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ART REVIEW : Getty Unveils Its ‘Holy Family’

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TIMES ART CRITIC

The English artist Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769--1830) made piles of money selling glittery, vainglorious portraits to the local aristocracy, from King George IV on down. And he spent even bigger piles of money, acquiring one of the greatest collections of Old Master drawings ever assembled.

However, because Lawrence’s collecting-cash went out faster than his painting-cash came in, the artist was in considerable debt when he died. The executors of his estate did the logical thing: They offered the incomparable collection of drawings to George IV and to the British Museum.

Both turned it down, in perhaps the biggest blunder ever made in the history of British art collecting. Residents of Los Angeles can be grateful for the mistake. For thus began a curious sequence of events that brought to town Michelangelo’s magnificent drawing, “Holy Family with the Infant Saint John the Baptist” (circa 1530), formerly in the Lawrence collection.

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The J. Paul Getty Museum, which acquired the sizable chalk-and-ink drawing 18 months ago, has finally put the work on public view for the first time in the United States. The absorbing exhibition, which continues through March 26, seeks to place Michelangelo’s gracefully monumental rendering in the context of his art--including that of its remarkable history of ownership.

Michelangelo (1475--1564) had kept the drawing, as had his heirs, until the direct line of descent ended early in the 19th Century. Filippo Buonarroti then sold it to the minor French painter Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Wicar, who had made a major impact as official looter of Italian art for the Louvre during the Napoleonic Wars. From there, it eventually crossed the English Channel to Lawrence.

Lawrence’s estate turned over the painter’s collection to his principal creditor, the dealer Samuel Woodburn, who arranged a series of sales. In 1836, an unknown buyer acquired the Michelangelo, and it promptly disappeared from view for more than 100 years. Word of the drawing surfaced briefly in the 1950s, when the eccentric British collector Eustace Robb showed it to two historians for their opinion, and then it disappeared again until 1993, when it turned up at Christie’s London auction house, presumably consigned by Robb’s heirs. $6.27 million later, it was on its way to Malibu.

So, the provenance comes to an end on the Pacific shore. Along the way the drawing has had some name changes: from the brief “The Repose” in 1836 to the wordy “The Holy Family with the Infant Baptist on the Rest on the Flight Into Egypt” in 1993, to its shorter name now. Current speculation is that the drawing depicts the return from, not the flight into, Egypt.

It’s a long way from Florence, Italy, where the drawing was probably made, to Los Angeles 450 years later, but the precarious history of buying, selling, disappearing and resurfacing is now over. The Getty has a crown jewel for its exceptional collection of more than 400 drawings, brilliantly assembled in just the last dozen years.

In part, the Michelangelo is important to the collection because of its marvelous quality, which Getty director John Walsh has ranked with the finest by the great Renaissance artist. It appears to be in very good condition, too, with a few minor tears in inconspicuous places.

For the exhibition, curator Nicholas Turner has placed the drawing alone, in the center of the gallery, in a specially constructed, two-sided, vertical display case. In addition to the “Holy Family,” which dominates the 11-by-15 3/8-inch sheet, the reverse contains quick, airy sketches of the outlined head of a long-beaked bird, numerous phallic markings and, most prominently along the right edge, a group of amorous cherubs at play.

Some have thought these erotic doodlings on the verso might not be by Michelangelo, but Turner argues that they are. Exhibition cases that line the gallery walls hold 19th- and 20th-Century books and reproductions, almost all borrowed from the Getty Center for the History of Art and Humanities, and they offer comparative examples of related works by the artist. Included are convincing pictures of other, similar erotic drawings that Michelangelo made as gifts for the young Roman nobleman, Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, with whom he fell in love in 1532.

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It’s unusual to see a contextual museum exhibition in which all the comparative material consists of books and photographs, not other works of art. Such a show accomplishes two things: It gives museum visitors a general sense of the kind of research art historians undertake in exploring works of art and, in particular, it suggests the scholarly resources available to them in the low-profile Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities.

The “Holy Family” drawing is the main event, though, and it’s a jaw-dropper. Michelangelo used a variety of drawing tools to show the sheltering Madonna, the grave St. Joseph, the gamboling children and the rest: a sharp stylus, black and red chalk, and pen with brown ink. Though its purpose is unknown, the suggestion that it may have been a study for a never-executed marble carving in low relief is bolstered by the range of drawing finishes.

The figures of the Madonna and child are the most heavily worked, with the adjacent figures of St. Joseph and St. John the Baptist less prominently rendered and, at the left and right peripheries, the two angels and a donkey only faintly sketched. These decreasing levels of finish, from the most important figures to the least, may correspond to intended depths of carving for a marble relief.

One of the most exciting features is the way the drawing shows the artist changing his mind as he worked. Most prominently, the face of the Madonna was rendered twice: first, in an unfinished view in which she looks straight at the viewer; second, in a more finished version, in which her head is tilted to the side to gaze downward at the infant St. John beneath her upraised arm. The drawing records Michelangelo’s evolving thought.

This is significant in understanding why the magnificent, two-sided drawing is so critical to the Getty’s young collection. Michelangelo was the artist who made the practice of drawing pivotal to art for the next four centuries.

Drawing was pivotal because, as the clearest and most direct record of artistic thought, it showed the artist to possess an inventive, individualistic intelligence. No longer would European artists be considered mere craftsmen, skillfully executing patrons’ ideas. Gradually, from the Renaissance on, the artist would be established as an idea-man all his own.

* J. Paul Getty Museum, 17985 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu, through March 26. Closed Mondays. Parking reservations required: (310) 458-2003.


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