Some formalists, so I understand, enjoy these shows for their colors and their workmanship. The fact that textiles, glass and jewelry belong to the decorative or applied arts, rather than to the fine arts, and therefore have no subject matter is beside the point because subject matter is irrelevant to considerations of quality anyway.
Traditionalists who don’t like any modern art also enjoy these shows for the colors and the workmanship, plus the fact the work may belong to previous eras and is frequently evidence of wealth and status among the work’s original buyers or users.
Pomonians love these shows for what they say about the sociopolitical context in which the work was created, and because they think the decorative arts are just as good as abstract painting since abstract painting doesn’t have any subjects, either.
Alas for me, I have never been terribly interested in the decorative and applied arts (except for architecture) because their lack of subject matter bothers me—I feel it makes this work lack that indefinable evidence of life that, for lack of a better word, I shall call soul.
I think abstract painting and sculpture has (or can have) soul, and so can representational painting and sculpture, all of which sets them off from the decorative arts and renders the decorative arts inferior.
That being the case, I haven’t seen these three shows – I’ve just been too busy with others, both at the Met and elsewhere, that did – and do – have soul. If you want to see the shows of decorative arts at the Met, you're too late for the big one of textiles, but the glass & jewelry are still on view -- and I’m sure the Met’s website has plenty of info on them and can tell you exactly where to go.
I did take in four of the smaller exhibitions of fine arts at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The first of these, housed in a relatively small area just beyond the grand hall of medieval art, was “Medieval Treasures from Hildesheim,” an eye-filling exhibition of about 50 mostly smaller to medium-sized medieval religious objects from Germany’s Hildesheim Cathedral in Lower Saxony (closed January 5).
A major renovation now underway at the home of these precious works, dating from the Ottonian period to the High Middle Ages, was allowing them to travel.
The show was organized by Peter Barnet of the Met, together with Michael Brandt and Gerhard Lutz, both of the Hildesheim Cathedral Museum.
My first impression was of barbaric splendor: so much silver and gold, so many precious stones. It reminded me that the German tribes were never wholly subdued by the Romans. But the handiwork was masterful, at least in the context of an era when the subtleties of classical antiquity had been forgotten or rejected, and not yet rediscovered.
Candlesticks, croziers, reliquaries (one in the shape of a house topped by a human head, another in the shaped of an upright arm), intricate manuscripts and luxurious book covers, a golden Madonna and lots of crucifixes, among other objects: there was much to pleasure the eye here.
Although some of these liturgical objects were made for use, as opposed to purely for contemplation and prayer, all were intended in the service of a higher good, and were accordingly infused with its soul. In that sense, all escaped from being purely decorative.
Particularly spectacular, and the closest to traditional sculpture, was the large (5 foot square) “Ringelheim Crucifix”—actually only the figure of Christ stretched out on the cross, but without any cross to support him. It was a unique blending of medieval starkness with the beginnings of a fresh understanding of human anatomy, and the grain of the wood interacted memorably with the carving.
HIGH IN THE HIMALAYAS
The term “barbaric splendor” similarly rose to mind when I entered the small, semi-darkened gallery, hidden away up some stairs at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and housing “Masterpieces of Tibetan and Nepalese Art: Recent Acquisitions” (through February 2). This time, I had the uneasy feeling that perhaps it was I who was the barbarian, for these five small sculptures and nine medium-sized paintings are both distinguished by their fabulously intricate workmanship and, moreover, tokens of faiths older than Christianity (though perhaps not older than Judaism ).
Created between the 11th and 16th centuries, the works on view are holy objects from Hinduism and/or Buddhism (I have yet to understand the similarities and/or differences between these two faiths, beyond the fact that one has Buddha & the other doesn't). Gods, goddesses and various forms of the Buddha abound here, depicted in complex iconographic programs that are spelled out in their labels.
Problem for a Westerner like myself here is that the labels take so much time to read and absorb that, if I’d read them all to their very ends, I’d have lost sight of what made the works themselves so intriguing and gorgeous.
So instead, these labels awakened in me the obscure desire to read up on these religions (just as seeing “Richard III” recently made me want to know more about the Wars of the Roses). I also wanted to come back some other time in order to contemplate at greater length this sumptuous display (but when will I get the time)?
According to its press release, all of the work in this jewel of a show comes from the collection of a couple named Jack & Muriel Zimmerman; it has all since been acquired by the Met. The exhibition was organized by John Guy.
CONSPICUOUS CONSUMPTION IN KOREA
Although I haven’t (so far) been back to the show of Tibetan and Nepalese art, even in retrospect I find it more moving than the other, considerably larger, better publicized and more crowded special exhibition of Asian art currently featured at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
This is “Silla: Korea’s Golden Kingdom,” with more than 130 objects drawn from the collections of the National Museum of Korea in Seoul, and the Gyeongju Museum, in Gyeongju, a coastal city in Korea that was once the capital of Silla. The show was organized by Soyoung Lee & Denise Leidy, both of the Met, in collaboration with their colleagues at the two Korean museums (through February 23).
Silla was an ancient kingdom in Korea that rose to prominence in the early 5th century under the rule of a hereditary monarchy. It converted from its own religion to Buddhism in the early 6th century, which revolutionized many of its customs, including the use of gold and the methods of burial.
The show is divided into three parts, with the first devoted to objects retrieved from pre-Buddhist burial sites: jewelry, crowns, and precious metal objects of various sorts. The sheer quantities of gold on display in this section make it “stunning,” if “stunning” be defined as a conspicuous display of wealth.
On the other hand, if you are looking for evidence of soul, or even craftsmanship, there is not much of it here. The crowns and jewelry are pretty crude, leading me to feel that this show is really more about archaeology than it is about art, and really belongs at the Museum of Natural History rather than the Met--except, of course, that everybody is a sucker for conspicuous consumption, whether it’s gold from tombs or Mrs. Vanderbilt’s summer hideaway at Newport.
Thorsten Veblen would have understood this show, or anyway the first part of it. He might also have been mildly interested by the second : it consists of artifacts taken from these same burial sites and also of limited esthetic quality but manufactured in other cultures, and displayed as evidence of how widely Silla traded with these other cultures.
I don’t think even Veblen would have been very impressed with the third part, though, which presents Buddhist art from Silla, and features a handful of large statues of Buddha in stone and metal. None of them measures up to Chinese and Indian Buddhas I’ve seen. Rather, they look like provincial imitations – though, as the Met’s small show of Tibetan and Nepalese art demonstrates, provincial work can achieve quality on its own terms.
TERRIFIC CATS, UNCOMFORTABLE NYMPHETS
The only special exhibition of Western painting that was playing at The Metropolitan Museum of Art this autumn is “Balthus: Cats and Girls—Paintings and Provocations.” As organized by the Met’s own Sabine Rewald, it has 34 good-sized paintings, and 40 small ink drawings (closing tomorrow, January 12).
The 34 paintings cover the artist’s freshest and most fertile period, from 1935 to 1960. Most of them are devoted to his obsession with pubescent girls, seen with or without their cats.
The 40 drawings were created in 1919, when the artist was 11, for a book entitled “Mitsou.” It too is concerned with a cat—a pet of the artist. The book was published in 1921 by the Austro-Bohemian poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, who is described in the press release first as a family friend, and subsequently as the lover of the artist’s mother.
The Met’s exhibition hangs in five spacious galleries. The first is the best, covering the period between 1935 and 1939, while the artist was still a young man. Born in Paris, and originally named Balthasar Klossowski (1908-2001), he adopted a variant of his childhood nickname (“Baltusz”) as his pseudonym when the Mitsou book was published (with the encouragement of Rilke).
In this first gallery is “The King of Cats” (1935). It is a full-length self-portrait, showing the artist standing. A large striped cat is rubbing his head against the artist’s knee. Most of the painting is pretty ordinary, but the cat is terrific.
Cats are really hard for most people to draw, let alone paint, but Balthus rendered that gesture of the cat perfectly—with it, he expresses the essence of cat.
Also in this gallery are paintings portraying Thérèse Blanchard (1925-1950), the daughter of a neighbor in Paris and original inspiration for the many nymphet pictures (they’d continue with other models after she grew up). What I call the nymphet pictures show her full length, suggestively posed, sometimes with her cat, sometimes not.
In this gallery (as in none of the others), there are also traditional portraits of Thérèse, just the head or fully-clothed top of the body, nothing coy or suggestive, simply showing a very intense, neurasthenic young lady. These pictures are haunting.
Most of the next four galleries display later versions of these increasingly formulaic pubescent girls, almost always contorted into uncomfortable-looking but suggestive poses (with skirts raised, so that one can see their panties).
One gallery also shows the ink drawings of “Mitsou.” To me, “Mitsou” is a prolonged comic strip, employing standard comic-book conventions—except for the end, which is sad (the cat runs away).
Then again, ever since Roy Lichtenstein made comic strips respectable, they have been passing as High Art. Even the publishing industry no longer calls them “comic books.” Instead, they are known as “graphic novels.”
Some formalists, so I understand, also liked this show. I guess, as with the decorative arts, they simply admired the craftsmanship and weren’t at all bothered by the sleazy subject matter, considering it either piquant or irrelevant.
Traditionalists who normally don’t like modern art would find Balthus acceptable because his painting technique is pretty traditional, whether or not they know what to make of his subjects.
Pomonians, whose bread and butter is the kinky and the negative, have turned Balthus into a latter-day icon.
Which leaves me, the sole formalist concerned with subject matter, depressed by this vogue. To me, Balthus epitomizes the male gaze, treating the female form as object, not subject. Secondly, he’s not just a male voyeur, but a pedophile voyeur at that.
Not just a pedophile, either, but a sadist into the bargain: it must have been very difficult for all those little girls to hold those uncomfortable poses while he painted/drew them.
The only full-length picture of a nymphet that didn’t make me uncomfortable is in the last gallery. “Nude before a Mirror” (1955) shows the child-woman in profile, standing, with her hands over her head.
But: wouldn’t you know it – the label says the pose was suggested to Balthus by a picture in a magazine. Not even authentic obsession.
Otherwise, for me the best paintings in the show are the early, traditionally posed portraits of Thérèse. Also the 8 cats in as many paintings are uniformly superb.
GLORIOUS SECRETS OF THE MET
To get my strength up to look at Balthus, I resorted to a snack in the cafeteria of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. To reach the Balthus show from the cafeteria, I had to walk through the permanent collection galleries on the second floor devoted to the Old Masters from the Renaissance (in Italy and Northern Europe) through the 18th century (all over Europe). God was I glad I did!
For a while now, I’ve been aware that some rehanging was going on in these galleries. Certain galleries have been closed to the public, and certain paintings that had been in those galleries were temporarily exhibited in the Robert Lehman Wing (designed by Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates and opened in 1975). Also, I’d been dimly aware that no special exhibitions were being staged in the “special exhibitions” area entered through the central 18th century gallery at the top of the Grand Stair.
Now I have discovered that this “special exhibitions” area – which is huge – is now the home of the Met’s permanent collection of northern European painting, from its Renaissance (in Flanders and Germany) through its baroque period (the highlight being17th century Dutch art).
Moreover, because this “special exhibitions” is so huge, the museum has rescued from storage a lot of art, principally paintings. The first awareness I had of this was seeing quantities of Flemish portraits from the 15th and early 16th centuries in these galleries, above of beyond what I was familiar with. Most of these portraits are not by anybody I’d ever heard of, and often they are attributed to “School of,” “Studio of,” and the like.
I would guess that when they were given to the Met, decades ago, they carried fancier attributions, to the likes of Jan Van Eyck, Rogier Van Der Weyden or Hans Memling, but modern scholarship has become pickier about attributions. Never mind, these are still very good paintings, and it’s very pleasant to see them there.
Moreover, moving all the Northern European art to the former special exhibitions area has opened up enough in their former galleries so that yet more art can be rescued from storage and put on display, so we have additional quantities of Italian Renaissance, baroque and rococo paintings and/or sculpture, Spanish Renaissance (principally El Greco) and baroque, French baroque, rococo and indeed everything else French right up to the French Revolution.
There’s a neoclassical gallery, largely hung with paintings by Jacques-Louis David, with his marvelous 1788 full-length portrait of Antoine Lavoisier, the scientist known as “the father of modern chemistry”, and his wife—rescued from the first-floor galleries of French decorative art, where it was treated not as art but as interior decoration.
The same gallery also has an exciting plaster version of Antonio Canova’s “Cupid and Psyche” (1794).
A whole semi-darkened new gallery displays 18th century French pastels (on a long-term but not permanent basis). Mostly these are portraits and enable the museum not only to pay tribute to Maurice Quentin de La Tour but also to exhibit more work by those few women artists who managed to establish reputations during this male chauvinist period, including Rosalba Carriera, and Adélaïde Labille-Guiard.
A lot of those dark, exaggerated, Caravaggiesque Spanish and Italian baroque paintings look strangely dated, but kind of fascinating all the same.
My favorite gallery is still the relatively small, long and narrow gallery where can be found High Renaissance paintings from Italy, especially Venice and even more especially Titian. Every painting by Titian that the museum owns (I think) is on display, including some relatively minor ones.
True, more of that picky modern scholarship has now decided that Titian’s “Venus and the Lute Player” (ca. 1565-70) is only the handiwork of “Titan and Workshop.” This painting has always been on view, but now the label says that the lady’s hands and face were reworked after Titian’s death, and the most that can be said of the noble landscape background is that it is in “Titian’s late manner.”
I still love this painting, even if the Venus, if she were to come back to life today, would be shopping in the women’s “plus sizes” at Bloomingdale’s for something to wear (in the Renaissance, a woman who looked well fed was considered aristocratic, and poor people betrayed their station in life by being skinny—in our era of cheap junk food, just the reverse is true). But nothing can detract from the lusciousness of Venus’s flesh, and the voluptuousness of all the colors, not least the rich red of the drapery behind the lady, and the blues, greens and browns of the landscape beyond.
I also was happy to see that Titian’s somewhat smaller “Venus and Adonis,” another permanent fixture, has been upgraded on its label (though not at the Met’s website) and is now considered exclusively from the hand of the master.
All of this is art that modernists can relate to, better than pomonians. And there’s so much soul in most of these works that they’re positively leaking it. Not for nothing did Clement Greenberg head for the permanent collections of any museum he was visiting for the first time (I forget who told me this, but it rings true). So if any of my formalist readers want a real treat, they shouldn’t waste their time with glass &jewelry, but revisit the rehung permanent collection of Old Masters on the second floor of the Met.