Sunday, June 15, 2014

Early Modern Faces at Newcomb Gallery

The people pictures we see all around us today usually look far removed from renaissance old master portraits, yet both can reflect "modern" ideas. Even though this Early Modern Faces expo at Newcomb hews to the renaissance and related traditions, traces of modernity often lurk beneath the surface. Paolo Veronese's circa 1580 Portrait of a Woman as Saint Agnes, left, becomes almost mind boggling as we realize that the lady in question is a flashy blond decked out in opulent gold brocade, silk and lace. She looks more flirtatious than pious, and there is no way to know if that little tome in her hand is a prayer book or something spicier. Even the little white lamb in her lap--a symbol of sainthood--looks curiously like a pet poodle. Further investigation reveals that many young, soon to be wed, ladies of renaissance Italy had their portraits painted as saints to emphasize their purported "purity," even if they ended up looking more like renaissance versions of Vogue glamour shots.

While there is no shortage of virtuoso brushwork by vintage art stars here, these masterworks are sometimes startlingly simpatico with both antique and avant-garde styles. Paul van Somer's 1620 Elizabeth, Vicountess Faulkland, (top) reveals a smirking noblewoman in an outrageous Peruvian Colonial looking outfit, but her hairdo is even wilder, a kind of medieval bouffant with a filigree of flowers and lace. An extravaganza worthy of Max Ernst, this somehow recalls both Frida Kahlo and The Bride of Frankenstein, left. And Henry VIII, Mary I and Will Somers the Jester, above, an anonymous mid-16th century court painting of imposingly outfitted royals looking like they're plotting palace intrigue as a sinister jester skulks grimly in the shadows, is also improbably cinematic. Curated by Newcomb art historian Anne Dunlop, and featuring works loaned by Houston's stellar Blaffer Collection, this old master portrait show suggests that, rather than a fixed period of time, the aesthetic meaning of "modern" may  involve a certain, psychologically expressive, state of mind. ~Bookhardt

Early Modern Faces, European Portraits, 1480-1780: Paintings and Prints by Old Masters, Through June 29, Newcomb Art Gallery, Tulane University, 865-5328