portrait "Richard Grenville, 2nd Earl Temple" (1762).

Large than life (92" x 60"), and strangely elongated, it was clearly meant to be hung 10 or 12 feet above the floor. Its subject, Lord Grenville, was one of the most powerful, accomplished, wealthy, and, as the painting makes clear, fashionable men of 18th-century England. Magnificently arrayed in the robes of a Knight of the Garter, Grenville, as depicted by Ramsay, is the quintessential aristocrat: remote, self-possessed, sure of his station in life. It's a vivid, lively image; so much so that Grenville's lordly mien, and visible indifference to low-lifes like you and me, is still irritating after 240 years.

This exhibition is such a feast for the eyes that it's difficult to single out specific works. That said, don't miss Sisley's "Haystacks at Moret," Turner's "Mountain Scene," Van Dyck's "Philip Herbert," Pissarro's "Boulevard Montmartre," Cavallino's "Virgin Annunciate" or ... well, maybe you'd better make a couple of visits.

We all have favorites in such shows, the one or two paintings that we'd like to take home and live with, a la Thomas Crown. For me, it'd be Perino del Vaga's "Holy Family" (c. 1545). In this painting, the Christ Child, a chubby, curly-haired boy no more than a year old, reaches playfully at his mother's diaphanous scarf. Joseph hovers in the background, hardly present. Pierino manages to depict the Virgin as both a delighted young mother, and as a woman touched by God, shadowed by the knowledge of her son's origin, and of his fate. Pierino's painterly virtuosity approaches that of Michelangelo -- look at the Madonna's draperies, look at the light that seems to emanate from the faces of Mother and Child. Yet this richly sensual work of art perfectly communicates, half a millennium after its creation, the austere mystery at the heart of Christianity.

The past is safe; we can contemplate centuries-old images with equanimity. Sebastian Vrancx' "Crossing of the Red Sea"(1597), a gory and pointed allegory of the politics of the time, is just a quaint period piece for modern viewers. But there's a painting in the exhibition that's not safe, an image that's both profoundly beautiful and edgily disturbing.

Balthus' "Nude with Cat" (1949) depicts a nude girl, in early adolescence, leaning backwards in a chair to caress an indolent cat. The room is flooded with pale sunlight; an older woman, fully dressed stands at the window, her back turned toward us. Taken singly, no element in the painting is remarkable; yet the painting is strange and unsettling. You're drawn to the piece, yet driven away. What's going on? There are hints of pedophilia, of incest -- but maybe this is an entirely innocent tableau. Are you looking at a work of art, or are you just a voyeur? Balthus, an unclassifiable original, was the least prolific of 20th-century masters; "Nude with Cat," reputedly his favorite, is worth the trip to Denver by itself.

In sum: This may be the best show ever to come to Colorado. Instead of pawing through second-rate stuff in the basement, a major museum has sent us the heart of its collection. Don't even think of missing it; unless, of course, you'd rather wait for a year, and make a special trip to Melbourne.

It would cost about three grand extra, and you'd still have to go through Denver.


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