Before I attempt to describe the manifold delights of the Cole exhibition, though, let me comment on “A Disrupter Takes Over,” the huge article by Robin Pogrebin & Jason Farago published by the Times on April 19 about Max Hollein, the new 48-year-old director at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Although the story’s subtitle described the Vienna-born Hollein as a “scholar and a showman,” the story emphasized – and by so doing, appeared to endorse—his skills as fun-loving fundraiser, and above all promoter of recent and contemporary art.
As for the scholarship, he appeared to have paid little attention to art before (at the very earliest) 1900 since taking his master’s degree in art history at the University of Vienna.
Pogrebin, an “art news” reporter & Farago, one of the Times’s newer critics, emphasized how Hollein was raised with a postmodernist architect for a father, and hobnobbed with Josef Beuys, the German conceptualist, and pop artists Claes Oldenburg & Andy Warhol while he was still in school.
The story underlined his experience with museums devoted largely or entirely to recent and contemporary art, and gave loving descriptions of shows and/or promotions at them of Dada, pop, Picasso, Yves Klein, Jeff Koons, Julian Schnabel, Barbara Kruger and “Contemporary Muslim Fashion.”
There were only passing mentions to a show of Romantic and Symbolic art (and then only because it was accompanied by recent electronic music) and exhibitions of Cranach, Botticelli & Monet (and then only because they attracted “hundreds of thousands of visitors.”)
All of this is in line with previous NY Times stories on the Met, castigating it for not spending enough time and money on recent and contemporary art.
To the paper’s critics, Hollein obviously offers fresh hope that they won’t have to spend as much time on the art of eras past (except of course for blockbuster shows of really famous artists) and will be able to devote even more space than they already do to the recent and the contemporary.
I suppose it is only natural and normal for critics in the news media to want to follow the new. I know I did when I was young, and working for Time magazine. But over the years, I have learned that the newest is not necessarily the best, and that the older and even the oldest can offer delights that the new does not.
I only wish that journalism didn’t encourage its critics to remain perpetual Peter Pans, though I have to concede that they do not operate in a vacuum, and that the pressures of the marketplace are pressures upon them, too, with buyers and collectors bulling prices for recent and contemporary art (no matter how trashy) to ever-higher prices, and masterpieces by Old Masters languishing in the shadows.
It is only natural to want to write about what the public – and especially the younger public -- apparently wants to buy – and see. And all of this is again part of a larger picture, one that began way back in the 1960s.
Ever since pop art erupted concurrently with the baby boomers and the need to follow the boomers into the path of peace, the myth has persisted that the young are always right, and that the kind of art they go for – pop & its larger context, postmodernism--is the greatest.
This phenomenon has mushroomed clear across the arts and across the world, so we now have had a Nobel Prize awarded to a pop poet and a Pulitzer Prize awarded to a pop musician.
Once upon a time – though there are now fairly few who remember it – age was supposed to bring wisdom and the young were willing to try and learn from the old. But at this stage of the game, the merely elderly (as opposed to the truly ancient) are still committed to trying to learn from the young – like a snake trying to swallow its tail.
Still, I ask myself (as a member of the fairly few truly ancient) -- does New York really need yet more exposure to the postmodernist recent and the contemporary? The city already has three large museums – the Museum of Modern Art, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum & Whitney Museum of American Art – that devote at least three-quarters of their programming to recent and contemporary art. This is dozens of shows every year.
It has the New Museum, which shows nothing but the contemporary.
Both the Jewish & Brooklyn Museums pay obeisance to the contemporary regularly, and even the Frick Collection & Morgan Library and Museum are feeling the pressure…..whether it’s clever little movies about the art on display or Jasper Johns drawings, somehow every museum in town appears to be haunted by the ghost of the contemporary, by the notion that the greatness of past art is never enough.
And -- on top of all this museum attention -- the city has many, many hundreds of galleries, at least 90 percent of which show virtually but nothing but contemporary art.
We have contemporary art galleries all over town -- in Chelsea and SoHo and the Lower East Side and Bushwick and Williamsburg and Harlem, and yes, even on 57th Street and the Upper East Side.
Isn’t this enough?
Why is it necessary to try and flagellate the Met into following the herd? Any more than it already does? It has several large galleries in its main buildings devoted to 20th and 21st century art.
It has the Met Breuer, a whole museum in itself, which (despite displaying some art from ages past) seems primarily devoted to finding new ways to show off the contemporary.
People don’t come from all over the world to look at the Met’s contemporary art. They come – and in record numbers, and from children to those in wheel chairs – to see its panorama of the world’s greatest creations, from the oldest to the newest.
And what they want to see may, sure, be the newest, but not just the newest, but with the newest placed in perspective, not ruling the roost -- a part of art history, sure, but not all of art history – maybe 100 out of 4,000 years.
The Met’s own press release announcing Mr. Hollein’s appointment didn’t dwell on his allegiance to the contemporary, but in a more sober vein emphasized his experience in building collections, audiences and technological support systems at all the museums he worked with, including those devoted to historical art.
Let’s hope that -- despite all the pressures he will be subjected to, by the media as well as elsewhere – the Met can keep its proportion of the present to the past in perspective.
COLE: TRULY TRANSATLANTIC
At 71, Holland Cotter of the New York Times is what I would call merely elderly (as opposed to the truly ancient like me). A graduate of Harvard (class of 1970), he came of age at the end of the baby-booming ‘60s, so he is less conscious of what the world was like before then than I am.
He also seems to have mopped up a lot of the Marxized art history being absorbed by academia in that era, when the fact that a tiny Communist country was whaling the tar out of the West’s biggest capitalist venture was making old Karl’s version of the social contract look very appealing indeed.
Cotter’s real visual expertise within the field of art history seems to be Asian as opposed to European art – and he can write very persuasively on early as well as late Asian art. But it is also understandable that in reviewing “Thomas Cole’s Journey: Atlantic Crossings,” for the Times on March 16, he devoted a major share of his admittedly long and admiring text to discussing the political and social context of Cole’s life, career and choice of subjects.
This was spliced together with more “contextual” commentary on America’s rush to industrialization and the desecration of the natural landscape that somehow seemed to have almost as much to do with the Trump administration’s campaign to turn the country’s national parks over to commercial interests as it did with 19th century American art.
Certainly, it’s true that Cotter mentioned the inclusion in the show of some European paintings in his text, but they read as passing references, not major points, and all of the many large and handsome reproductions that accompanied this review were of American paintings, mostly by Cole.
Now, I have known about Thomas Cole (1801-1848), founder of the Hudson River School, since my last summer at Time, in 1969, when a lovely traveling retrospective of Cole’s work opened at the Whitney and I wrote about it with a full-page color reproduction (a novelty in newsmagazines in those days).
I further examined Cole’s career at grad school in the 1970s, when I took Barbara Novak’s excellent course in 19th century American painting. But through all of this I thought of Cole as an all-American artist.
True, I knew that he’d been born in England and only come to the U.S. with his family in 1818, when he was 17. True, I also knew that he’d traveled back to Europe as an adult, and painted scenes of the Italian campagna.
But it wasn’t until I actually saw this show that I realized what a truly international artist he had been, and how much he had learned from European masters – Claude of Lorraine, Turner & Constable in particular.
It took the show itself to deliver this message, since nearly a third of its 60-plus paintings, watercolors, drawings and prints are by Europeans – not Americans.
And, worthy as Cotter’s sociopolitical context appeared on the printed page, it didn’t really convey to me the breadth of Cole’s artistic context or why I should run – not walk – to see this exhibition.
On the basis of my previous exposure to Cole, I had always thought of him indulgently as an appealing provincial, picking up on European styles decades and even centuries after their introduction.
This exhibition, at its best, shows him up there wrestling with the European masters, painting some of the same kinds of pictures that they were painting at the same time – or nearly at the same time – and making powerful statements of his own.
This is not to say that there aren’t plenty of American pictures in this show, around 45 in all. They include some by Cole’s predecessors (Joshua Shaw & John Trumbull) and some by his students and Hudson River School successors (Asher B. Durand & Frederic E. Church).
The largest number, though, are by Cole himself, about 35 in all, and he surely was an artist of talent. The works in this show detail his progress from his beginnings -- with a delicious little ink drawing of a tree stump, from 1823 -- on through such piquant later gems as “The Titan’s Goblet” (1833).
My own favorite among the early upstate mountain landscapes is “View of the Round-Top in the Catskill Mountains (Sunny Morning on the Hudson)” (1827), with its crisp tree and mountain outlines and its perky perspectives on distant sights.
I also most assuredly share the Met’s enthusiasm for its own large and majestic masterpiece, “View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow” (1836), with its daring bird’s-eye view of the wide sweep of the Connecticut River in the distant valley below the foreground mountain.
Still neither of these fine works were exactly news to me. The overall layout of the current show was, for it begins back where Cole did, with three views of the sooty factory towns in the North of England where he was born and spent his childhood.
This was where the Industrial Revolution was making the country richer than it had ever been – but also uglier and dirtier. Two of these trenchant views, done in 1816 and 1832, are daytime watercolors of grimy Leeds and Dudley in Worcestershire by Turner, while the third – an oil painting whose savage reds suggest fiery furnaces – shows “Coalbrookdale by Night” (1801) and is by the French-born Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg.
This was what Cole, when he was grown and living in the U.S., would react against in his choice of the natural landscape for his subject. Even though some of the sites he would depict were already frequented by tourists, he didn’t feel the need to populate these paintings with staffage.
The English tradition of landscape was also part of his heritage, and when he went back to London in 1829, he naturally paid close attention to the latest work in this vein by its reigning masters, Constable and Turner.
However, though he met both men, visited their studios, and made drawings after some of their paintings, what he took away from these experiences wasn’t necessarily what one might expect.
And what Constables and Turners the organizers of this show have brought to it in order to illuminate Cole’s experience! This was the most newsworthy part of the show for me, not least because of the illumination it cast upon young Cole, and showed how cosmopolitan he had become.
It seems that Turner’s brusque behavior was something of a turn-off for him, and he found himself on friendlier terms with Constable – so the show has a handful of fine smaller Constables, showing his oil-sketch technique, his studies of clouds, and a superbly sketchy watercolor of Stonehenge.
Even more extraordinary are the two large Constables on view, one an old friend and one a startling discovery. The old friend is “Hadleigh Castle, The Mouth of the Thames – Morning after a Stormy Night” (1829), on loan from the Yale Center for British Art.
This somber painting of a ruined tower overlooking a cloudy seaside expresses Constable’s grief over the recent death of his wife. It’s so beautifully done that I linger over it every time that I get to New Haven.
The main reason it appears to have been chosen is because Cole was moved by it, too, and it is claimed that the tower was his inspiration for the tower in the background of “The Course of Empire” – of which I shall have more to say below.
The other large Constable is if possible even more of a knockout. It’s from Tate Britain, and called “The Opening of Waterloo Bridge (‘Whitehall Stairs, June 18, 1817’).”
Although it wasn’t exhibited at the Royal Academy until 1832, Cole could have seen it earlier at Constable’s studio, for it commemorates the opening of Waterloo Bridge across the Thames, an event celebrated in 1817, on the second anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo.
The painting shows the Prince Regent about to board the Royal Barge, at the head of a colorful regatta which nearly fills the front of the entire scene.
It’s one of Constable’s few urban subjects, and some critics have tried to see somber overtones in its background because of this, but for me it’s remarkable because of all the detailed patchwork of brilliant reds and greens in the foreground. The man was really painting up a storm!
After I got home, and googled this painting’s title to get another look at it, I discovered that Frank Bowling, as modern an abstractionist as they come, had also chosen it as his favorite when the Tate asked him to pick out a picture five years ago.
For Bowling, it was the surface of the picture that he found especially appealing—“painted all over, thick and thin paint distributed up from under, floating, brushing pats of color stacked up on the surface, painted wet into wet, nimbly describing the surface, tight as a drum….”
Even more relevant to Cole’s most ambitious project are the two large Turners on display, and the single large painting by that serenely beautiful 17th–century master of landscape, Claude of Lorraine. All three are splendid paintings.
The Turners are “Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus – Homer’s Odyssey” (1829) and “Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps” (exhibited 1832). The Claude is “Seaport with the Embarkation of Saint Ursula” (1641).
All three of these are paintings that Cole had seen, and, although they are nominally landscapes, they do not depict contemporary locales. Instead they are all scenes of historical (or literary or religious) events.
In other words, they are what was known in the 19th century as “history painting” and “history painting” was considered by the Royal Academy to be the highest form of painting (as opposed to pure landscape, which was at or near the bottom of the hierarchy).
As history painting, these paintings by Turner and Claude (and even “The Opening of Waterloo Bridge”) laid the groundwork for Cole’s most ambitious project. This was the sequence of five paintings known together as “The Course of Empire,” and Cole’s own contribution to the field of “history painting.”
To be sure, “The Course of Empire” was not painted until between 1834 and 1836, after Cole had extended his European visit into time spent in Italy, and after he'd returned to the U.S.. But it was conceived in London, and clearly sprang from a desire to emulate and even rival the accomplishments of the Europeans.
The five good-sized panels, on loan from the New-York Historical Society, are very lovely, though gentler in their treatment than Cole’s paintings of contemporary subjects. Each of the five panels shows the same imaginary landscape, with hills to the right and left, and a body of water in the center extending from the horizon down into the foreground.
The first panel, “The Savage State,” shows the scene sparsely populated with hunter-gatherers and teepees – not unlike America before the arrival of the Europeans.
The second, “The Arcadian or Pastoral State,” shows shepherds, women spinning, young people dancing to the music of a pipe player, even a child making art – a stick figure. With a little temple, clearly modeled on Stonehenge, the scene suggests primitive Britain as much as anyplace else.
The third, “The Consummation of Empire,” is the most elaborate of the series – and indeed, the most elaborate of all Cole’s paintings. The hills are covered by monumental architecture reminiscent of Roman temples, with a statue of Minerva on a pedestal and a red-robed emperor in a chariot pulled by an elephant, who is returning in triumph with his African captives and looted treasure.
In the fourth, however, the best is past and war has come. The title is “Destruction,” and, to quote Cole’s own description, “Luxury has weakened and debased. A savage enemy has entered the city. A fierce tempest is raging. Walls and colonnades have been thrown down. Temples and palaces are burning.”
In the fifth and last panel, “Desolation,” nature has reclaimed its own and herons are nesting in a ruined column, while humankind is absent and deer are once again appearing in the landscape.
The sequence follows the times of day, from dawn in “The Savage State” to high noon in “Consummation,” and moonrise in “Desolation.”
Cole’s brushwork, especially in the two earlier scenes of the sequence, owes a lot to Constable, and the stormier aspects in the sequence suggest an awareness of the art of Salvator Rosa, another 17th – century Italian painter whose stormy landscapes were said to anticipate the 18th century concept of “the sublime.”
But the basic composition, with the framing mountains and/or temples, and the body of water in the center, is clearly Claudian. It is well-represented in the Met's show by the “Saint Ursula” of Claude – but that is not where the story ends.
Turner was also very fond of this Claudian composition and used it in at least four classical landscapes that aren’t in this show.
The earliest was “Dido Building Carthage,” which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1815 and kept by the artist all his life. Cole could easily have seen it when he visited at the picture gallery Turner maintained of his own work.
He might well also have seen “Regulus,” since it was begun in 1828 – although not finished until 1837. And there are two later “history paintings” using this same basic composition, “Ancient Italy: Ovid Banished from Rome” and “Ancient Rome: Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus.”
The interesting thing to note here is that “Ovid” wasn’t exhibited until 1838 and “Agrippina” not until 1839. In other words, they were most likely painted AFTER and not before “The Course of Empire.” I doubt that Turner was copying Cole, but the confluence does suggest that in those few instances, the supposedly provincial Yank and the definitely worldly Brit had arrived at the same historical moment.
This exemplary show was organized by Elizabeth Kornhauser of the Met, Tim Barringer of Yale, and Chris Riopelle, of the National Gallery in London.