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An Intimate Pontormo Show Outshines The Met's Big Delacroix Retrospective


This is FRESH AIR. In the age of blockbuster art exhibitions, it can happen that a small show can make just as big an impression as a large one. That's what happened to our classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz on a recent trip to New York.

LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: I was visiting New York for a few days to meet some friends who were visiting New York for a few days. It was particularly good timing for art lovers because the Morgan Library was having a small show called "Miraculous Encounters," featuring a masterpiece I'd never seen before by one of my favorite artists, the 16th century Italian painter Jacopo Pontormo. The subject of the painting is the Visitation, the tender meeting between the Virgin Mary and her elder cousin Elizabeth when they were both pregnant. Pontormo's painting is a large altarpiece from a parish church outside Florence. The figures are life-size. It had recently been restored and was coming to America for the very first time.

Pontormo loved startling colors. Mary is draped in a deep blue cloth. Elizabeth is wearing green and orange. In the style known as mannerism, the figures are unusually tall, elongated. Each one holds the arm of the other. They almost seem to be dancing. Two handmaidens not mentioned in the Gospel stand impassively right behind them almost crowding them. Down a hill in the town behind them, you can just barely make out two tiny figures on a bench and the head of a tiny donkey sticking out from behind a wall. Ordinary life still goes on. Mary, with her reddish-blonde hair, is a ravishingly beautiful young woman, but her face is in shadow. Why? Would her unshadowed beauty be too much to bear? Or is she already in the shadow of her tragic future? What a mysterious combination of innocence and sensuality. A remarkable drawing in this Morgan Library show is Pontormo's self-portrait. Even as a young man, he seems a little strange. As an old man, he got even stranger, famously keeping, for example, a detailed record of all his eating and digestive functions.

Just as I was leaving for New York, I received an invitation to the press preview of an important, new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art - the first major American retrospective of Eugene Delacroix, the 19th century French painter whose flamboyant work broke with the more classical past and practically defined romanticism. This massive show displaying some 150 works originated at the Louvre, which owns Delacroix's largest paintings - too big, too fragile and too famous to leave home - like the spectacular Death of Sardanapalus, a technicolor orgy of sadomasochism almost 13 by 17 feet. Too bad it couldn't travel to New York, though the Met show includes Delacroix's preliminary sketch and his own brilliant, small-scale copy.

Maybe the star attraction is Delacroix's evocative Women Of Algiers In Their Apartment, in which three harem women and their black servant seem to be looking inward, not merely posing. And for all the exotic costumes and lavish jewelry, Delacroix's color palette is surprisingly subdued. It's one of his rare paintings of a contemporary subject - something he actually saw on a trip to Algiers. This seductive work both influenced and anticipated landmark 20th century paintings by Picasso and Matisse. But for all their color and drama or melodrama, the excitement of their brash brush strokes and their undeniable historical importance, only a few of these works convey what I look for most in painting - an inner life. So at least on that ground, the little Pontormo show was, for me, the bigger experience.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz teaches in the MFA Creative Writing Program at the University of Massachusetts Boston. His latest book of poems is called "Little Kisses." He reviewed exhibits by Jacopo Pontormo at the Morgan Library and Delacroix at the Met. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, as our divided nation votes and awaits the outcome of the election, we discuss the time in our history when America was most divided. We talk with Andrew Delbanco about his new book "The War Before The War" focusing on slavery and the Fugitive Slave Act. It's about the struggle for America's soul from the Revolution to the Civil War. I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: We'll end today's show with music by jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove, who died Friday at the age of 49. He established himself as a leading young trumpet player in the jazz world, but he also enjoyed playing with hip-hop and neo-soul musicians like Questlove, D'Angelo and Erykah Badu. This is from Hargrove's album "Earfood."


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROY HARGROVE'S "SPEAK LOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lloyd Schwartz is the classical music critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.