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Art review: Huntington's 'Face to Face' reflects deeply on Renaissance

Renaissance art made in Florence, Italy, more than half a millennium ago wouldn't look the way it does without art and artists working elsewhere in Europe.

It's easy to forget that travel and trade between Italy and other countries was frequent, including travel by artists and trade in art. Yet cosmopolitan interchange played an indispensable role in the blooming notion of a Renaissance.

One of the most important of these interchanges is the subject of a newly opened exhibition at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino. The result is a knockout, the fall's first great museum show.

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Modest in size, it nonetheless digs deep. "Face to Face: Flanders, Florence and Renaissance Painting" is the first in the United States to explore the late-15th century effect of paintings by Rogier van der Weyden, Hans Memling, Petrus Christus and other artists working in the Low Countries of Northern Europe, especially modern-day Belgium, on such Florentine painters as Domenico Ghirlandaio, Filippino Lippi and Pietro Perugino. Choice loans were obtained from 17 European and American museums.

Paintings on wood panel — typically oak in the north and poplar in the south — are fragile, since the organic support is susceptible to changes in ambient temperature and humidity. Huntington curator Catherine Hess and independent British scholar Paula Nuttall, who co-organized the show, assembled 29 examples. Six illuminated manuscripts and five map-books showing Flanders and the cities of Bruges and Florence from the 15th through the 17th centuries enlarge the context.

Somewhat surprisingly, the Huntington's own distinguished collection inspired the event.

The Huntington is usually identified with its incomparable collection of aristocratic British paintings, especially portraiture. Yet Arabella Huntington was even more enamored of Renaissance and Old Master art. Much of what she once owned eventually ended up in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, and some was sold after her death; but a small group remains in San Marino. Three of those paintings bracket the show.

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"Face to Face" opens with "Virgin and Child" by Rogier van der Weyden, probably the finest early Renaissance painting in Los Angeles. Set against a golden background that would shimmer in candlelight, Mary dandles a rambunctious baby Jesus.

In a clever narrative device, the child toys playfully with the metal clasp on a closed Bible as his wistful mother looks on. A newborn is about to open the story of Christian salvation.

Half of a devotional diptych, the panel is reunited for the first time on the West Coast with the "Portrait of Philippe de Croÿ," who commissioned it around 1460, near the end of the celebrated painter's life. Philippe's pale face, a stilled image of solemn piety whose downcast eyes are lost in grave contemplation of divinity, emerges from the sumptuous gloom of a dark velvet tunic within a darkened room.

A diptych is the pictorial cousin of a book. When its two wings are opened, a visual text can be studied. What's odd here is not the sweetly sorrowful image of mother and son but the adjacent portrait of the ruminating nobleman who commissioned it.

With the diptych opened in the privacy of his chamber, Philippe could contemplate the mysteries of Mary and Jesus — plus gaze on his own image of Christian devotion, as if reflected in a mirror. Van der Weyden, brilliantly exploiting the potential for oil paint to create naturalistic illusions of human beings and material objects in luminous, atmospheric space, gives powerful new meaning to "the word made flesh."

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At the end of the exhibition, a second pair of paintings has brought us from Flanders to Florence. Two Ghirlandaio portraits — made to celebrate the marriage of an unidentified young man and woman — are also from the Huntington's collection, and they date from a full generation after Van der Weyden.

By then, a host of innovations from Flemish painting had been absorbed into Florentine art. The most obvious is the landscape setting for these half-length portraits. The landscape device became most famous in Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa," but it was conceived and popularized decades earlier by Memling in Bruges.

Ghirlandaio seated the husband before an expansive view, with a road winding off in the distance over his right shoulder and a harbor or river dotted with boats behind his left. The wife's portrait shows her inside a room, wedding gifts tucked into shelves, with a landscape only glimpsed through a window. The man is freely located in the world at large, while the woman is held within the domestic realm.

The couple gaze at one another across time and space, although not exactly face to face.

Ghirlandaio painted the woman in voluptuous profile made sturdy by the upright classical pillar behind her. A conservative format, it echoes such ancient Roman sources as portraits on coins, carved stone reliefs and mosaics. She is shown revered by history and restrained by tradition.

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Her worldly husband is portrayed not in profile but turned toward us in three-quarter view. He is more open and fully revealed as a human being, like the pious Philippe de Croÿ.

Perhaps the most far-reaching difference between the Van der Weyden paintings and the two by Ghirlandaio is simply their materials. The Flemish panels were made with oil paint, the Florentine with tempera.

Different paints yield differing results. Generally speaking, tempera is fast-drying, hard, light-absorbent and best applied in thin layers of short hatched strokes. Oil paint is slow-drying, soft, light-reflective and capable of smoothly blended brushwork.

The difference is displayed in a fantastic, side-by-side installation of two nearly identical compositions showing Christ as "The Man of Sorrows Blessing." The oil is by Memling; about a decade later, Ghirlandaio copied it in tempera.

In the mysterious Memling, the softly blended forms fairly breathe. Christ's left hand is gently poised to reach out into the space occupied by a viewer, drawing him in for the blessing.

The Ghirlandaio is cooler and more formal, all dramatic linearity composed from brightly illuminated contrasts between dark and light. Here Christ's stylized hands perform elegant sign language.

Ghirlandaio enacts epic pictorial theater, inviting awe. Memling fuses divinity and humanity in equal measure. It isn't that one is better or worse than the other, but the differences in tone and feeling are emphatic. You can even sense the eventual schism between Catholic and Protestant world views taking shape.

Memling emerges as an unexpected star of the show, binding the two regions together. He is represented by five exceptional panels — one a devotional portrait of a member of the Florentine Portinari family, who lived in Bruges as representatives of the Medici bank. Nearby, an exceptional oil portrait of gem carver Francesco delle Opere is a virtual essay in Memling motifs painted by the Florentine Perugino.

An entrenched myth claims that oil paint was invented by Jan van Eyck, the first great artist of the Northern Renaissance; it wasn't, although the story's endurance indicates the medium's prominence in Flanders. Artists in Florence might have initially resisted, but "Face to Face" shows what a great gift it was to a rapidly expanding repertoire.

christopher.knight@latimes.com

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'Face to Face: Flanders, Florence and Renaissance Painting'

Where: Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens; 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino

When: Through Jan. 13. Closed Tuesday.

Contact: (626) 405-2100, http://www.huntington.org

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