Picasso Nudes in 50 Shades of Gray; Lance Esplund

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s astounding “Bernini: Sculpting in Clay” may be the biggest small show ever to hit New York.

It does so with a reverent thunderclap.

The 39 tabletop-scale terracotta sculptures and 30 related chalk drawings are all masterpieces from the hand or workshop of Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680).

The Baroque master, who commanded the largest and most esteemed 17th-century workshop in Europe, created epic, life- size bronze and marble figures, portraits, tombs, monuments and fountains that are the magnificent centerpieces of churches and piazzas all over Rome.

To begin, Bernini drew from classical, antique models for inspiration. Then, working rapidly with his hands, tools and brushes, he sculpted small, forceful studies in clay. These expressive terracotta maquettes -- or working clay drawings -- were used as models in the studio or as examples to win commissions.

Confronted with a Bernini angel, horse, lion, cherub or saint, we experience not a figure but energies and emotions.

Bernini’s exaggerations and distortions are grand and sweeping, yet never feel mannered or overstated -- drama without melodrama.

The clay study for “Charity with Four Children” is as much tornado as figure-group. In “St. Jerome,” drapery radiates outward from the center like lightning bolts. The saint’s tender, handheld Crucifixion is the calm at the center of the storm.

Sometimes Bernini’s inanimate forms feel possessed. In his clay study for the tomb sculpture “The Blessed Ludovica Albertoni,” the nun grasps at her breast in ecstasy, her body equal parts bucking bronco and thrashing sea.

The last section of the show is devoted to an astonishing array of 14 angels, 9 of which stand like sentries as if along Heaven’s corridor.

All I could do was swoon.

“Bernini: Sculpting in Clay” runs through Jan. 6 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Ave. Information: +1-212- 535-7710; http://www.metmuseum.org.

Picasso

Picasso is often considered a master draftsman more than a colorist, especially when compared to that other Modern titan, Matisse.

With “Picasso: Black and White,” the Guggenheim Museum makes a strong case that the artist’s black and white works continue in the tradition of the Le Nain Brothers, Velazquez, Rembrandt, Corot and Braque.

Comprising 118 paintings, sculptures and works on paper, this chronological show has a large number of masterpieces, as well as rarely and never-before exhibited works.

It includes the somber Blue-Period “Woman Ironing,” the stunning Cubist “Accordionist,” “The Charnel House (Le charnier)” and the monumental “Maids of Honor.”

Painting in chords and moods, Picasso extends gray across the entire range of temperament, tone and texture.

His whites are warm and cool, resembling sand, snow, lace, sunlight, bodily fluids, cake icing and soiled linen. Blacks can be stormy, brooding, murky, dreamy and metallic.

“Dead Cock and Jar” is cold and stark, “Bust of a Woman with a Hat” is a wintery mountain peak while the neo-classical “Seated Nude” (1922-23) is the texture of softened stucco.

The inclusion of more drawings, prints and Blue, Rose and Cubist pictures -- the roots of Picasso’s lifelong exploration of black, white and gray -- would have given the later works deeper footing.

But this show is stunning.

“Picasso: Black and White” runs Oct. 5 through Jan. 23 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Ave. Information: +1-212-423-3500; http://www.guggenheim.org.

(Lance Esplund is U.S. art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include a Zinta Lundborg interview and Richard Vines on dining.

To contact the writer on the story: Lance Esplund, in New York, at lesplund@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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