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VOL. 127 | NO. 5 | Monday, January 9, 2012

Grand Masters Arrive at Dixon

JONATHAN DEVIN | Special to The Memphis News

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For the New Year, the Dixon Gallery and Gardens chose an exhibition so grand it wouldn’t all fit through the doors.

The Dixon Gallery and Gardens opens the New Year with “Rembrandt, Rubens, and the Golden Age of Painting” from the Speed Art Museum in Louisville and “This Must Be the Place,” a group show of Memphis photography by local artists. (Artwork: Courtesy of Collection of the Speed Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Berry V. Stoll)

No problem, said Dixon director Kevin Sharp. Museum officials just expanded the doors.

“This isn’t the first time since I’ve been here that we had a crate so big that we couldn’t get it through the doors,” Sharp said. “The first time it was a Joe Jones mural. I am not going to miss an opportunity to show a great work of art because I can’t get it in the building.”

This time it’s the “Portrait of Madame Adelaide” (circa 1787) by Adelaide Labille-Guiard, an oil on canvas measuring more than 107 x 73 inches, on loan from the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Ky.

“Adelaide,” a formally posed portrait of one of the daughters of Louis XV in a red, ruffled dress, is one of 70 paintings presented in “Rembrandt, Rubens, and the Golden Age of Painting” – a collection of Grand Master paintings. Its appearance in Memphis is by a rare exchange of collections, which is becoming more common as museums look to cut down on costs.

“I got to the Dixon about the same time that Charles Venable became the director of the Speed Art Museum in Louisville,” Sharp said. “We’re both Americanists, so we knew each other. We struck up a conversation and before our meeting was over he was forwarding a checklist of great pictures in Louisville to me. It was obvious that we would make perfect partners.”

In return, the Dixon sent more than 50 of its best Impressionist paintings to the Speed Art Museum. In the spring, Sharp will lead a group of Memphians to Louisville to see the Dixon’s collection exhibited there. The exchange gives both museums a chance to explore periods of art which are not their own bread and butter. The Grand Master works date from 1600 to 1800, before the age of Impressionism.

In the grand style, figures were painted in luxurious detail, made to look larger than life and exhibiting the finest in clothing, jewelry and possessions meant to certify the subject’s personal status. Impressionism is the exact opposite. Landscapes and portraits were painted as common, every day people would see them in real life.

“We’ve dipped our toe into the waters of old Master paintings, but this is another level altogether,” said Sharp. “The Masters had huge ambition and technical ability. They were speaking to ideologies, ideas, core beliefs and they expressed those with such incredible ability.”

“Adelaide,” for example, was painted before a shadowy wall lined with columns topped by Corinthian capitals, which would have suggested her position as royalty, and fashionable royalty at that. Her hand rests on an easel supporting an oval-shaped silhouette portrait recently unveiled by a black velvet drape, seemingly to make her a figure in arts and culture.

Julie Pierotti, assistant curator said that paintings in the exhibition come from Britain, France, Germany, Spain, and Austria and that each country has its own take on the pomposity of the genre, some more relaxed than others.

“There’s definitely a French style,” Pierotti said. “Some of the later works in the exhibition are from the Rococo period which is really ornate, but of course the Spanish art is very dramatically religious, which I love.”

Just outside the main galleries at the Dixon, though, patrons can get a feel for every day life in Memphis in a photographic exhibition – something the Dixon is just now exploring – by area photographers titled “This Must Be the Place.”

Tommy Kha, Yujin Liao, Jordan Hood, Ian Lemmonds, Frances Berry and Michael Darough are among a hand-picked set of artists interpreting Memphis, not by its landmarks like the Hernando De Soto Bridge or The Pyramid, but by its seldom seen nooks and crannies.

“This is the first time we’ve had photography in this particular gallery,” Pierotti said. “The more that I do these shows, I’ve learned that there are great photographers in Memphis, but photography just doesn’t get the representation it deserves.”

“Rembrandt, Rubens, and the Golden Age of Painting” runs Jan. 22 through April 15. “This Must be the Place” opens with a reception with the artists on Jan. 19 from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. and continues through March 4.

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