The Louvre and the Masterpiece

Don't touch!

All works of art are embedded in an aura, a "don't touch" field that cannot be sensed in books or on the Internet. The recent exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, The Louvre and the Masterpiece, trafficked several such works across the Atlantic to command our respect.

Antoine-Lois Barye's monumental Lion with Serpent (1832-3) commanded the first room. Surrounded by smaller works such as a miniature study for Gericault's Raft of the Medusa, Barye's Lion is an imposing mass of bronze violence, an anatomical study of a struggle in the wild. The Lion is a classic example of a sculpture that must be circled to be appreciated, a genuine work in three dimensions whose restless aura eternally orbits its stable chi.

Vermeer's The Astronomer (1668), a small canvas set in an unusually wide maple frame, commanded just as much respect, as only an occasional patron ventured a direct gaze into Vermeer's interior. A spiritual companion of Vermeer, Chardin's Boy with a Top (1738) exuded less warmth with its muted tones, appealing rather to the hazy reflections of reminiscence.

Michelangelo's drawing Virgin and Child with St. Anne and Leonardo's Drapery Study were popular, as one would expect, but a pleasant surprise was John Martin's Pandemonium (1841), which dominated the audience in the last room. Set in the artist's original frame of hellish serpents, Martin's canvas is an epic study from Milton's Paradise Lost, a dramatic vision of the seething, smoking grounds of hell that emits an aura of heat which keeps the gallery at a respectful distance.

To my mind, the highlight of the exhibit was Ingres' Portrait of the Duc d'Orleans (1842), an absolutely perfect canvas, a life-sized figure standing out against the dark background of the past. The precision of Ingres' brushwork has spread the thinnest possible aura over the canvas, so that I was sorely tempted to press my palm within a centimeter of the paint, just to feel the still-pulsing life of the nineteenth century.

Don't touch!

Three stars and a solemn nod for an artistic tease that brought works I could not touch to my hometown, where I could but must not touch.

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