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The enduring and the ephemeral

2/24/2016

Two exhibitions at the Des Moines Art Center demonstrate polar qualities of art — the enduring and the ephemeral. “Arts & Letters,” through May 1 in the Anna Meredith Gallery, explores connections between literature and the visual arts. Some 70 works come from more than 500 centuries of art-making and four millennia of storytelling. Artists range from Albrecht Durer to Kiki Smith, Rembrandt to Robert Indiana, Delacroix to Anna Gaskell.

Kiki Smith (American, born 1954). “Companions, 2001.” Lithograph on two sheets. Collection of Kirk and Doreen Blunck, Des Moines.

Kiki Smith (American, born 1954). “Companions, 2001.” Lithograph on two sheets. Collection of Kirk and Doreen Blunck, Des Moines.

It is one of the most accessible shows the center has mounted in awhile. I realized that after hearing a 7-year-old point excitedly at a Kiki Smith lithograph exclaiming “Mommy, look it’s Red Riding Hood.” Her glee was contagious. I began happily recognizing characters from tales that have entertained me since I was her age.

Greek mythology is represented by Theodore Chasseriau, Emile Antoine Bourdelle, Nicolas Ponce, Durer, Henri Matisse, Johann Gruninger, Richard Westall and Salvador Dali. Aristophanes’ Lysistrata is shown as Pablo Picasso saw her. Old Testament heroes are revealed by Jacques Callot (Judith), Rembrandt (the prodigal son, Abraham and Isaac), Durer (Adam and Eve), Georg Lemberger (Balaam) and William Blake (Job). The New Testament is covered by Albrecht Altdorfer, Henry Ossawa Tanner and Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo.

The devil, in various manifestations, is given his due. A series by Eugene Delacroix covers the Faust legend as does Henri Fantin-Latour. Alfred Lord Tennyson is interpreted by Jasper Johns, Lord Byron by Eugene Delacroix. Lady Murasaki’s heroes from “Tales of Genji” (the world’s first novel) are shown in woodcuts of Utagawa Kunisada II and Utigawa Kuniyoshi.

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Shakespeare stars, too. Macbeth is interpreted by Robert Kohl and Wilhelm Lembrecht. Hamlet’s Ophelia by Delacroix. Macbeth and Iago are revealed in Fred Wilson’s stunning black glass sculpture. Frank Stella gives Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” an odd twist in “Stubb & Flask Kill a Right Whale.” Thomas Hart Benton gives Mark Twain’s “Huck Finn” a more straightforward take. Max Slevogt chips in with the death of Uncas from James Fennimore Cooper’s “The Last of the Mohicans.”

The literary star of this show is Lewis Carrol’s “Alice in Wonderland.” She is expressed in a series of 12 illustrations by surrealist Salvadore Dali and also by two photographs — of most curious young girls — by Des Moines native Anna Gaskell. The Des Moines artist Mary Kline-Misol, whose long series of Alice paintings has been honored by the International Lewis Carroll Society, seems conspicuously missing.

The exhibition is rounded off with both a Victor Valery color etching and Mark Dion’s replica sculpture of book stalls from Paris. There are several historic, embellished books, most notably William Morris and Edward Burn-Jones’ “The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer.”

This grew from a small show into a major exhibition after Colorado businessman and Des Moines native Keith Shaver bequeathed his art collection to the art center. The University of Iowa and the Salisbury House also loaned major pieces.

Also at the museum, through May 29 in the Print Gallery, “Graaaficaa Itaaalianaaa” explores the failed political art of 20th century Italy. Seven-year-olds will not recognize friends here. This is a show for scholars. It demonstrates how intermingled politics and art were in Italy last century. The futurism of Fillippo Marinetti acts as a focus. He waged war on nostalgia, tradition and history. The crowds who still react positively to those things at “Arts & Letters” mimic the chant of “Scoreboard” to Marinetti’s ideas.

The show has great value for students of Italian futurism. Works cover all regions of the country and comment in depth on the political outcomes that dashed Marinetti’s dreams. Ironically, Marinetti thought museums should be abolished, yet his ideas would be even more obscure had he succeeded.

Together, these two shows give one a glimpse into what stands the tests of time or not. CV

Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.

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