Nature rules supreme in all the practical business of the planet. In matters of human dreaming, the imagination is king. The two powers intersect interestingly at the Getty Center in "Landscape Drawings 1500-1900." A selection of 31 works from the permanent collection, the exhibition is about as thematically open-ended as they come.
Dutiful viewers can march through chronologically. The casual may meander. Those of organizational bent will mentally tally works from represented nations--Italy, France, Germany, Flanders and Holland. The judgmental will decide the Rembrandt is superior to the Rubens, the Poussin slightly better than the Claude. Those familiar with the collection will wonder if anything's new. Yes, some things are.
The show, selected by Getty curatorial assistant Anne Lauder, contains several handsome recent acquisitions including a rustic farmyard scene by Hubert Robert, a metaphysical chapel in the woods by Jacopo Ligozzi and a scene by Nicolas Poussin in his usual idealized Neoclassical manner. However, the Getty's latest and most notable find is Vincent van Gogh's watercolor "Bleachery at Scheveningen."
The artist was about 29 when he rendered the work in 1882. Numbering among his earliest landscape drawings, it's a distant view of a field in a windy Dutch sea resort. We make out small figures of working women spreading lengths of cloth treated to be bleached. In style, the piece mixes the then-radical looseness of Impressionism with the structure of Holland's traditional landscape.
The most striking aspect of the work is the way it attracts the eye to the working figures. Although each is little more than a few flecks of paint, Van Gogh's energy somehow fastened on these heroes of the commonplace. They became the focus of his later art. One thinks of the Getty's other Van Gogh drawing, the "Portrait of Joseph Roulin."
What all that tells us, I think, is that in art, imagination is more powerful than nature. The exhibition covers the time span that coincides approximately with the Renaissance and ends with Postimpressionist Symbolism. For most of that period we think of Western art as newly secular and empirical. Yet repeatedly the most interesting work here capsizes objectivity, revealing how the artist feels about his world and his place in it.
Near the Van Gogh, for example, hangs a tiny painting by Leon Bonvin. A French artist, he died too young, in 1866, two years after painting this "Landscape With a Bare Tree and a Plowman." Here one barely notices the figure. Bonvin was enchanted with the golden glow of the sun silhouetting the delicate tracery of a young tree. It appears dead but will bloom again with spring. The painting is about discovering the magic of nature.
But there's another kind of alchemy at work: artistic scaling. If the picture were twice as large, it would be half as fine. There's just something about shrinking convincing reality down to miniature size that delights us. The effect occurs in an earlier drawing by Aelbert Cuyp. He sketched a panoramic view of the Rhine Valley on a paper just a little over 5-by-9 inches. It's so convincing you feel as if you can put the whole geography in your pocket. Maybe it's all a hopeless fantasy of controlling nature.
She even confounded Titian, the great Venetian. His "Pastoral Scene" from around 1565 depicts an Arcadian view of sheep meandering while their keepers take a siesta. Suddenly--bam!--a nude female appears writhing lustily on a rock. A goat and boar prance excitedly nearby. She's so out of whack with the rest of the scene that it could be that either the shepherds are dreaming her or the artist had an unexpected attack of libido. Either way this near-Surreal piece amounts to an admission that, in the end, nature gets her way.
If that bothered Titian, other artists took it more in stride. Peter Paul Rubens' "A Man Threshing Beside a Wagon" shows a fellow entirely in harmony with his existence. Isack van Ostade's image of a dilapidated cottage seems amused that human effort fails while gnarly nature persists.
A few artists seem to wonder, "Isn't there another way?" Ligozzi's chapel pushes its conventionally religious theme to the point of pantheism. Louis-Francois Cassas' "Cascades at Terni" looks so Chinese you wonder if there were French Buddhists in the 18th century. Guercino's imaginary view of a fortified port is more than 350 years old, but it's as metaphysical as a modern landscape by Georgio de Chirico.
It seems that if nature insists on running things, we persist in imagining ways around her.
* "Landscape Drawings 1500-1900," the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center, 1200 Getty Center Drive; through Aug. 23. Parking reservations: (310) 440-7300. Closed Mondays.