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ART REVIEW : ‘Mirror’ a Realistic Look at a Love of Sea : Exhibition: LACMA show of Dutch marine art of the 1600s documents a people’s skill at both reportage and capturing the romance of seafaring adventure.

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TIMES ART CRITIC

Most of us remember this century’s economic miracles in Germany and Japan. We might be forgiven for being a little fuzzy on the Dutch version, because it happened about 400 years ago.

Starting Thursday, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art shows us all about it in an exhibition of 140 paintings, graphics, maps, globes and charts. Titled “Mirror of Empire: Dutch Marine Art of the Seventeenth Century,” the traveling show combines the virtues of art that is realistically accessible with a historical orientation as entertainingly informative as a PBS special. The exhibition’s catalogue is a fine mine of background information too often missing.

It happened thus: In the 17th Century, the Dutch finally broke the yoke of Spanish domination and made themselves famous for two things: painting and trade. The latter was accomplished by shrewd utilization of their greatest natural asset--water.

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Then as now, the place is half surrounded by water and is also nearly full of it because the land mass is below sea level. The stuff gurgles in to fill endless canals and great inland lakes such as the Haarlem Meer and Zyder Zee.

The Dutch--known as a practical lot--took the hint and became a great seafaring nation. They traded just about everything, but their greatest cash cow was pickled herring. Wealth brought a demand for amenities including a marked taste for paintings. Holland’s was the first democratic art market, and until it hit the skids the nation of shopkeepers threatened to become a nation of artists. Some artists were tradesmen. Jan Steen was an innkeeper, Jan van Goyen traded tulips and one of the Van de Velde clan sold linens.

The Dutch were realists. The Protestant nation became the most tolerant of European countries, taking in Jews and refugees from the Inquisition. But with seeming paradox the Dutch did not hesitate to participate enthusiastically in the African slave trade. Evidently, tolerance was exercised when it paid; not when it did not.

Dutch artists were also realists. They painted in specialized categories including everything from group portraits of civic guards to the aforementioned tulips, the craze for which caused one of history’s more risible economic disasters.

Naturally, they also painted boats. Considering the central role of their inventive, well-made vessels and passion for highly compartmentalized art, you would think that Dutch marine painting would be a famous genre. Oddly, there has never been an exhibition of it until this one, concocted by the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts and handsomely arranged here by LACMA assistant curator Richard Rand.

You’d think from glancing at the show that what the Dutch wanted most from their art was information. For them it seems a painting was just another kind of map or a form of reportage. The exhibition is full of lively scenes such as Reiner Nooms’ “Battle of Leghorn,” Hendrick Vroom’s “Skirmish Between Dutch and English Warships” and Adam Willaert’s windily titled “The Arrival of Frederick V, Elector of the Palantine, in Vlissingen on May 5, 1613.” All record real events.

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There’s an anecdote about some drawings by Willem van de Velde the Elder that are on view: He obtained permission to row out and sketch a sea battle firsthand. This seems further evidence of a factual spirit. Look again. A painting by Adam Willaerts is chockablock with sailing vessels, but it’s hardly a photograph of an observed scene, for it’s titled “Christ Preaching From the Boat.” Full of little figures in a fantasy-tinged landscape, it is reminiscent of Pieter Brueghel and proves that the roots of Dutch marine art lie in the biblical allegories of 16th-Century Netherlands.

For an art with a posture of disinterest in expressive eloquence, there is a surprising amount of it to be seen, along with subtle lessons about life. Jan Porcellis’ “Vessels in a Moderate Breeze” is a moody allegory of prudence showing one sloppily rigged boat headed for trouble while a trim little vessel cruises comfortably out of danger under a roiling pearl-gray sky.

The sea has always functioned as an allegory of life with its calms and vicissitudes, conquests and disasters. The Dutch painted it beautifully in all its moods. There are Vrooms’ lovely, toylike three-masters moving toward the town of Hoorn on a day as perfect as a porcelain teacup. Simon de Vlieger’s “Sailboats in a Stiff Breeze” could be a distant ancestor of Alfred Pinkham Rider’s psychic seascapes. But in Vlieger’s version we know the heeled-over craft is going to brave a sea that has turned to molten gold. Ludolph Backhuysen’s “Ships in Distress Off a Rocky Coast” may be the masterpiece of the show, with its luminous light, operatic ocean and ominous clouds.

The great English Romantic landscape artist J.M.W. Turner was mightily impressed with such work. The apocalyptic side of Dutch marine art predicts Edmund Burke’s theories on the sublime by a century. You can see it coming in Lieve Pieters Verschuier’s “Ships in a Bay at Sunset.” Its strange vortex pattern of clouds suggests modern time-lapse photography. The real miracle of this work is its ability to evoke the feel of light and weather. Clammy breezes and the smell of salt seem to waft out of the frames.

“Mirror of Empire” proffers a wealth of information about everything from the 17th Century’s idea of the shape of the world to a realist’s willingness to bend the facts so that small ships conquer seas that would sink the QE2.

All the same, the sense of realism remains. It says that a taste for the empirical is not a bad thing. It can be more mysterious than imagination, more fulfilling than the exercise of ego. The exhibition is full of battle scenes painted at a time when such pictures frankly glorified war. In the Dutch eye it appears as brutal, chaotic and senseless as we know it to be.

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There are worse things than realism.

* Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., to Sept. 1. Closed Mondays. (213) 857-6522.

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