When Once Is Not Enough

Only a museum superpower like the Louvre would attempt a show as audacious as this: 69 paintings from seven centuries, with only a formal device to link them together. And only the Louvre--with its vast storehouses and borrowing muscle--could pull it off. "Polyptychs: Multi-panei Paintings from the Middle Ages to the 20th Century" (through July 23) traces a zigzag path from the Master of Cesi's gold-leafed triptych (circa 1300), showing scenes from the last days of the Madonna to Pierre Soulages's "Polyptyque J" (1987), an overly elegant slab of black paint articulated solely by furrows in the surface. The show's very premise is off the wall: that artists who work with double or triple panels must have something profound in common. (The Louvre is putting together another such roll-the-dice exhibition in 1992, intended to make connections between the old masters and moderns like Giacometti and Rauschenberg.)

The exhibition kicks in at the beginning of the 14th century, with the emerging notion of a painting as a self-contained object, not just as decoration on gold-encrusted furniture. These works of art-larger ones for church altarpieces and smaller ones for private devotion--usually took the form of triptychs when the hinged panels were open (a central scene, with wings) and diptychs when the doors were closed. Medieval polyptychs were the movies--or at least the comic strips--of their day, telling stories from the Bible in a series of scenes. With the Italian Renaissance, painters developed new techniques of perspective and believable modeling, and began to prefer the spatial consistency of single compositions. Use of the polyptych declined drastically. But the Renaissance came later to Northern Europe than it did to Italy, and there multipaneled painting remained a fertile form well into the 16th century. The meticulous accuracy of oil painting, combined with a Gothic flatness, produced an effect that foreshadowed surrealism. Although even the Louvre isn't able to borrow the greatest and most fragile of these polyptychs--Hubert and Jan van Eyck's Ghent altarpiece, Matthias Grunewald's Isenheim altarpiece and Hieronymus Bosch's "Garden of Earthly Delights" in the Prado--the exhibition offers other powerful examples of the northern style. Jan Gossaert's "Diptyque de Jean Carondelet" (1517) is equal parts pious boasting and memento mori--a double-sided diptych with the donor praying to the Virgin recto, and his coat of arms and skull verve.

With the multipanel format out of fash ion for a couple of hundred years (one exception: a small Rubens triptych from 1610, "Erection of the Cross"), "Polyptyques" flashes forward to the 19th century. While true greats like Manet, Monet and van Gogh were off creating modern painting on conventional canvases, the polyptych was revived by academic salon painters and such spiritually inclined artists as the Nazarenes and pre-Raphaelites. Perhaps they sensed that their own era was a little hollow; they turned to art history, often with overbearing sentimentality (Christ never looked so coifed and coutured, angels never more airworthy). Then they fell into that esthetic twilight zone--unconscious parody--where the most enjoyable stuff was often created by modest talents with overreaching ambitions. Sir Edward Burne-Jones's "History of Troy" (1870) is a dizzying, if not dazzling, unfinished painting of a marbled frame that's almost a piece of architecture. A painting within the painting details the downfall that Helen sparked. Where Burne-Jones is afloat on his own romantic mist, Leon Frederic is enraptured by Victorian social conscience. His three-part "Ages of the Worker" (1895-97) celebrates the rise of the working class in a tempest of surprisingly upbeat, plump figures.

Fragmenting a painting: In the 20th century, multipaneled paintings are either gratuitous or genuinely inventive. Abstract polyptychs work only when the number of components appears to have some structural necessity. The Soulages piece could just as well be one big panel instead of four smaller ones, and the 13 modular panels of Serge Poliakoff's "Mural Composition" (1967) might have grown to 100 with no loss of proportion. And with photography and film so much better at storytelling, contemporary figurative artists are hard put to find compelling reasons for indulging in multipanels. In the hands of a profoundly witty painter like the Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte, however, the very nature of the polyptych presents an opportunity for wicked satire. His 1930 "Eternal Evidence" is a coolly ribald deconstruction of the tradition of the nude in Western art. Why worry about fragmenting a painting, Magritte seems to ask, when the way we moderns look at life is already so compartmentalized?

The American contemporary Jasper Johns is equally astute. In "Voice 2" (1971), he splits the work into three parts, then each part into two (vertically, horizontally and diagonally). He pulls the piece together with gray, fissures it again with touches of orange, red and yellow, and unites it with the title, lettered across the whole. The triptych boasts the best brushwork this side of Cezanne; Jan Gossaert might have thought it a little rough, but he would have admired the mark of a real pro. And he might even have appreciated Johns's allusion to an echo in which a "voice," bouncing from canvas to canvas, maintains its subtle strength.

In the art world these days, there's a lot of rhetoric about the supposed elitism and irrelevance of painting. Most of it comes from a new avant-garde that thinks that deconstructing and reassembling the mass media is art's most important business. There's also a lot of sadly empty talk about the transcendence of painting. Most of it comes from frightened painters and critics trying to keep the faith. Once in a while, along comes an exhibition transcendent enough to back up painting's wishful thinkers. "Polyptychs" is one of them. Its underlying theme is that painting is not just a quaint taste for a certain medium, but rather a constant and wonderful realization of humanity's better side. And the complexities of multipaneled paintings reveal artistic intelligence as clearly as the most intimate little sketch. To see the Johns and the Gossaert, the Magritte and the Frederic conversing with one another on the most familiar terms is to know that painting stands on firm and enduring ground.