Art exhibit creates new order

European masterpieces offered in nontraditional style

— The latest exhibition at the Denver Art Museum is a tour of six centuries.

From Renaissance religious paintings on wood panels to Surrealism, 88 paintings are offered in a nontraditional style.

"This is truly a rare opportunity to see examples of virtually all the major schools and movements of European painting," says Timothy J. Standring, Denver Art Museum's curator of painting and sculpture.

It is an even rarer opportunity to see the exhibition, "European Masterpieces: Six Centuries of Paintings From the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia," presented in a thematic style.

Before each major exhibition, the museum meets with focus groups to discuss how it will be presented. For "European Masterpieces," the group was offered three options: chronological with oldest first, modern-to-Renaissance order and thematic.

The group chose thematic.

"People aren't familiar with the oldest works. They told us they would just walk right by the oldest works," says Julie Behrens, a museum spokeswoman.

For most visitors, the most likely memory of the exhibition will be the placing of Picasso's "Weeping Woman" next to the unsigned, 15th-century "Portrait Profile of a Lady" in the exhibition's comparison portrait room.

Critics have said that the Picasso painting, one of a series, was painted from the inside out, showing the distress of the days just before World War II. The Florentine work features a woman wearing a yellow miter headdress trimmed with pearls and an elaborate broach crowned by a baby angel. She is shown against a dark green background.

The two works are in a room with three pairs of portraits done by different artists, set side by side to demonstrate differences in style.

Picasso's 1937 painting was inspired by his muse and lover, photographer Dora Maar. Maar, who photographed the Nazi bombing of Guernica, became a recluse after splitting with Picasso in the late 1940s.

Adding to the painting's mystique is its theft from the National Gallery in Melbourne in 1986. Feeling intense police pressure, the thieves left the painting in a locker at a railway station. The case has never been solved.

Barry Humphries, known to the world as Dame Edna Everage, visited the exhibition recently while in Denver for a three-week run at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts.

Humphries, a Melbourne resident who has visited the Victoria gallery many times, said he was uncomfortable at first seeing the paintings outside their usual order. But when he left, he commented: "I see why they have done this. It makes people think and talk about these works."

That is Standring's goal. "Many museums in America have ossified because they have adopted an iconic, reverential, approach," Standring, an art professor as well as museum curator, said.

Other well-known paintings include Camille Pissaro's "Boulevard Montmartre," Paul Cezanne's "The Uphill Road," Joseph Mallord William Turner's "Val d'Aosta" and Rembrandt's "Portrait of a White-Haired Man."

The works are among paintings by 75 artists touring the United States while the National Gallery of Victoria is closed for renovation. The artists include El Greco, Rembrandt, Claude Monet, Rene Magritte, David Hockney, Thomas Gainsborough and Amedeo Modigliani. The other U.S. tour stops are Fort Worth, Tex.; Cincinnati; Portland, Ore.; and Birmingham, Ala.

They are displayed in rooms divided into such themes as religion, landscapes, moral lessons, the human figure, Impressionism and a grand salon.

"It makes the paintings more accessible to families instead of focusing on curatorial prowess," said Tony Ellwood, deputy director of the Melbourne museum.

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