‘Connections’ worth making, viewing

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If you owned 200 sculptures, 2,000 paintings, 20,000 drawings and watercolors, and 31,000 prints, you’d probably think it impossible to ever look through them all. However, you are probably not the Yale Center for British Art. The center recently launched a website of its online collections, britishart.yale.edu, which will be updated regularly until the entire prints and drawing collection is represented online.

Yale Center for British Art

The collection’s digitization is accompanied by “Connections,” an exhibition of over 200 works of art designed to give the viewer a feel of what it’s like to go through the center’s extensive catalogs. (Visitors can search through the online catalog from their personal computers or even at the center itself, as there are computers in the exhibit hall.)

“Connections” succeeds in providing viewers with a sample of British art from the early 17th to early 20th centuries in a variety of both subject matter and artistic media. The exhibit is divided into different sections, some of which are based on artists, others of which are based on themes. As expected, a good portion focuses on, well, Britain, such as the royal palace of Whitehall, the hunt and Modernism.

Although easier to appreciate if you have some knowledge of British art and/or history, “Connections” does appeal to a vast audience. Amid the lithographs, etchings and paintings of the picturesque British landscape, there are some surprises.

One section of the exhibit (although found in many sections on the website) is devoted to anatomy and the human body. It’s not that out of place, though. In the 18th and 19th centuries, history paintings depicting mythical, literary or historical subjects were considered a high form of art, and thus mastery of the human figure was essential.

A notable work is George Stubbs’ “A Comparative Anatomical Exposition of the Structure of the Human Body with that of a Tiger and a Common Fowl,” a series of sketches of each of these animals in gradual stages of dissection. Stubbs has captured the entire process, in which layers are stripped away until only a skeleton remains.

Another highlight, albeit a more conventional one, is Peter Paul Rubens’ painting “Peace Embracing Plenty,” depicting a glorified hug between two cherubic figures.

But the exhibit as a whole contains art that is worth a look, especially since “Connections” contains several works that are rarely on view. The paintings tend to overshadow the smaller works of art, so be sure not to miss the miniature chalk drawings, mezzotint prints and sketches, including several by English portraitist and landscape painter Thomas Gainsborough.

Fast-forward 150 years and you’re in the final section of the exhibition: British Modernism of the 1930s, which features an interesting set of maquettes by sculptor Henry Spencer Moore.

Moore’s maquettes (miniature models that became full-scale final works if they held his interest long enough) are a welcome change from a painting-heavy show, but fail to escape the common “I could’ve done that” sentiments common to visitors of modern art exhibits.

Overall, “Connections” succeeds in showcasing what the center has to offer, for first-time and veteran visitors alike. Although the pieces will still be available online long after the exhibition closes Sept. 11, they are certainly worth seeing in person.

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