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Take a look at five masterworks that helped make Fort Worth's Kimbell Art Museum

Caravaggio, "The Cardsharps"
The Kimbell Art Museum
A popular artwork at the Kimbell, Caravaggio's "The Cardsharps" isn't even the only scene of sleight-of-hand thievery the museum has.

The Kimbell Art Museum has been called "a museum of masterpieces." So for its 50th annniversary, here's a choice of five masterworks — with a significance beyond their genius artistry.

Paintings by Rembrandt, Picasso, Goya, Rubens, Monet and J. M. W. Turner — that's just a handful of the artists responsible for the Kimbell Art Museum's 350 artworks.

Now add all of the sculptures, prints, drawings, ceramics and African masks: Picking out five notable pieces among this crowd — well, it's not easy. We could have gone with a couple dozen.

But doing the tough stuff for North Texas arts is what we're all about. So here goes:

1. "The Bodhisattva Maitreya," Southeast Asia, late 8th century A.D.

Bodhisattva Maitreya
The Kimbell Art Museum
"Bodhisattva Maitreya," late 8th century

There are undoubtedly finer bronzes in the Kimbell's collection (consider the delicate beauty of the "Standing Shaka Buddha"). But this slender "Bodhisattva" from the 8th century was the first acquisition for the new museum (added to Kay and Velma Kimbell's original collection). It was chosen by its first director, Richard F. Brown, and is one of the earliest, locally produced bronze artworks from an area we know as Thailand.

It was also the very first piece in the museum's Asian collection — which now includes more than 100 items.

2. "The Cardsharps," Caravaggio, c. 1595
and
"The Cheat with the Ace of Clubs," Georges de La Tour, c. 1630-34

Caravaggio, "The Cardsharps"
The Kimbell Art Museum
Caravaggio, "The Cardsharps," c. 1595
Georges de la Tour, "The Cheat with the Ace of Clubs," c. 1630-1634
The Kimbell Art Museum
Georges de la Tour, "The Cheat with the Ace of Clubs," c. 1630-1634

Surprise. It's a two-fer. So, yes, we cheated when we said only five artworks. But cheating is what these two are all about.

This pair of Old Masters features grifters at work. It's little wonder they're favorites of visitors. Gambling in card games: How "Texas hold 'em" can an art museum get?

"The Cardsharps" by Caravaggio is one of the Italian master's earliest works. It's a clever psychological study as well as a bravura display of his painting skills — designed to catch the eye of an influential patron (which it apparently did).

Buying the painting in 1987 — and proving that it was, indeed, a Caravaggio — snagged the Kimbell international headlines. But — voila — the Kimbell already had an ace in the hole: a second masterwork about cardplay. So the pairing became a wonderful topper.

Georges de la Tour painted "The Cheat with the Ace of Clubs" approximately 40 years after "The Cardsharps" — and was clearly influenced by it. Once again, the viewer is more or less sitting at a gaming table watching a young, wealthy man getting fleeced. And as with the Caravaggio, our eyes follow the hands and the faces, the feathers and the hidden cards.

But by including both men and women, plus a fourth, non-playing character (the serving woman), de la Tour delicately complicates Caravaggio's con game with details of wine, sex and social standing. In the Kimbell galleries, "The Cheat" and "The Cardsharps" play a game of one-upmanship across the galleries.

3. Standing Dignitary, Ancient American, c. 600-1000 A.D.

Standing Dignitary, Wari.jpg
The Kimbell Art Museum
"Standing Dignitary," Wari, AD 600-1000

To modern eyes, the "Standing Dignitary" can look like a four-inch action figure, though it was made more than a thousand years ago in Wari (an ancient civilization in Peru). Assembled of jade, mother-of-pearl, lapus lazuli and silver, it's a remarkable artifact — as much a delicate piece of jewelry as it is a sculpture.

The clearly important totem is so intricately fabricated that he sports earrings, a headdress and a tunic with what seems to be a pattern of animal figures. In other words, the tunic imitates a fabric design, an art form for which the Wari empire is best known. Cloth was well-preserved in desert burials.

As charming as the figure is, the "Standing Dignitary" is an appropriate title: It was the first artwork to enter the Kimbell's Ancient American collection, which now has 33 items. It is also the only known inlaid, freestanding Wari figure — in the world.

4. "Composition No. 8 with Red, Blue and Yellow," Piet Mondrian, 1939-42

Piet Mondrian, "Composition No. 8 with Red, Blue and Yellow," 1939-40
Kimbell Art Museum
Piet Mondrian, "Composition No. 8 with Red, Blue and Yellow," 1939-40

We all know what a classic Mondrian looks like: squares of color on a black grid and a white background.

So what's so special here?

Yes, Piet Mondrian was a great pioneer of 20th century art. He viewed abstract composition not as reductive but as an almost spiritual pursuit.

During his flight from the Nazis, the Dutch artist began "Composition No. 8" in London and finished it in New York in 1942.

With such extreme simplicity and balance, the smallest gestures become significant — even as they also can easily be missed: "Composition No. 8" has a frame, but it actually stands forward from it.

Since the 11th century, frames have lent paintings the distinction of being separate from the wall, the illusion of being a window — and thus contributing to the flat image being seen as three-dimensional. Even modern artists had gone back and forth from thinner and simpler frames (Malevich) to more ornate ones (Picasso).

But for the first time (or so, at least, Mondrian believed), the painting has been "freed" from the conventional cage. It was a subtle revolution, different from a painting simply having no frame.

Here, the abstract painting has no 'depth' yet it steps out. It enters our three-dimensional space. It enters the world of sculpture.

5. "The Torment of St. Anthony," Michelangelo Buonarroti, 1487

Michelangleo's The Torment of St. Anthony
The Kimbell Art Museum
"The Torment of St. Anthony" by Michelangelo

It's a Michelangelo. What more needs to be said?

The Renaissance master painted "The Torment of St. Anthony" on a surprisingly small wooden panel, only about 18 inches by 13. So it's not like one of his later, colossal frescoes.

In fact, "Torment" is Michelangelo's first artwork. It was painted when he was a 12-or-13-year-old prodigy. The young student copied an engraving by Martin Schongauer. But he outdid the German master by turning his black-and-white engraving into color.

As small as it is, it's also the only Michelangelo painting in any museum in North or South America. It's one of only four easel paintings he ever created.

Finally, the fact that the Kimbell could purchase an Old Master this unique and important — in 2009, when art museums were already being priced out of the art market by private billionaires — testifies to the museum's connections, its resources and its skill at targeted acquisitions.

The Kimbell's 50th anniversary celebration will be Saturday, Oct. 8. It includes free entrance and a performance by Fort Worth singer-songwriter Abraham Alexander.

Got a tip? Email Jerome Weeks at jweeks@kera.org. You can follow him on Twitter @dazeandweex.

Art&Seek is made possible through the generosity of our members. If you find this reporting valuable, consider making a tax-deductible gift today. Thank you.

Jerome Weeks is the Art&Seek producer-reporter for KERA. A professional critic for more than two decades, he was the book columnist for The Dallas Morning News for ten years and the paper’s theater critic for ten years before that. His writing has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, Newsday, American Theatre and Men’s Vogue magazines.