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OLD MASTERS SHARE BALBOA PARK BILL

There’s something perverse about inviting great crowds of people to see art that’s best experienced intimately. The art doesn’t crumble into the mouths of consumers, like a puff pastry divided among the ravenous, but it isn’t savored either. Queued-up museum visitors are said to spend something like seven seconds with each object before moving on in the prescribed direction. At that rate, they’re lucky to get a whiff of the flavor.

This conveyor-belt system of consumption won’t work at the San Diego Museum of Art’s double bill of “Dutch and Flemish Masters: Paintings From the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts” and “Master Drawings by Gericault,” and fortunately it won’t have to. Despite the museum’s energetic publicity campaign and early indications of high public interest, the exhibitions are likely to escape rampant popularity. I make this rash projection because the subjects are rarefied, San Diego isn’t a major art center and Balboa Park offers marvelous distractions.

This state of affairs may not please the museum’s bill-payers, but it should reassure people who like to see art, not just look at it. Neither show contains seven-second pictures and anyone who gets past the cruising stage is likely to be immersed for hours.

Consider the faces. They are what initially draw the curious into “Dutch and Flemish Masters,” a show of 40 17th- and early 18th-Century paintings from a little-known Austrian collection. The entry gallery is a jewel box of portraits with radiant faces beaming light from velvety backdrops.

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There’s Jacob Jordeans’ “Portrait of a Young Woman,” thought to portray his eldest daughter and certainly a study of bourgeois beauty. The red-haired lass is plump as a peach and ethereal as her fleeting adolescence. She occupies a place of honor on the exhibition catalogue’s cover, for obvious reasons, but two other young things vie for attention in the gallery.

One is Cornelis de Vos’ “Portrait of a Boy Aged Four,” an astonishingly adroit depiction of a self-satisfied child garbed as an aristocrat. It’s not the exquisite rendering of his plumed hat, starched collar or brocade vest that finally inspires respect for this luscious confection but the absolute freshness of the child’s countenance. He may be dressed as an adult but he’s no miniature grown-up.

The other youthful face is Anthony van Dyck’s “Self-Portrait,” done when the artist was 14 or 15. It’s thought to be his earliest surviving painting. Even if it isn’t, the turbulent portrait offers dramatic evidence of the Van Dyck’s promise. Not suave enough to be a masterpiece, it nonetheless bristles with life and movement.

The portraits focus sharply on single subjects--and the artistic virtuosity that brought them into being--but beyond the first gallery the vision widens and the plot thickens. In a room of genre paintings, we are confronted with enormously complex paintings in which people may be starched members of family groups, rowdy caricatures carousing in a tavern or actors in infinitely detailed street scenes and proper society gatherings.

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There’s much more to read in these pictures than meets the untrained eye. A dog standing for fidelity and a cavalier’s lewd gesture to a prostitute are easy enough to decipher, as is a procuress lurking in a shadowy doorway. Many other symbolic “attributes” are so removed from 20th-Century experience that these painters make the contemporary scalawags accused of squirreling away demonic messages in pop tunes seem like pikers.

The catalogue tells us, for example, that a cluster of grapes in Pieter de Hooch’s “Family in a Courtyard” might symbolize fertility and that the gesture of the woman holding them indicates chastity. Further interpretation suggests that the painter merged the two opposing concepts to advance the idea that “the mother who assumes her proper role within the family remains a virgin in the eyes of God.” Take that for a hidden morality lesson.

A murky “Still-Life” by Jan van der Heyden turns out to be a complex system of weights and balances, a Dutch yin-yang exercise contrasting and coordinating aspects of activity and contemplation. It’s possible to be both a doer and a thinker, this painting advises, as it measures a Bible, atlas, globe and writing implements against a statue of Hercules and martial arts accoutrements. There’s a caveat, however: A watch on the table warns that time is limited and that one must budget it carefully.

But enough of these visual puzzles. What about the pretty flowers? Surely they offer pure aesthetic delectation.

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Yes, to a fare-thee-well, but see those insects in Rachel Ruysch’s sparkling “Still-Life with Plums and a Vase of Flowers”? The grasshopper stands for gluttony, the butterflies for freedom and the whole entourage of little fellows flitting and slithering about the bouquet symbolizes death by calling attention to the transitory beauty of flowers. Looking further in the last gallery, which is devoted to still-lifes, we find death or mortality nearly everywhere.

Particularly amid profusion. Jan Davidsz. de Heem’s “Still-Life” pictures opulence sinking into decay. And the piece de resistance, Jan Weenix’s “Still-Life with Game,” is a painting to die for. Several animals have: a magnificent white peacock, a limp rabbit and a couple of birds strewn around like so much refuse.

These luxurious paintings, as well as some dull landscapes and a room of Peter Paul Rubens’ wonderfully fluid oil sketches, have come to San Diego from an institution whose collection is well used by its students but often overlooked by travelers. The academy sent 40 highlights on the road while its galleries are renovated. They won’t come this way again, but we have them through Oct. 13.

“Master Drawings by Gericault” moves forward in time to the early 19th Century and continues the mood of intimacy--heightens it really, for the sheets are often so lightly drawn and so overlaid with ideas in process that they demand close attention. Yet the air of calculation so prevalent in the painting exhibition dissolves in excitement. The stiffness and convoluted opulence of Dutch and Flemish Mannerism fall away as Gericault’s romance with heroism sweeps through the fragile little artworks.

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Often he draws macho thrillers, say, torrential battle scenes, horses and riders locked to the death in furious pursuit or a muscular black man standing over his fallen steed, flags flying and knife at the ready. It’s as if an ungodly wind blew through his work, whipping everything into its current. The sight would be devastating if it weren’t so obvious that these super human beings and this magnificent horseflesh were created for such challenges. They lean into the conflict, the better to reach the heights of romantic fervor.

Theodore Gericault (1791-1824) is a founder of French Romanticism who died tragically after a tempestuous 11-year career. He is best known for “The Raft of the Medusa.” The monumental painting, based on an actual shipwreck scandal, is an art historical landmark assiduously studied for its painterly mastery and political implications. Hardly an art history student has passed through the ranks of academia without committing this dramatic masterpiece to memory and hardly a tourist has trudged through the Louvre without stopping awestruck before it, yet this is as much as most people ever see of Gericault’s oeuvre.

So it is that the current exhibition of drawings, organized by the International Exhibitions Foundation, is special. Here is an opportunity to see in some depth the backstage brilliance of a man whose reputation rests almost exclusively on a single canvas. The only thing better would be a full-scale retrospective of his paintings and drawings, but for now it’s easy to be content with a rich mix of about 100 rapid sketches, studies for paintings, fully realized drawings and watercolors. They remain on view through Oct. 20.

The work reveals range within Gericault’s distinctly romantic vision. Subjects include equestrian portraits, military themes and genre scenes. The artist blanched at nothing--not suicide, drowning, animal sex or mortal combat--but he was also attracted to the simple sight of a horse being shod. The show encompasses figure studies done from from classical statuary, interpretations of mythical love and horror, and a few spots of dailiness.

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The centerpiece of the show is where it should be, addressed to “The Raft of the Medusa” through a batch of studies. The uninitiated may miss their significance, for no reproduction of the painting is posted for reference, but students of Gericault need no explanation--just time to study them closely.


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