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Aug 2003 Journal

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Art Notes

Grenville Lindall Winthrop read law at Harvard but the last 43 years of his life were devoted to his passion: the study and collection of nineteenth-century art. He collected some 4,000 works, and finally bequeathed the lot to Harvard. A Private Passion, at the National Gallery until September, sponsored by ExxonMobil and organised by Harvard's Fogg Museum, features some of these treasures. There is the French Revolutionary painter, Jacques-Louis David, as much a politician as an artist, with his powerful and vivid portrait of Napoleon 1; William Blake, all hellfire and mysticism; the doom-laden romantic pre-Raphaelites, including William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti; the emotional French artists, like Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and Gustave Moreau; and the cooler, dispassionate Americans, like Walt Whitman and John Singer Sargent. Winthrop has truly catholic tastes, and appears to favour narrative works or those of breathtaking splendour, such as Moreau's sumptuously gilded Jacob and the Angel.

Winthrop also enjoys literary and artistic references, alluding to painters, Greek philosophers and poets, like Virgil, Homer, Delacroix and Dante. Rossetti, whose winsome women with luxurious locks and sensuous sighs, echo a familiar classicism and mirror his grief at the loss of his wife, Elizabeth Siddal, the model for his painting and his poem, The Blessed Damozel. Many were modelled on Jane Burden, who married his friend William Morris. Winthrop also can't resist a sea-nymph or two, like Sir Edward Burne-Jones's smug mermaid, who has brought her unfortunate sailor to the sea bed without realising he has drowned.

Aubrey Beardsley's succinct ink and graphite sketches executed during his Japanese phase are included. One, of Salome gazing at the head of John the Baptist, is a cooler and more subtle version of Moreau's Apparition of the Baptist, which stops the voluptuous Salome in mid-dance.

The American provenance is altogether calmer. One of Whistler's three Nocturnes, hastily painted from memory, is a blue and silver twilit view over the Thames to Battersea Church. It perfectly evokes the drift of this hour, even though it was once described by Ruskin as 'a piece of dirt thrown in the face of art'.

Not all the victims of Nazism were Jews. Expressionism was on the wing as the Third Reich marched in, and among its greatest visionaries was Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, whose exhibition at the Royal Academy continues until the end of September. His subjects share an austere symmetry but no communication. Influenced by Van Gogh, Munch and Chagall, Kirchner's view of German city life is one of urban isolation. Stylised, nonchalant women strut on a circle while men in dark suits and hats balance precariously on triangular plinths. We see that his irony both skims the surface yet looks deeper. For all its vibrancy Kirchner's work is full of dark presentiment. He volunteered as an artillery driver in 1915 to avoid conscription, but suffered a breakdown which shadowed the rest of his life. Ostracised by his country and declared degenerate by the Nazis, he committed suicide in 1937.
Gloria Tessler

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