Take a spin through the one-room “New Light on Old Masters” show next time you’re at the Art Institute—if the finely painted surfaces of Gerard David and Rogier van der Weyden can’t stir your aesthetic spirits, there’s not much hope. The textures here are lovely, whether real and protruding from the surface (applied gesso and gold leaf) or fictive and expertly evoked (veined marble panels, rich crimson and ultramarine drapery). The tropes are old but powerful. Check out the hands in the Virgin and Child portraits, for example: always dead center, they enact blessings or tender affection between mother and infant. In one, Mary holds her breast toward the suckling infant’s face just above the spherical apple he grasps in his hand, a visually eloquent emblem of sustenance, temptation and the redemptive promise of the new Adam and Eve. The mini-show highlights discoveries from the recent catalog “Northern European & Spanish Paintings before 1600 in the Art Institute of Chicago.” Some of the results are thrilling in themselves: an infrared photo of a Hans Memling painting shows graphite hatch marks softly modeling figures that glow in oil in the masterpiece next door. And overall, it’s an instructive reminder of the histories of these pieces as objects, subject as they are to the ravages of wear, war and the acquisitive attentions of collectors and museums. (Emily Warner)
At the Art Institue of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan Ave. Ongoing.