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The means to an end can be just as striking: Sir Edward Burne-Jones’ Study of a Head.

Sketches of Spirit
By David Brickman

Victorian Visions
The Hyde Collection, through Jan. 23

It was just a coincidence, but it was a happy one. The day after I’d seen the enchanting film Finding Neverland, about Peter Pan creator J.M. Barrie and his muses, the exhibition Victorian Visions plunged me back into that innocent time of faeries and medieval knights, a world conjured up in the late 19th century by a group of painters calling themselves the Pre-Raphaelites.

As represented in this traveling show from the collection of the National Museums & Galleries of Wales, British artists of the Victorian era were on a magical journey of their own, back to a time before the Renaissance (and Rafaello) when art was a direct response to nature and a pure expression of spiritual feeling.

Fortunately, though this vain conceit would be washed away by the tidal wave of modernism that was already building, there were a few painters among the group and its followers with sufficient skill to leave something of value, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Sir Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris among them. These three and a grab bag of others are included in the selection at the Hyde Collection, which has also been to the Frick Art and Historical Center, Pittsburgh; the Dixon Gallery & Gardens, Memphis; and the Fort Wayne Museum of Art in Fort Wayne, Ind., and will travel next (and last) to the Columbia Museum of Art in Columbia, S.C.

Though this is not a show that will knock your socks off, it has a quiet seductiveness about it that will draw viewers in gradually. Organized in groups under the headings Drawings for Drawing’s Sake, Studies for Paintings, Studies for Commissions, Designs, and Finished Watercolors, the selection lacks any of the large-scale finished works that this group is known and loved for. Rather, there are numerous drawings and watercolors, a few of them sufficiently complete to stand as works of art on their own while the majority range from highly polished studies to working drawings to mere sketches.

For lovers of drawing itself and of the artistic process that often relies on it at the earlier stages (and I am one), this show offers many pleasures. The Pre-Raphaelites are known for ravishing painting technique, and many of the drawings here display its sublime foundation. Depending on your taste, you may find the sketchier energy of the Rossettis or Alfred Stevens’ vigorous lines most enjoyable—but for me the ethereal and confident Burne-Joneses simply steal the show. And, luckily, there are a lot of them.

In one trio of drawings, Burne-Jones applies black and white chalk to buff-brown paper in a careful study of plump songbirds. Each 8-by-12-inch sheet depicts several birds in various positions of flight or repose, capturing their skittish energy in deft strokes.

Another set of three drawings shows the head of a female model, individually twice and in two poses on one page, each drawn in very delicate, smooth pencil, so pale as to nearly disappear into the paper. The girl appears two times with eyes closed, and in one drawing with head thrown back as if in a swoon; the others show her striking profile, which Burne-Jones emphasizes with slightly darker lines, and in one drawing she’s opened her mouth to cry out. Though made in preparation for a painting, these three studies are so lifelike, and at the same time ghostly, as to be worthy of consideration on their own—in fact, I think they’re the best pieces in the exhibition.

Among the finished watercolors are many fine pieces, including a robust male-nude study by the great American painter John Singer Sargent that is out of place in this group but nevertheless wonderful to see. There are also a highly detailed still life of fruit by William Henry Hunt, a strong portrait of a black actor by John Anster Fitzgerald and several fetching landscapes. One of the outstanding watercolor landscapes is a Turneresque view of a port at night, all in blue and gold, by Albert Goodwin.

The section on commissions features the work of just one artist, Sir Edward Poynter, and is the least fascinating part of the show due to Poynter’s workmanlike style. His drawings, though skilled, lack passion (perhaps a direct result of having been commissioned). The catalog statement that Poynter “was regarded as one of the best academic draughtsmen of his time” is telling; though he probably made a good living, Poynter—as represented here—was a forgettable artist.

Then again, commercial art when applied to other uses often retains its vigor, as is the case in spades with Morris, whose endless creativity reinvigorated the arts and crafts of England and established a decorative style much remembered and used today (in the form of wallpapers and fabrics). Here he is represented by a design for a stained-glass window and by a really beautiful watercolor and pencil design for a printed fabric that was said to have been Morris’ favorite of the period, called snakehead.

Another beautiful example from the design section of the show is titled Five Designs for an Inlay, Cardiff Castle by Thomas John. Though intended to be carved in wood, and hence monochromatic, John exercised a lot of playful color in his tall, curvaceous arrangements of plant and vase forms. Appropriately, this delightful set of studies was pulled out by the Hyde to be the introductory piece at the start of the show.

The exhibition is accompanied by a nicely produced catalog that reproduces all the works and helpfully adds pictures of some of the paintings and other final pieces for which the studies were made.


Reality Show

The Arts Center of the Capital Region, through Feb. 27

Arts Center curator Gina Oc chiogrosso has put together a fairly diverse group of eight artists who “study, capture and comment on the real world.” Not surprisingly, photography is a significant presence, but painting dominates this selection.

In usual ACCR fashion, there is a combination of artists from near and far (including Chicago and Los Angeles)—and, as usual, the hometown team more than holds its own. Hudson Valley painters Deborah Zlotsky (Delmar), James Dustin (Coxsackie) and Phyllis Palmer (Tivoli) each apply sound thinking and consummate technique to their respective series of a child’s drawings; architectural space and light; and back-view portraits. All three are first-rate bodies of work.

Also in usual ACCR fashion, there are pedantic exhibit notes written by the curator that attempt to instruct the viewer in how to interpret the art. I suspect I am not the only one to find this practice particularly annoying.

Yet another fine local painter, Dave Austin, is represented in a sidebar solo exhibition in the President’s Gallery as 2003’s selected Fence Show artist. Austin’s prodigious 2004 output shows he’s growing into an intriguing and skilled interpreter of paranoia and alienation in contemporary America. Definitely one to watch.

—David Brickman

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