Friday February 4, 2011

WILLIAMSTOWN -- Behind the faces in the "Eye to Eye" portrait exhibition, now at the Clark Art Institute, lies a compelling story of how detective work animates the museum world.

No less is it a story of a remarkable collection, pulled together in a breathtaking five years by a computer-industry mogul who thought he had no eye for art.

Finally, it leaves the viewer to ponder the elusive relationship between artist and sitter, sitter and viewer; stirring questions about the na-ture of human connection and the ways it is translated through art.

The show, organized by the Clark's senior curator, Richard Rand, and di-rector of exhibitions, Kathleen Morris, is on view through March 27. Spanning four centuries of Western European art history, it includes 30 paintings and one sculpture by such masters as Hans Memling, Lucas Cranach, Parmigianino, Peter Paul Rubens, Antony van Dyck and Jacques-Louis David.

Many of the artworks have never been seen publicly, much less shown in an exhibition. In some cases, questions of who the sitters are, the reasons the paintings were made and even who painted them, are debated in the catalog and left unanswered. Such is the nature of art research when consensus can't be reached

What the curators involved do agree upon, however, is the extraordinary quality of the collection.

"It is amazing," Rand said.

Its owner, Aso O.


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Tavitian, the co-founder of a technology company, Sync-sort, said he never thought he had an eye for art.

"My wife died," he said in a brief interview at the Clark last Sunday, "and I began arranging the house the way I thought she would have wanted it."

Having bought a house in Stockbridge, in addition to one he owns in New York, Tavitian turned to the Clark, where he is now a trustee, for advice. Before long, the house-decorating project grew into something much more ambitious.

"He caught the bug," said Rand of Tavitian's art-buying, "and he became passionate about it."

"He does his homework and gets [expert] opinions," Morris added, "but he will not buy unless he responds to it. And he has great instinct for quality."

Amassing a string of famous artist names was not a priority for Tavitian, both curators said. Still, they were surprised that he could snag so many Old Masters in such a short time, buying through auctions and private dealers..

His acquisitions extended to landscapes and still-lifes, but it was the portraits that interested Rand and Morris when they approached him about loaning work for a Clark exhibition. With his consent, they chose about 75 percent of them for this show.

The 30 artworks form a brief survey of Western European approaches to the genre, beginning with a 1465 oil likeness of Anthony of Burgundy from the workshop of Rogier van der Weyden, and ending with Jacques Louis David's 1820 pendant portrayals of a French couple, supporters of Napoleon Bonaparte, who were exiled to Brussels, as was David himself, after the emperor was ousted from power.

Morris said she and Rand divided the selections to research She took the Italians and Spaniards; he the Flemish, French and Germans. Few had been systematically researched, Rand said, adding that it was a new experience for him to work with a collection so early in its formation.

In tracking attributions, Morris explained, curators typically study brushwork or the treatment of hair or hands, among other telling features, to compare with undisputed works by possible creators. Experts on particular artists may also be consulted; the record of ownership is researched.

Sometimes, the identification of a sitter, or why a particular background or object is featured can't be fully explained and must be left to conjecture. Once the findings are published in a catalog, other art experts can respond, building the pool of knowledge.

"Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Lira de braccio," painted by an unknown Italian artist around 1510, is one example. 

In it, a long-haired, pale-faced youth, cloaked in brocade and framed in a window, holds a Medieval stringed instrument with its bow pointing to his heart. A lemon sits on the window sill.

Multiple clues suggest it may have been painted by Piero di Cosimo (1462-1521), but others point to Domenico Beccafumi (1484-1551). The experts can't agree.

Who was the youth? Why is he posed as he is? What does the lemon represent? Disappointment in love is one suggestion, but the puzzles persist -- for now.

Some of the works are compelling for other reasons. A young woman in rich dress and a ruffled collar, painted by Giovanni Battista Moroni (1520-78), casts a penetrating stare at the viewer. In a painting by Antoine-Jean Gros (1771-1835), a young soldier, who had lost both his father and brother in Napoleon's assault on Russia in 1812, gazes tenderly from the canvas, as if, said Morris, he was looking at his mother, who had commissioned the portrait of her only surviving son.

It is this kind of sympathy between sitter and viewer, artist and sitter that invests so many of the portraits in "Eye to Eye," Morris said. It is a sympathy that evidently spoke to Tavitian and that gives the exhibition its particular resonance.

Beyond that, lies the stamp of the artist himself -- the style of his brushwork and the way he chose to portray the sitter.

Those decisions, Morris said, can reveal as much about the artist as they do the subject, giving weight to the claim that every portrait artist is really painting himself.

To reach Charles Bonenti:
(413) 496-6211
cbonenti@berkshireeagle.com