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ART : COMMENTARY : The Raising of LACMA : On the 20th anniversary of the ‘Lazarus’ donation, a new guide honors the Ahmansons’ pivotal gifts of European art to the county

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Rembrandt’s “The Raising of Lazarus” (circa 1630), darkly rendered in oil on a wood panel when the precocious artist was just 24, is a small shocker of a painting. Slightly more than three feet high and a bit less than three feet wide, it depicts the most dramatic moment in thefamiliar New Testament story of the resurrection of the dead brother of Mary Magdalene and Martha.

Deep in a gloomy burial cave, lit only by a radiant glow emanating from somewhere beyond the picture’s edge, Jesus stands atop a heavy stone lid that has been dragged from the dead man’s tomb. His right arm raised high, he commands Lazarus to rise.

For the record:
12:00 AM, Mar. 22, 1992 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 22, 1992 Home Edition Calendar Page 87 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
In a March 8 commentary on “The Raising of Lazarus” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Lazarus’ sister Mary was mistakenly referred to as Mary Magdalene. The incorrect information was listed in a LACMA catalogue.

Through Rembrandt’s brilliant decision to pose the figure of Jesus in a manner adapted from conventional compositions of the triumphantly risen Christ, this supernatural event is subtly claimed as a mystical prefiguration of the forthcoming Resurrection. The pale, white-shrouded body of Lazarus, dead for four days, struggles to lift its sunken and sallow head toward the light.

We are not the only witnesses to this miraculous spectacle. The wide-eyed Magdalene, her golden hair illuminated by the picture’s brightest light, throws up her hands and drops her jaw in a stunned and disbelieving gasp. Frozen in silence, three penumbral men adjacent to her bend forward and stare.

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Finally, from the deepest patch of pictorial darkness, which Rembrandt ironically casts in a plane closest to the viewer, the shadowy figure of Martha emerges. Faceless because seen from behind, she is cast as a dramatic counterpoint in the earthbound reaction to the unearthly miracle.

Alone among the cluster of spectators--a cluster that includes you, as you peer into the darkness--Martha reels backward, away from the amazing sight. The angle of her body, which conspicuously parallels both the angle of Jesus’ up-raised upper arm and the straining torso of Lazarus, uniting all three into a concerted trinity, propels her away from the opened tomb.

Does she recoil in terror? Perhaps. The nuance with which Rembrandt characteristically describes emotion in the faces or gestures of his figures is among his greatest gifts--a nuance nowhere more compellingly conveyed than in this picture’s face of Jesus, who seems alternately fearful of, and surprised at, the magnitude of his awesome power.

Yet, Rembrandt typically imagined his compositions as real events happening to real people in real places. Given such full-bodied complexity, another explanation for Martha’s contrary pose seems equally plausible--and even more fitting.

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Simply, she is reeling from the stench. Martha, who is positioned closest to Lazarus, has drawn her body back from the terrible rot and the stink of putrefaction that would rise from a dead man’s grave. “The Raising of Lazarus” may represent the first time a painter ever created an image meant to be smelled as well as seen.

A triumph of imaginative power, it’s an extraordinary work of art and a major early effort in Rembrandt’s career. It also ranks among the greatest pictures in any Los Angeles collection. This amazing painting has hung in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art since 1972, the year it was given to the institution in memory of its former owner, the wealthy local banker, Howard F. Ahmanson (1906-68).

In honor of the 20th anniversary of that munificent gift--and in recognition of the 46 other European paintings and five sculptures subsequently given by the Ahmanson Foundation, H.F. Ahmanson and Co., and members of the Ahmanson family--LACMA has now published a handsome and informative guide to these often pivotal donations. Both scholarly and readable, the book has been admirably produced by curator Philip Conisbee and by assistant curators Mary L. Levkoff and Richard Rand.

Ahmanson gifts have frequently marked additions of major significance to LACMA’s collection of European art made since the 15th Century. Many have been duly noted at the time of acquisition. Still, their accumulation during the last two decades adds up to something larger than the sum of its parts.

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The new publication provides an opportunity to consider bigger, less immediately obvious collecting patterns at the museum (where the works are exhibited in the Permanent Collections Gallery). One surprise is the imposing group of three large, very fine Mannerist paintings from Italy and Holland, by Giorgio Vasari, Hendrick Goltzius and Joachim Wtewael, which have been acquired since 1981.

The bizarre, even arcane eroticism of all three is astonishing, while the rarity of the Goltzius and the unfamiliarity of the otherwise obscure Wtewael offer ancillary pleasures. Added to the wildly brittle Mannerist picture by Rosso Fiorentino already in the collection, these four make for a startling array of important examples of this often underappreciated art. You just don’t see pictures like this every day.

By contrast, the book also confirms what was hitherto just a hazy inkling--namely, that Baroque art in general, and 17th-Century painting in particular, has steadily become a prominent focus of the museum’s European collection.

About two-thirds of the Ahmanson gifts have been from the Baroque era--roughly 1580 to the mid-or late-18th Century--while more than half of the 52 offerings date from the 17th Century. Coupled with the abundant promised gifts of 17th-Century Dutch painting from the estimable collection of Mr. and Mrs. Edward Carter, not to mention LACMA’s existing holdings, the museum has been quietly developing considerable depth and breadth in this focused period.

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The Ahmanson gifts represent work from a variety of regions, especially Italy, France and Holland, but including Spain and Flanders. The absence of German art is a notable gap--and a somewhat ironic one, given LACMA’s unusual strength in modern German painting, sculpture and graphics. But German Baroque was first and foremost an architect’s art, and painting and sculpture in the loose conglomeration of 17th-Century German principalities lagged in the face of the brutal Thirty Years’ War. (Italy’s Giovanni Battista Tiepolo painted a lot of decorations in Germany, but LACMA’s small Tiepolo records a ceiling executed in Milan.)

For several reasons, collecting Baroque painting is a daunting task. Works by certain crucial artists--Caravaggio and Poussin, to name only the most obvious--are not likely to come your way without divine intercession. Furthermore, the intricacies of international currents in Europe during that explosive era make for all manner of difficulties in attempting anything approaching a comprehensive collection.

The Ahmanson donations have been nonetheless significant in this regard. For instance, three of the most important French artists of the 17th Century--the mysterious Georges de La Tour, Flemish expatriate Philippe de Champaigne and Italian-inspired Simon Vouet--are each represented by a fine religious picture. When taken together these very different works suggest the remarkable diversity among artists whose careers overlapped.

The nearby presence of two pictures by Bolognese painter Guido Reni further recalls the profound influence his classicist work was to have on Vouet. Meanwhile, Reni’s own early tutelage under Flemish painter Denys Calvaert suggests the complex relationships that had developed between artists in Northern and Southern Europe. The resulting admixture is demonstrated by two different fusions of mystically evanescent faith and classically ordered calm: Champaigne’s jewel-like portrait of an enraptured “St. Augustine” (ca. 1645) and La Tour’s contemplative “Magdalen With the Smoking Flame” (ca. 1640).

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One problem for the collection is the absence of a great Baroque altarpiece--not an easy thing to come by, but of central importance nonetheless. The Ahmanson gifts have included an oil sketch for a notable altarpiece in Cadiz by Spanish painter Bartolome Esteban Murillo and an autograph replica of one in the city of Somme by French artist Antoine Coypel. But, the closest the collection comes to a substantial example is a large, decidedly vulgar “Adoration of the Shepherds” (ca. 1630) by the minor Lombard painter, Tanzio da Varallo.

Still, the weakest additions among the 52 gifts are the three 19th and early-20th Century French pictures, all of them minor. This period is, of course, a glamorous one in the eyes of many. Yet, in the face of other marvelous acquisitions by such earlier celebrated figures as Jacopo Bellini, Domenichino, Jean-Simeon Chardin and Frans Hals, as well as first-rate contributions by such lesser-known artists as Carel Fabritius and Pedro Berruguette, the flimsy canvases by Jean Millet, Claude Monet and Edouard Vuillard are trivial pursuits.

Baroque art is a complex business. It records seismic shifts and struggles in European culture, many of which had profound effects on shaping Europe’s numerous colonies in the New World. The 1789 revolution in France, inspired in part by its American predecessor, definitively signaled that the rapidly unraveling era had come to an end. In the magnificent Ahmanson gifts to the County Museum, a number of its most profound and compelling threads are admirably laid out.


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