With War Raging, Art Exhibits Offer a Respite ; Crowds in New York Flock in Record Numbers to See Matisse, Velazquez - Often as Antidote to War News

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During World War II Britain's National Gallery exhibited some paintings even as the bombs rained down around it.

It was seen as a place people could go to connect to something, to be lifted out of their wartime anxieties.

Henri Matisse, meanwhile, used to take his color-drenched paintings to the homes of sick friends. "He thought of them as being beneficent," says John Elderfield, chief curator at New York's Museum of Modern Art.

If Matisse was right, then his paintings are now filling a need for thousands. Although bombs aren't falling on this city, those needing an artistic respite from the onslaught of war news have a plethora of riches to choose from - and are turning out in record numbers.

The popularity of shows here ranging from Da Vinci to Manet - an unusual confluence of big-name artists even for New York - is partly a commentary on New Yorkers' magnetic attraction to anything with buzz. But in a city beset by budget cuts, rising homelessness, and a steady stream of war news, it's also about something more. To the crowds waiting in lines that spill out onto the streets here, these timeless masters offer timely beauty and insight to a world desperately in need of it.

"It gives you back some sanity," says Charlene Poley, a woman from Baltimore leaving Manet/Velazquez, an exhibit that explores the 17th Century Spanish influence on 19th century painters. "Art and music - that's the salvation of humanity. At a symphony, you can close your eyes and be transported to another world. And you can come here, and stand in front of a magnificent painting, and have the same thing happen to you."

For other visitors to the show, the paintings weren't so much a distraction from reality as a way of adding meaning to it. "The Goya series - that hits home," says Bob, a New York businessman who preferred not to give his last name, after looking at Goya's "The Disasters of War" prints. In one, a man is missing an arm. In another, a vulture devours a dead body. "You sort of want to print up several million copies and drop them on the Pentagon," he muses.

Bob's wife, Pat, was even more struck by a 1638 Francisco de Zurbaran painting. "The virgin shining in the night sky to light up for the Christians where the 'evildoers' are," she sighs, shaking her head, as she points to "Battle between the Christians and the Moors at El Sotillo." The message for her is clear: Not much has changed since the 17th century.

Light amid chaos

For centuries, people have looked to art for solace and beauty, or as a means to understanding a complex world. In wartime, say experts, it can take on added resonance, often simply as a symbol of something larger than human conflict. "It's an enormous psychological reminder that despite the fact the world is abnormal, we make it normal," says Leon Botstein, president of Bard College and conductor at the American Symphony Orchestra. "Art is the ultimate expression of why we fight for freedom. …