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Mad Old Lear Mingles With Sappho, Circe in Cameron Show

Julia Margaret Cameron
"Sir John Herschel" (1867) by Julia Margaret Cameron. Eminent Victorian figures such as the astronomer and mathematician Sir John Herschel were captured by Cameron. Source: The Rubel Collection/William Rubel/The Metropolitan Museum of Art via Bloomberg

Shocks of white against blackness, the screwy hair flashes like lightning in a night sky. In Julia Margaret Cameron’s portrait, astronomer and mathematician Sir John Herschel stares at the world through enormous melancholy eyes.

In high contrast, Thomas Carlyle’s rugged features and fiery beard convey a gritty urgency. He looks roughhewn, carved out of stone.

These images stand out among the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition of 38 photographs by the British portraitist.

Pairing the latest technology with a soulful disposition, Cameron (1815-79) focused her lens on eminent Victorians, capturing them as if in a romantically tinged haze.

Nostalgia drives these dark, ethereal and idealized portraits, in which blurring suggests apparitions, great minds in motion -- a world dissolving.

Nymphs, goddesses and angelic children implore with dreamy eyes. There are images of Sappho, in the Florentine Quattrocento style, the seductress Circe and the Mountain Nymph of Sweet Liberty.

And in what Cameron referred to as her “fancy subjects” -- allegorical vignettes of King Lear, Guinevere and Lancelot, Don Quixote and the Madonna and Child -- an overt sentimentality cloys like perfume.

I want to not like these maudlin pictures, which have come epitomize of the Pre-Raphaelite sensibility. But I have a soft spot for Cameron’s dogged romanticism, which sacrifices sophistication for manufactured beauty.

I prefer her willful and theatrical manipulation to the unearned emotion driving most paintings from the period. Viewing this captivating show, knowingly pulling at our heartstrings, is akin to peering through a crystal ball at a vanishing age.

Japanese Brush Writing

Among about 180 works in “Brush Writing in the Arts of Japan,” the Met’s beautiful, varied and striking exhibition, is a handwritten invitation to a banquet.

The only extant letter by 12th-century courtier-poet Fujiwara Akisuke, its brevity and perfunctory nature have been compared to that of an e-mail.

It reminds us not of communicating on our smart phones, however, but of the fact that in true communication, how is as important as what we write.

For Asian calligraphers brush writing -- with bones, blood, meat and spirit -- reveals the soul of its maker.

This show’s calligraphy and complementary ceramics, textiles, lacquers, woodblock prints, playing cards and illustrated books brim with life.

Water Lilies

The best works here convey the essence of the poet’s subject, which is often nature. A large pair of Edo-period flowering cherry and autumn maple folding screens shimmers, immersing us as if in Monet’s water lilies.

An Edo writing box, with a portrait of Fujiwara Ietaka and his poem about the Tatsuta River, is embellished with word and image. Its crystalline surface depicts a sparkling brocade of maple leaves trapped beneath a thin sheet of ice.

Elsewhere, the subject is erotic, as in an illustrated woodblock print by Okumura Masanobu. Twisted, animalistic, coiled like springs, three clothed figures are just about to engage in carnal pleasures.

“Julia Margaret Cameron“ runs through Jan. 5 and “Brush Writing in the Arts of Japan” runs through Jan. 12 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Ave. Information: +1-212-535-7710;

(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 Rich Jaroslovsky on tech and Laurie Muchnick on books.

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