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Rubens stars in a regal art collection

HAS any painter been blessed with more pure, unadulterated genius than Peter Paul Rubens? Or been as fortunate to be born at precisely the appropriate time for his particular talents? I can think of none. Not even Michelangelo surpassed him in sheer brilliance and range -- although he did so in depth and grandeur of vision. And Raphael, Leonardo, Rembrandt, El Greco, Goya, and C'ezanne, extraordinary as their painterly gifts were, could not match those of Rubens in sheer magnitude or verve. That leaves only Picasso, who certainly had the imagination and vitality, but who lacked Rubens's good fortune to live in an age that nurtured and focused genius within a rich artistic tradition rather than forcing

it to redefine itself from picture to picture.

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I was reminded of all that while viewing Rubens's magnificent cycle of six huge narrative paintings now on view at the Metropolitan Museum here. They are the star attractions of ``Liechtenstein: The Princely Collection,'' an exhibition of paintings, sculptures, decorative arts, and firearms from the fabled holdings of the reigning Prince of Liechtenstein. Coming upon them after viewing several rooms packed with merely excellent work is very much like hearing the ``Hallelujah Chorus'' at the conclusio n of Handel's ``Messiah.'' It's an overwhelming experience, even though it isn't Rubens at his very greatest, and the best of the canvases, ``The Death of Decius Mus,'' is somewhat flawed by baroque excesses.

Still, there can be no doubt that one is in the presence of genius of the very highest order, of the kind that consolidates and integrates individual creativity, cultural values, and ideals with an artistic tradition's demands for full formal realization. Rubens's monumental pictures are rich, complex, high-spirited, and profoundly life-enhancing, and they are among the high points of Western painting's greatest century. Almost everything that followed was either smaller in scope, limited or fragmented , or concerned with a totally different vision of what painting should be.

Rubens's genius also extended to very small pictures. Witness his radiant study in this show of his daughter Clara Serena at about the age of 5; several stunning oil sketches; and the head of a bearded man that probably took no more than two hours to paint, but which is as alive and solid as any of the portraits by Frans Hals. But if Rubens is the star of this immense and quite overwhelming princely collection -- the only one, by the way, from the Holy Roman Empire to remain in private hands -- he is not the only important artist to have superb works of art on view. His pupil Anthony van Dyck is represented by several outstanding paintings, including his famous ``Portrait of Maria Louisa de Tassis''; and another Flemish painter of significance, Quentin Massys, very much holds his own with ``Portrait of a Canon.''

Among the roughly 100 paintings on view are fine examples by Franciabigo, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Hans Lielich, Matthias Stomer, Jan Fyt, and Dirk Valkenburg, as well as a portrait attributed to Raphael and a haunting small study of a man by an unknown French artist of the mid-15th century.

Sculpture, primarily of the sort derived from classical models or from Michelangelo, is well represented, as are beautifully ornamented tabletops, decorative paintings, early and late European porcelains, weapons of all sorts and sizes, ivories, horse trappings, and such incidentals as a perpetual calendar, a precise rendering of the princely crown jewels, and the only surviving example of a French rococco carriage. The last was made for Prince Joseph Wenzel of Liechtenstein on the occasion of his offic ial entry into Paris in 1738, standing in all its glory as the centerpiece of one of the galleries.

But how did this collection come into being? Although Liechtenstein is one of the smallest European states and is less than 300 years old, the family whose name it bears goes all the way back to the early Middle Ages. During the 17th and 18th centuries, especially, the princes of Liechtenstein commissioned works from the leading artists of Europe to enhance their palaces in Vienna. And what they could not get directly, they purchased from other collectors or dealers. That they were able to amass so sp lendid a collection was unusual in itself. That it was able to remain largely intact through the collapse of the Austrian Empire and the other cataclysms of the 20th century is little short of miraculous.

The visitor should be forewarned, however, that the bulk of the exhibition is more interesting than deeply moving or aesthetically rewarding. Exquisite craftsmanship and glittering surfaces are more in evidence than great art, not only in the decorative works, but in the majority of paintings and sculptures as well. Even so, it is a show that should not be missed -- for the paintings of Rubens if for nothing else, as well as for the insight it provides into how regally a few fortunate families were able

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to live not so very long ago.

This truly spectacular exhibition -- which was made possible by grants from the IBM Corporation and the Vincent Astor Foundation -- will remain on view at the Metropolitan through May 1.

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