NOTHING would seem more dull than an exhibition of portrait busts, those stone-faced dust-catchers representing obscure generals, long-dead clergymen, government functionaries and preening aristocrats that one sometimes encounters tucked away in museum hallways or lobbies but rarely in prominent galleries for painting and sculpture. Typically, the sitter's wearisome vanity outdistances the artist's skill with a chisel and a drill.
But then there is Bernini -- Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), the brilliant and prolific sculptor, architect and painter who more or less invented Italian Baroque art. Along the way he also transformed the dreary portrait bust, a tradition largely inert since ancient Rome.
He made it into something dynamic and, on occasion, even spellbinding. Opening today at the J. Paul Getty Museum, "Bernini and the Birth of Baroque Portrait Sculpture" traces that improbable phenomenon with style and intelligence.
There has never been a major Bernini sculpture show in the United States. His astounding life-size marble figures and narrative works, such as "David" and "Apollo and Daphne" are unlikely ever to be moved from their Roman museums. Others, such as the spiritually delirious and frankly erotic "Ecstasy of St. Theresa" or the Piazza Navona's "Fountain of the Four Rivers," obviously can't be moved, since they are parts of permanent architectural ensembles. That leaves the portrait busts.
In 2000 the Getty acquired a flashy Baroque bust of a young noblewoman that is now attributed to Giuliano Finelli, a Bernini studio assistant and later rival. The acquisition evolved into an exhibition idea.
But the show was almost derailed by the volatile looted antiquities dispute between the Getty and the Italian government, which in 2007 threatened to forbid loans to the Los Angeles museum if certain works were not returned. At least eight of the show's 20 Bernini sculptures come from Italian public and private collections, including the three most critically important portrait busts. Last summer's resolution of the antiquities brawl allowed the exhibition to proceed.
Bernini was a child prodigy, completing his first commission at 10. (A small marble figure of a chubby infant Hercules slaying a dragon, which Bernini began at the ripe old age of 16, is in the Getty's permanent collection galleries.) At 24 he began work on “Apollo and Daphne,” a tour-de-force depiction of a life-size nymph escaping rape by a lustful god through her miraculous metamorphosis into a laurel tree. The transformation is uncannily embodied in marble, and the sculpture was instantly the talk of Rome. So extraordinary was Bernini's achievement that he was dubbed "the new Michelangelo."
The sculpture relates a story from Ovid's "Metamorphosis." The myth is ancient, but the narrative is important to the revolution Bernini soon made in the traditional genre of the portrait bust. "Apollo and Daphne" records a vivacious being who is transformed into a static tree -- a living object that's incapable of voluntary movement. That's also a pretty good description of Bernini's goal for a person's portrait carved in stone.
How did he do it? Bernini's earliest work suggests two avenues, both of which unfold in the show's first room.
A small self-portrait painting Bernini made when he was about 25 is a gripping depiction of artistic intensity. Shown in three-fourths view, the bust-length head is set against a plain brown background that doesn't detract attention from the face. Jaw set, eyes wide, bearing almost wary, Bernini stares hard -- directly at a viewer, who meets his concentrated gaze. Automatically you pull in close to scrutinize the startling canvas.
When you do, it takes just a moment to realize that what Bernini was actually staring at was his own reflection in a mirror, a practice essential to painting a self-portrait. The visual dialogue between artist and sitter is replicated in the one that is now unfolding between work of art and viewer.
Nearby are four marble and two bronze busts, all made in the 1620s before the artist was commissioned by Pope Urban VIII to work on St. Peter's. What began as a design for a huge baldacchino -- a 98-foot-high bronze pavilion over the central altar -- evolved into a 50-year series of projects, including the Baroque colonnade and piazza out front.
The pope's voraciousness didn't leave much time for portraits, except those commemorating him and his family. But a slightly earlier 1622 marble of Antonio Cepparelli, a wealthy Florentine living in Rome, has long been regarded as a turning point in the history of sculpted portraits. Bernini made it the same year he began work on "Apollo and Daphne." In addition to its psychological representation of a world weary older man, the portrait brilliantly suggests a body whose weight is subtly shifting in space.
The torso turns slightly in one direction, the head in the other, while the unfocused eyes look past you toward the direction of the body's general movement. The upper right shoulder and sleeve tilt back, implying an unseen arm swinging in space. It's just a head and upper body, but it's as if you've encountered a snapshot of Cepparelli in mid-motion.
The physical likeness is acute. But the subtle animation plus the verisimilitude of the encounter are what breathe mysterious life into the stone.
Bernini raised this technique to an unprecedented height in two works from the 1630s -- one a portrait of his great patron, Cardinal Scipione Borghese, who had commissioned the David, Apollo and Daphne and several other works from the young artist; the other Costanza Bonarelli, wife of a studio assistant and his lover, and one of only three women whose portrait is known among the 92 firmly attributed busts (some long lost) he made over his long career.
The intimacy of his relationships with the two sitters is probably telling. Referred to now as "speaking likenesses," they both show figures just about to voice a word or just concluding an utterance.
Like Cepparelli, Scipione's body is a complex mass of shifting body weight. The remarkable subtlety of the carving is maximized in the button holes of the cardinal's vestment, which tug open slightly across his corpulent torso. His lips are parted, and at the corners the skin of the lower lip gently pulls away from the upper lip, as if it were moist.
For her part, Costanza is a voluptuous cream puff. Her braided hair is slightly undone, her chemise pulled open at one side to reveal the top of her breast. The faintest suggestion of teeth and tongue can be made out between her parted lips.
Bernini is adapting a technique from painting to the recalcitrant medium of stone. A Diego Velázquez painting of an allegorical figure installed nearby shows a woman similarly posed. It's the tonal amplitude of light that renders the Spanish painter's figure palpable, while Bernini's chisel marks likewise manipulate light and shadow across the portraits. In different ways, both create illusions of movement.
The show, co-organized with the National Gallery of Canada, where it travels in November, was assembled by Getty curator Catherine Hess, working with Italian scholar Andrea Bacchi of the University of Trento and Jennifer Montagu of London's Warburg Institute. They also wrote most of the exemplary catalog.
It includes a marvelous selection of 13 Bernini drawings, paintings by other artists on similar themes and examples of portrait busts by contemporaries and followers, principally Finelli and the rather pedestrian Alessandro Algardi. These two tried to exploit the vacuum in private commissions created by Bernini's busy output for the Roman Catholic church. But however skillful, and in spite of what they learned from Bernini, Finelli and Algardi don't come close to his genius.
The show's final room is a bit of a let down, a somewhat crowded jumble of mostly later commissions from such powerful men as Louis XIV. Still, it's easy to see why France's monarch would want what Rome's popes had gotten. When Bernini turned Louis' cloak into an exquisite billowing cloud, he gently lofted the idealized Sun King into the realm of the gods.
christopher.knight@latimes .comCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times