Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 5-7 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard-copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."

SUMMER INTO AUTUMN AT THE MET: AN INSIGHT INTO THE PERMANENT COLLECTION, A BLOCKBUSTER, 4 LESS SUCCESSFUL SHOWS & FINALLY, TWO SMALL GEMS

September 19, 2018

Unknown American [Studio Portrait] , 1940s–50s. Gelatin silver print. Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015. 2015.309
Everybody else is hurtling into autumn, but before I plunge into "Eugène Delacroix," the huge and highly appealing autumn show at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, let me linger briefly over an insight I had into its permanent collection this summer.

I shall also offer a few thoughts about "Heavenly Bodies" its record-shattering summer blockbuster (through October 8), and four smaller and less successful spring-into-summer shows, since closed..

Finally let me call to your attention two very small but altogether delectable exhibitions, both still with us: "Dangerous Beauty: Medusa in Classical Art” (through January 6, 2019) and “African American Portraits: Photographs from the 1940s and 1950s." (through October 6).

FIRST, THE PERMANENT COLLECTION

I almost always enjoy myself in the echoing halls of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, even (or perhaps “more often”) when I’m strolling through the permanent collections….and sometimes I have Insights about those…

...last summer, I was traversing the northernmost main floor corridor of the museum, where all the Egyptian antiquities are, and suddenly I realized how much of what I was seeing had to do with DEATH….sarcophagi, tombs, grave statues, little animals and people to accompany the dead into the next world…a heavy emphasis on the horizontal-- bodies lying down….

....and then, after traversing the Great Hall, I entered the southernmost corridor of the museum, with all its vigorously vertical Greek and Roman statues of standing, striding, moving human beings, with their beautiful near-naked bodies…..and it was all about LIFE. I always wondered why I preferred the Greeks…now I know.

HEAVENLY BODIES

Midway between them, on either side of the Great Staircase, and stretching back to a wing of the Robert Lehman Collection, through the Byzantine, Early Christian, Romanesque and Gothic galleries, we have now littering up the landscape the Met’s summer blockbuster, “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” (through October 8).

Nor is this the only place the show is to be seen. There is more of it in The Costume Center (downstairs) and even in The Cloisters (all the way uptown).

What is it? In addition to approximately 40 vestments and accessories (such as precious rings and tiaras) on loan from the Sistine Chapel sacristy and actually worn by popes from the 18th to the early 21st centuries, we have more than 150 haute couture ensembles (almost entirely for women).

They have been designed by all the big names in the fashion business and inspired by the papal and other vestments or habits worn by members of the clergy or religious orders.

The star-studded list of nearly 50 contributing designers ranges from Balenciaga & Geoffrey Beene through to Donatella & Gianni Versace, and includes Gabrielle Chanel, John Galliano, Henri Matisse, Yves Saint Laurent, Elsa Schiaparelli & God knows who else.

These outfits (what I saw of them, in the Met’s main building, as I didn’t get to The Cloisters) are visually stunning, but they are also all too often appallingly artificial.

So many of these outfits deserve the adjective of bizarre. They depart so far from human anatomy that one wonders how anybody could possibly wear them, except on a fashion show runway or when posing for a photograph to appear in a fashion magazine.

I felt sorry for those many designers who would appear so very unenthusiastic about the female body in its natural form. What had their mothers done to them, I wondered, that would instill in them this seemingly passionate desire to torture instead of celebrate the female form divine?

How many horrible mothers are there in this world?

In this show, needless to say, no human beings take part: the costumes are mostly arrayed on mannequins, but there are so many of them that the galleries become cluttered and hard to navigate.

The situation is not improved by the fact that a number of these clothes’ horses are stuck up on poles high above eye-level. This cuts into the amount of light reaching museum-goers.

Frankly, what I saw of this exhibition (in the Medieval galleries) gave me claustrophobia, or (in the case of the papal vestments, down in the Costume Center) pity for the wearers -- stunted little figures (to judge from the size of the vestments) who had obviously given up so much in order to be adjudged worthy to wear these bejeweled robes in their old age.

When I discussed this with a friend who had enjoyed the show, she maintained that back in the Middle Ages, entering the clergy was a wise career choice – one got lots to eat and drink, clothes, social mobility and a place to live.

As to not being allowed to marry, this was quite acceptable for homosexuals, and heterosexual priests had their mistresses (as witness the number of religious occupational patronymics, even in the English language, family names like “Priestley,” “Bishop,” and “Clark.”).

(What a sourpuss old Martin Luther must have been, to insist that the clergy marry! And goodness knows, it has often been a very mixed blessing to be the child of a clergyman! But all that is beside the point of this exhibition.)

And I seem to be in the minority in suffering through this show instead of enjoying it. “Heavenly Bodies” has been mobbed.

In fact, the museum even got out a press release when the show received its millionth visitor.

This makes it the most popular show in the Costume Institute’s history, and the Met’s third highest attended ever (after the “Mona Lisa,” in 1963, and “The Treasures of Tutankhamun,” in 1978.

FOUR WORTHY (BUT NOT ENTIRELY SUCCESSFUL) TRIES

The Met has so many shows, often taking place simultaneously, that I can’t begin to keep up with them all. I did look in on four that left me less than totally satisfied, as follows: “Visitors to Versailles (1682-1789)” (closed July 29); “Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body (1300-Now)” (closed July 22); “Painted in Mexico, 1700-1790: Pinxit Mexici” (closed July 22); and “History Refused to Die: Highlights from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation Gift” (though September 23).

The last two I shall have nothing to say about beyond a general observation to the effect that while “diversity” is a highly desirable quality for a show in these troubled times, by itself it is not enough. At the very least, one also needs fresh and/or truly great subject matter. Originality of concept can help, too.

I had high hopes for “Visitors to Versailles.” After all, the time span suggested by its title was a marvelous period in French art: Watteau, Fragonard, Boucher, Chardin, even Greuze & David all thrived and created masterpieces during this period.

Alas, it would appear – upon the basis of this show – that the kings of France during this period – Louis XIV, Louis XV & Louis XVI -- were about as eager to patronize the finest fine art of their generations as is Donald Trump. One is forced to conclude that the bourgeoisie – especially the haute bourgeoisie -- must have been primarily responsible for patronizing these artists.

As for the show at the Met, it resembled nothing so much as a stage set without actors or living art. The walls were decorated to resemble echoing halls or formal gardens, and these walls circumscribed large and nearly empty spaces.

The opening gallery had a series of tailor’s dummies dressed in travelers’ costumes. Apparently the Met has some kind of commitment to costumes & tailor’s dummies.

Also to the decorative arts: the royal family evidently knew all about the name china designers, tapestry manufacturers and furniture makers—Sevres, Gobelin & Riesener abounded.

However, none of the great painters whose names I have listed above appeared in this show. Almost all of the paintings and sculpture on view were by second-rate artists (Pompeo Batoni, Antoine Coysevox, Hubert Robert, Charles Le Brun) and frequently third-rate ones (academic or all-too-often semi-primitive in style & no names of anybody I ever heard of).

Not until those middle-class types from America started arriving at the French court hard upon on the heels of the American Revolution (and shortly before the French one) did I see any paintings or sculpture of real quality.

In the very last two galleries, though, there’s a most enjoyable portrait by John Singleton Copley of John Adams, the famous portrait of Ben Franklin by Joseph Duplessis, and two excellent portrait busts by that peerless French sculptor, Jean Antoine Houdon.

Moving on to Met Breuer, I took in “Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body (1300-Now)." With approximately 120 works, many of them loans, this show inevitably had a lot of excellent work – especially from the earlier periods.

I took copious notes, listing my favorites, but I don’t know what I did with those notes. Since I could discern no historical or other form of organization to this show, I’m not sure what illumination my notes would provide at this belated date (if any).

I will say, though, that although there was a lot of very good-looking work in this exhibition, there could have been more, if only the show’s organizers hadn’t bought into postmodernism’s seemingly bottomless appetite for the ugly and grotesque.

I’m not saying work inspired by such a vision is necessarily bad – I think great art can be made out of unattractive subjects, but I also think that equally or even greater art can be made out of naturally attractive subjects, and I would have liked to see more of that in this show.

THE MET REDEEMS ITSELF WITH 2 SMALLER SHOWS:
ONE ANCIENT & ONE MODERN


Just when I get really irked at the pomp and circumstance of the big shows at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, along it comes with two gems that are an almost total delight: one ancient and one modern.

ANCIENT & DANGEROUS: MEDUSA...

The ancient one, hidden away on the mezzanine level, is “Dangerous Beauty: Medusa in Classical Art” (through January 6, 2019)..

Medusa, it seems, was a monster in Greek mythology, a gorgon with a woman’s face and snakes for hair. Her appearance was so terrifying, the story went, that anybody who looked at her face was turned into stone.

There are different stories as what the bodies of gorgons were like, but the fables mostly agree that Medusa was the only one of the three gorgons who was mortal, and that she was slain by the hero Perseus.

He was able to approach her when she was sleeping by gazing at her reflection in a shiny shield that the goddess Athena had given him and that that he held in one hand, while cutting off her head with the other.

The earliest images in this charming little show at the Met date from the Archaic period of Greek art, and show Medusa as a very nasty piece of work, with tusks for teeth and bulging eyes.

However, as the show continues into the Classical and Hellenistic periods, the images of Medusa become more graceful and attractive.

So do those of the other sometime monsters included in this show: sirens, sphinxes and the man-eating sea creature called Scylla…who together with Charybdis, a whirlpool, provided major hazards for Odysseus on his way home from the Trojan Wars….

All of these miraculous personages are realized here in many different exquisite and mostly smaller shapes and media, ranging from a whole case of beautiful pottery to a long row of medallions and jewelry, sometimes of very precious materials.

There are also funerary reliefs and urns, ancient Greek armor and architectural elements (detached from the buildings they originally adorned).

Although the preponderance of the 60-plus works on view are ancient Greek, there is also some Roman work, and since the archetype of the beautiful but “dangerous” woman seems to have a timeless appeal (to men, anyway), we also have a plaster cast from the studio of the neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova.

(One of Canova’s life-size marble statues of Perseus, holding the severed head of Medusa and done in 1805-06, occupies a commanding position on the main floor of the Met).

In token amounts, we furthermore have works on paper showing the “femme fatale” in Symbolist art of the late 19th century by Dante Gabriel Rossetti & Edvard Munch, ...

And even (yes, wouldn’t you know it) yet another tailor’s dummy with haute couture clothes by Gianni Versace – who, it seems, used a Medusa head as part of his atelier’s logo.

My favorite piece, however, isn’t one of a Medusa figure, nor is it even Greek. Rather, it’s a sphinx from the marble figural capital of a column, and it’s Roman, from the 1st to 2nd century A.D.

Graeco-Roman sphinxes didn’t look much like Egyptian ones. Though they too combined a woman’s head with a lion’s body and birds’ wings, they were smaller & more apt to be shown standing up like birds and people rather than stretched out like cats. An example of this is the painting by Ingres showing Oedipus conversing with the sphinx whose mysterious riddle he is about to solve (though this painting is not included in this show).

The marble Roman sphinx in this Medusa show of the Met’s is only a fragment, with its forelegs missing – but it is so marvelously sculptural, just like music!

AND MODERN: AFRICAN AMERICAN PORTRAIT PHOTOGRAPHY

At the other end of 20 centuries is a show whose media is humble in the extreme. The show is “African American Portraits: Photographs from the 1940s and 1950s” (through October 8). It is on the second floor of the museum, in one of the photography galleries.

No precious metals here, not even paint on canvas…..and with works not originally treasured as art, just mementos of beloved friends and relatives .

These pictures, about 150 in all, are portraits of men, women, children and all combinations thereof made in modest American photographers’ portrait studios in the 1940s and 1950s.

However, they were not “discovered” and transmuted into museum fare until they had been torn from dozens, maybe even hundreds of family scrapbooks and tossed into the trash.

At least, this was the story I was hearing from one of the guards when I was visiting the show, having arrived 5 minutes after the end of the media preview, and it’s such a grand story that I’m not going to mess it up by checking it to death.

These little pictures – all the same size, about 5” x 3½” -- show their subjects facing the camera and seated or standing in front of a stage-like backdrop.

Usually the backdrop is a landscape setting but not always. A floral bower appears in many of these pictures, with the subjects posed standing below and in front of it.

Though one occasionally finds an individual casually dressed and casually posed, most of these people are dressed in their Sunday best and sit or stand up stiffly for their formal portraits.

The ladies most frequently (though not always) appear in coats or suits and with hats and big purses. A lot of them are obviously mothers – and not just African American mothers, but archetypal mothers for families of every kind.

There are children by themselves, too, but family groups are more common for them.

The many servicemen are dressed in their full uniforms. They mostly (though again not always) appear alone. And there are a lot of them, too.

What a commentary this is, so many African American men willing to give their lives for this country, even though the entire armed services were still segregated!
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Everything is silver platinum prints, blackish-brown and beige standing in for black and white (though occasionally watercolor has been added).

You might think you would get bored looking at so many very similar images, but no two are the same.

There are tall people, short people, fat people, thin people, old people, young people, standing or sitting, alone or in twos or threes or fours, etc. etc.

Everybody is African (American) but almost none have names attached to them (one rare exception is an image whose label identifies him as “Clem” in the entry gallery).

In this entry gallery is also a daguerreotype (ca.1855) of Frederick Douglas (1818-1895), the African American abolitionist. He is quoted as favoring pictures of African Americans in general: “Without positive self-representation there would be no freedom.”

Most of these many photographs are indescribably moving. It is their very simplicity and lack of pretension that make them so eloquent, I think.

I could take only so many of them at one time, they spoke with such a poignant voice. I cannot recommend this little show too highly.