The picture of collaboration

Special to The Times

Masterpieces can be intimidating. And museums often fortify art's off-putting authority by suggesting that creative geniuses have nothing in common with ordinary folks who visit exhibitions.

At the J. Paul Getty Museum, "Rubens and Brueghel: A Working Friendship" flies in the face of such snobbery. Neither intimidating nor short on genius, the user-friendly exhibition features 13 of the approximately two-dozen paintings Peter Paul Rubens and Jan Brueghel the Elder made together in Antwerp, Belgium, from 1598 until Brueghel's death in 1625.

If you have ever worked with anyone or have experienced the sacrifices and synergies of enduring friendship, you will feel an immediate bond with Rubens and Brueghel, each of whom went out of his way to accommodate the strengths and idiosyncrasies of the other. It's a great feeling and one of the best things about the first major exhibition dedicated to the collaborative works of the legendary painters.

Organized by the Getty and the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in The Hague, the smart, focused show combines groundbreaking scholarship with crowd-pleasing accessibility -- unlike blockbusters, which trade intellectual integrity for a big gate and can be seen quickly, like other highlights-only sightseeing.

In contrast, "Rubens and Brueghel" requires a couple of hours of intense looking, despite being made up of only 27 paintings. Its story -- of artistic give-and-take maturing into vibrant reciprocity -- unfolds before your eyes, once they have adjusted to the particularities of each artist's touch.

Excellent wall labels provide just the right amount of guidance, making it easy for viewers to teach themselves how to look at the paintings. Brought together from 13 museums and one private collection across the U.S. and Europe, the lively, inventive, often cinematic pictures offer myriad details to discover. And the collaboration between Rubens (1577-1640) and Brueghel (1568-1625) transforms everyone's understanding of early 17th century Northern European art.

It all starts with "The Battle of the Amazons" (1598-1600), the earliest known collaboration between Rubens and Brueghel. The approximately 3-foot-by-4-foot oil on panel divides neatly in half. It looks like two paintings in one: a writhing swarm of half-naked Greek and Amazon warriors stabbing, slicing, skewering and otherwise dispatching one another amid galloping horses, blaring trumpets and bright yellow flags in the bottom half and, in the top, an atmospheric landscape of towering trees, distant mountains and smoky sky.

The figures, painted by Rubens and aglow with dazzling highlights, overshadow the landscape by Brueghel, which has the presence of a movie backdrop. Although each artist adapted to facilitate the collaboration -- Brueghel lowering his typically high viewpoint and Rubens using a smaller scale -- the result is oddly static.

This shortcoming suggests not simple failure but that something out of the ordinary was taking place between two of Antwerp's most revered painters. At the time, the rising middle class had a voracious appetite for first-rate pictures. To keep up with demand, many painters acted as subcontractors, hiring other, less renowned painters to do the detail or background work of lucrative, time-consuming commissions.

In such pragmatic collaborations, one artist often dominated and the other played a supporting role, or both subordinated their individuality to the demands of a unified composition. The latter is the case with Brueghel's four fine collaborations with Hendrick van Balen, two with Hans Rottenhammer and one with Hendrick de Clerck. In each of these small, beautifully resolved paintings, Brueghel handled the landscape and secondary figures and the other artist painted the main figure groupings.

The three paintings Rubens made with Frans Snyders flaunt Rubens' command of the human body, not to mention a viewer's emotions. Snyders plays a subsidiary role in "Prometheus Bound," (1611-12) "Diana Returning From the Hunt" (1616) and "The Head of Medusa" (1617-18), adding the eagle, basket of fruit, hunting dogs and writhing snakes to Rubens' tour de force depictions of the flesh's pains and pleasures.

"The Battle of the Amazons," by Rubens and Brueghel, stands out because of the preeminence of both painters, and because of its attempt to make vivid the equality of the partnership.

The same is true of "The Return From War: Mars Disarmed by Venus," a significantly larger picture Rubens and Brueghel painted from 1610 to 1612. It's an aggressively disheveled composition, with loads of armor, weaponry and tools scattered throughout a cavernous forge where the god of war is seduced by the goddess of love, with the assistance of four dutiful Cupids.

Again, the figures belong to Rubens and the setting to Brueghel. This time, however, the complex interior, jampacked with bronze cannons, leather harnesses and elaborate metal implements, comes closer to holding its own alongside the couple.

The cluttered darkness of the vaulted interior complements the urgent secrecy of the divine lovers. But the juicy, painterly sheen Brueghel uses to depict the pile of gold and silver armor Mars has just shed is no match for the fleshy loveliness of Rubens' nude Venus, whose complex posture and serpentine curves form the picture's riveting center.

Infrared and X-ray photography reveal that Rubens painted out a significant section that Brueghel had completed, changing the original composition on which they had agreed. Brueghel did not object; he painted additional details to integrate Rubens' alterations. This suggests that the two artists worked together closely, and that the painting probably changed from a depiction of Venus alone in Vulcan's forge to an allegory of peace celebrating the Twelve Years' Truce of 1609, between the Protestant Northern provinces and Catholic Southern Netherlands.

A side gallery outlines the impressive high-tech study of the previously unknown painting. Acquired by the Getty in 2000, it is the impetus for the exhibition.

A pair of paintings, "The Sermon on the Mount" (1598) and "The Entry of the Animals Into Noah's Ark" (1613), and a pair of studies, "Hunting Dogs" and "Asses, Cats and Monkeys" (both 1615-16), by Brueghel show why he was known in his day as "Velvet Brueghel." His father was Pieter Bruegel the Elder, renowned painter of comic scenes of busy village life. The son favored exquisitely observed detail and smooth paint application. Specializing in flora and fauna, he often endowed plants and animals with more sentience than embodied by many people.

To see Rubens' solo works, cut through the courtyard to a gallery that features "The Calydonian Boar Hunt" (1611-12), another newly discovered painting the Getty just acquired. Another exhibition, "Rubens and His Printmakers," focuses on drawings, etchings, engravings and woodcuts the artist made himself or commissioned others to produce.

As Rubens' and Brueghel's collaboration continued, the struggle to balance each artist's talents drove them to ingenious, highly charged inventiveness.

"Feast of Achelous" (1614-15) is set in a fossil-filled grotto, giving Brueghel the opportunity to endow the fantastic landscape with some of the sexy energy Rubens wrestles from the twisting limbs and stretching torsos of his group of nude deities gorging themselves on a cornucopia of shellfish, which Brueghel painted with lavish aplomb.

"Flora and Zephyr" (1617) shows the goddess of flowers and the west wind in a garden chockablock with flowers. But the figures have a cut-and-paste abruptness -- as if they were inserted into the sumptuous setting by means of collage or an early version of Photoshop.

In "The Garden of Eden With the Fall of Man" (1617) the collaborators hit the jackpot, perfectly balancing Rubens' meaty nudes, whose flesh seems to glow from within, against Brueghel's virtuoso, perspective-bending depiction of Paradise, filled with a menagerie of happy animals, except for the evil serpent. It's the only creature both artists worked on, Brueghel doing the face and Rubens the coiled body.

To see the difference in their techniques, compare Eve's golden hair with the fur on any of Brueghel's animals. Brueghel depicts individual strands with scientific precision, enticing viewers to savor the smallest details. Rubens does not bother with single hairs, but instead paints larger masses of texture, movement and light. Up close, this shows off his dazzling brushwork. From farther back, it invites viewers to pay attention to the bold gestures of bodies moving through space.

Other paintings, including "Pan and Syrinx" (1617), "Allegory of Taste" (1618), "Diana at the Hunt" (1620) and "Diana's Sleeping Nymphs Observed by Satyrs" (1620) are similarly integrated, fusing the genius of each collaborator in pictures that make an art of playfulness.

We've always known that Rubens and Brueghel took their work seriously. Now it's clear that they also had a lot of fun working together. It's a pleasure to get in on the act, to see such uncompromising talents working in concert.

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'Rubens and Brueghel: A Working Friendship'

Where: J. Paul Getty Museum, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles

When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and Sundays; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; closed Mondays

Ends: Sept. 24

Price: Free

Contact: (310) 440-7300; www.getty.edu

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