European Masterpieces: Six Centuries of Paintings
Portland Art Museum, 1219 SW Park, 226-2811
Through Jan 6

Exposing the breadth of change that occurred within the art world between the 14th and 20th centuries is certainly a daunting task. Yet, with all their might, the Portland Art Museum presents European Masterpieces: Six Centuries of Paintings from the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia, an exhibit of 88 paintings from an array of European artists. Displayed in chronological order, the selection attempts to shed at least a small amount of light on the transitions that shaped 600 years of art history. This mind-boggling tour through time begins with The Crucifixion, made by Paolo Veneziano circa 1349, and culminates in The Second Marriage, produced by David Hockney in 1963. What falls between varies in style and content, yet what remains constant is the awe-inspiring thread of masterful painting. European Masterpieces presents Portland viewers with the relatively rare opportunity to simultaneously view work by such masters as Rembrandt, EL Greco, Monet, Pissaro (image above is Boulevard Montmarte, Morning, Cloudy Weather, 1897), Magritte and Picasso.

Digesting this entire exhibit in a single visit is near impossible. But for starters, consider this mode of viewing: Just as one may skim over an epic poem and select favorite passages for deeper consideration, within the exhibit there are pockets for one to sink into. There are two such segments that stand out as opportunities for significant moments of pause.

The first section of the exhibit is steeped in regal portraits and religious iconography- lush works like The Holy Family by Perino del Vega, and Jacopo Tintoretto's portrait, Doge Pietro Loredano. While these examples are undoubtedly fine work, there arrives a point further into the exhibit that provokes a stronger connection with the viewer. Two paintings that hang alongside one another mark a point in time when the established mode of portraiture attempted to do more than portray--they sought to confront the viewer. Portrait of a Cardinal by El Greco (ca. 1600-1605) and Portrait of a Young Man (formerly Self-Portrait) by Gianlorenzo Bernini (ca. 1615-19) are examples of work that goes beyond the surface of the skin and digs into the psychological state of a person.

Bernini's painting reveals a brooding young man, peering tentatively at the viewer over his shoulder. There is a vulnerability about the subject that draws one in for a considerable amount of time. The portrait exposes a duality of sorts. The young man is a specimen of beauty--with dewy skin and strong features. Yet, in his eyes is a certain turbulence, a certain dose of caution and alarm. It is curious that there is some question amongst historians regarding who the sitter actually was, or if Bernini was actually the artist. At one point, many thought it to be the work of Velasquez. Still others believed the painting to be Bernini's self portrait. It is almost desirable that such would be the case, for it would mean that Bernini sought to expose himself in the truest way possible, by allowing us to investigate the truth lurking in his eyes. Next to Bernini's work is the El Greco piece, which is similarly haunting. The Cardinal is portrayed by way of a dark palette; gray tones cast a shadow over his sharp, angular features. His eyes are downcast and mournful; by proxy he shares the same anguish-filled space as Bernini's subject.

Fast forward a good 300 years, and you'll discover another sorrowful portrait, but this one crafted in a much different style. In 1937, Picasso painted Weeping Woman. The painting reveals the face of a woman crying, represented by a geometric contortion of bold, angular lines accentuated in green, black, and purple. Weeping Woman can be interpreted as PIcasso's reaction to the horror of the Spanish Civil War. Yet, knowing a bit about his track record with the ladies, the painting seems to speak more clearly of Picasso's personal life. The Weeping Woman could very well be Dora Maar, who was just one of Picasso's many mistresses. Over time PIcasso's wily ways sent Maar into the throngs of a mental breakdown. In Weeping Woman Picasso depicts her face contorted by the pain of jealousy (enter the color green).

The success of the aforementioned portraits is sealed by this: Each face resonates with the blue-black part of our psyche, the dark corners of the mind that we cannot resist investigating.