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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, February 22, 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 8
Old Master exhibit at SAM a must-see
Arts & Entertainment
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Old Master exhibit at SAM a must-see

Kenwood House renovation offers Seattleites a unique opportunity

by Eric Andrews-Katz - SGN A&E Writer

THE TREASURES OF KENWOOD HOUSE, LONDON
SEATTLE ART MUSEUM
Through May 19


Kenwood House is located at Hampstead Heath on the outskirts of London, and was (at one point) the stately home of Lord Iveagh of the Guinness brewery legacy. The art collected there since the early 17th century is legendary, consisting of many of the great portraitists of the art world. Now undergoing an extensive renovation, Kenwood House is allowing the art to travel on loan - some of it for the first time outside of the building, never mind out of the United Kingdom. Seattle Art Museum (SAM) is one of just four U.S. venues to host a selection of these wonderful classics.

Some of the European masters included in this exhibit are the noted portraitists Thomas Gainsborough, Joshua Reynolds, and Anthony Van Dyck. The jewel of the collection is the late-in-life self-portrait of Rembrandt (Harmenszoon van Rijn). 'It was one of the first paintings [we] hung,' says SAM exhibit curator Chiyo Ishikawa. 'It felt [like] he was presiding over the happenings.'

Standing alone on a red wall for emphasis, the Rembrandt keeps an eye on the other great masters of his time. While this is his sole work in this exhibit, there are seven paintings by Gainsborough, nine by Joshua Reynolds, and two by Van Dyck among the 48 paintings from the much larger Kenwood House collection.

SERENDIPITOUS OCCURRENCE
'Putting together this exhibit was simple in comparison [to other exhibits],' Ishikawa says. 'Most of it was organized by a third party, the American Federation of Arts.' Based in New York, the AFA works as a liaison between lending institutions. For this exhibit several factors came into place simultaneously, making the transition smooth. 'The art needed to be moved due to the construction at Kenwood House,' Ishikawa reports. 'So the AFA became involved approaching potential venues and sending out proposals with layouts, schedules, and costs. It was probably the most straightforward transaction I've worked with.'

Moving through the gallery is like taking a silent look into the lives of the upper bourgeoisie of the time. It doesn't matter that the average person today doesn't know who these people were - it is their images that we are captivated by. Lady Brisco (c. 1776), by Gainsborough, shows a formally dressed woman in a powdered pompadour wig of the time, surrounded by trees and accompanied by her playful dog. Looking over the details of her fine dress, the viewer easily notices each golden thread, or may be drawn to the carefully represented strand of pearls about her elongated neck. Looking up into the pale face it seems as if the painted lips are about to speak, and we await her announcement.

The Portrait of Pieter van den Broecke (whose subject looks amazingly like actor Geoffrey Rush), by the Dutch master Frans Hals, was painted in 1633. Hals' talent was considered equal to that of Rembrandt, his contemporary. The subject of this painting is an average merchant seaman enjoying moderate success and a friendship with the painter. But the portrait is so finely painted that the viewer expects it to come to life at any moment, exploding into laughter and extending a hand at the joke.

A 17th-CENTURY LOLCAT
Don't think the portraits are all stuffy or stifling, because there are many parts of life represented here. In one painting by Joseph Wright of Derby, two young girls play dress-up with their kitten. The play of light in the painting shows cherubic faces in their delight, with chubby cheeks, an impish smile, and eyes mischievously reflecting in the candlelight. Their delight is solely their own - the poor kitten stares directly out at the viewer with an expression of sheer terror.

While the collection focuses on the portraits, there are beautifully crafted landscape scenes as well. Dutch painter Aelbert Cuyp's (1620-91) View of Dordrecht (c. 1655) shows a harbor coming alive in the early morning as boats and rafts begin moving on the water. Although they are painted with clarity, the boats are only part of the picture. It is the sunlight coming in from off the edge of the canvas that helps to bring reality to this scene. Depth is portrayed with the distant harbor and the clouds dissipating in the morning sun.

The layout of the exhibit at SAM is easy to follow and allows the viewer to spend intimate moments with the paintings. 'Most curators can [lay out the exhibit] as they want,' Ishikawa says, but the AFA wanted the right to see and approve the layout at SAM. Seattle is the third city (after Houston and Milwaukee) to host the exhibit, but SAM doesn't attempt to mimic either of the previous galleries, nor Kenwood House, in its layout. 'There's no denying SAM is a modern, neutral building,' notes the curator. 'So I tried to focus on showing [the paintings] to their best advantage with enough space, so visitors can get a one-on-one experience.'

SEATTLE BONUS EXHIBIT
In addition to the Kenwood House collection are paintings from seven different Seattle collections in a separate exhibit titled European Masters: Treasures of Seattle. 'There are overlaps with the Kenwood House, with paintings by Hals and one or two others,' reports Ishikawa, but it more complements than completes. Among the paintings included is one in the series of Titian's The Madonna of Sorrows, a beautiful oil portrait of a crying Mary that clearly illustrates the Venetian master's talent. The Seattle gallery is not to be missed.

Kenwood House was built in the early 17th century. Lord Iveagh donated it to the British government in 1927, upon his death as stated in his will. Now a museum, the building is open to the public and in recent times has hosted approximately 150,000 visitors a year. While not all of the Kenwood collection is on tour (Vermeer's The Guitar Player, for example, is too fragile to travel), the Seattle Art Museum is lucky enough to be hosting an excellent representation. Those planning a visit to the U.K. are advised that the house will be under renovation until at least November of this year.

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