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November 2020

Vol. 162 / No. 1412

Making The Met: 1870–2020

Reviewed by Eric Zafran

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

29th August 2020– 3rd January 2021

During the 1918–19 Spanish flu epidemic, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, like other cultural organisations, remained open. In our more enlightened era, the museum closed in March in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. When it reopened in late August it could finally reveal the delayed exhibition celebrating its 150th anniversary, a handsome installation of over two hundred and fifty works that, according to the press release, attempts ‘to celebrate the art [the Met] makes accessible to the public, to commemorate the people who propelled it in new directions, and to investigate its place in society’.

The exhibition begins with an introductory display of works devoted to the human figure, ‘standing’, as the wall text states, ‘for the stories of art and people at the core of this exhibition’. These range from an ancient Greek stele to African and Nepalese sculptures, Rodin’s Age of bronze (modelled in 1876; cast c.1906) and Richard Avedon’s 1957 photograph of Marilyn Monroe. Each is striking but they make for a somewhat strange hodgepodge that reflects the exhibition’s general approach, which in part seems intent on, as the introductory text puts it, ‘acknowledging our place within fraught histories’. There then follow ten sections with a wide variety of contents in all media including textiles, ceramics, photographs, arms and armour, musical instruments and industrial design. The sumptuous catalogue includes a chapter on the architectural history of the museum building, which is covered in the exhibition by a video presentation.(1)

The first section, ‘The Founding Decades’, is a good overview of the museum’s early history. At the behest of the founding board, its Vice President, the New York collector and philanthropist William Tilden Blodgett (1823–75), went to Europe and acquired 174 old-master paintings. These were installed first at 681 Fifth Avenue and then from 1873 to 1879 at 128 West 14th Street. The interior of the latter is seen in a charming painting by the fashionable New York architect and painter Frank Waller (Fig.17). Among the works hung Salon-style on the red walls, the most prominent – it is also on view in the exhibition – is Anthony van Dyck’s magnificent St Rosalie interceding for the plague-stricken of Palermo, which, as the label rightly observes, has ‘taken on new relevance and poignancy in the wake of the covid-19 crisis’. A major portion of the early museum was given over to more than five thousand pieces of sculpture and pottery from Cyprus excavated by the former American consul to the island, Luigi Palma di Cesnola (1832–1904), who became the museum’s first director. One of his grandest finds, the limestone Head of a bearded man (early sixth century bc) sits imposingly atop a tall plinth. In March 1880 all these works were transferred to the museum’s grandiose new home designed by Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted between Fifth Avenue and Central Park, which was to expand over the years into the massive building of two million square feet we now know, housing more than one and a half million objects.

The early years saw some significant donations and bequests. Those on view include Edouard Manet’s great Young lady with a parrot (1866), which with the same artist’s Boy with a sword (1861) were given by the artist Erwin Davis in 1889, the first Manets to enter any public collection. A notable bequest was made in 1887 by the New York philanthropist Catharine Lorillard Wolfe, believed to be at that time ‘the richest unmarried woman in the world’.(2) It consisted of a collection of 143 French Salon paintings and an endowment of $200,000 for future purchases, the first such bequest of its kind. Some of her collection was later sold, as her taste went out of fashion, but from a historical point of view, she and her collection would have been more accurately represented in the exhibition by her Pierre Auguste Cot, William-Adolphe Bouguereau or Jean-Léon Gérôme, or even more aptly Alexandre Cabanel’s portrait of her, rather than the very modest Corot that has been chosen.

In section three, ‘Princely Aspirations’, donor-patrons ranging from J.P. Morgan to George Blumenthal, Collis P. Huntington, Robert Lehman, Benjamin Altman and Jayne Wrightsman are highlighted with paintings by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Van Dyck, Ingres and Simone Martini. Even more impressive is the presentation of a sumptuous Wunderkabinet, reflecting, as the wall text has it, ‘wealthy New Yorkers’ passion for rare and exquisite objects’. Among a staggering array of treasures, perhaps the most intriguing is a ewer and stand made of ibex horn by the eighteenth-century Austrian master Martin Gizl, purchased in 2013 (Fig.18). The collector-donor story line is continued in section six, ‘Visions of Collecting’, which is devoted to the remarkable generosity of the Havemeyer family. In the exhibition’s spirit of relating ‘fraught histories’, the wall text relates that the Havemeyers’ fortune was based on the manufacture of sugar processed by immigrant factory workers, ‘who labored under grueling and dangerous conditions’. How other collector-donors attained their wealth is not detailed.

Other sections are devoted to the collecting of American, Modern, Asian and Islamic art as well as to the Met’s participation in excavations that through the practice of ‘partage’ produced notable treasures from Egypt, Iraq and Iran. The key role played by museum curators is made evident in the exhibition’s second section, ‘Art for All’. It is devoted primarily to the achievements of the first curator of musical instruments and textiles, Frances Morris, and the founding curator of prints, William M. Ivins, Jr. A spectacular Noh costume of the early eighteenth century acquired in 1919 shows the breadth of Morris’s taste. Of the various prints and drawings assembled by Ivins, it is thrilling to have the opportunity to see up close Michelangelo’s red chalk Studies for the Libyan Sibyl, so wisely purchased in 1924. It would have been telling to contrast this example of high art with the more mundane ephemera, such as baseball cards, that the Print Department also houses.

The ‘Modern and Contemporary Art’ section becomes in the catalogue ‘A Seat at the Table’, and attempts to bring the curatorial collection history up to date by focusing on two curators, Henry Geldzahler, described as a ‘gay, Jewish curator living between two worlds’, who was responsible for the purchase of works in the exhibition by Barnett Newman and Ellsworth Kelly as well as making a gift of an Andy Warhol. When Geldzahler left his Department of Twentieth-Century Art in 1977, it was taken over by ‘the Museum’s first African American curator’, the dynamic Lowery Sims, who, as the wall text notes, ‘championed the work of artists of color, women artists, and Indigenous artists’. Although it is commendable to laud these four curators, one wishes the exhibition and catalogue had made more of an effort to commemorate so many other well-remembered and in some cases still active curators (who could perhaps have been listed in an appendix). Likewise, although the role of conservation is stressed with regard to several works on view, the contribution of a series of great painting restorers, from Murray Pease to Hubert von Sonnenburg and John Brealy, is not noted.

In section 8, ‘Fragmented Histories’, the heroic efforts of museum staff are celebrated for their role in the preservation and protection of European art during the Second World War as part of the Monuments Men effort. The curator James Rorimer, director of the museum from 1955 to 1966, made a significant contribution, which is conveyed by his rescue and later purchase of an exquisite little Rothschild-owned manuscript, Jean Pucelle’s Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux (c.1324–28). But perhaps the most heart-stopping exhibit (at least for former museum staff who knew her) is the military uniform of Edith Standen, who served for two years with the Monuments Commission in Europe and later became the Met’s curator of tapestries.

One of the most surprising lapses is the fact that the names of two of the museum’s most remarkable directors, Thomas Hoving and Philippe de Montebello, appear only once, in the introductory text for section 9, ‘The Centennial Era’, where they are credited for initiating and completing the museum’s new master plan. Whatever one may think of the often self-promoting and showman-like qualities of Hoving, director from 1967 to 1977, he was responsible for a major change in the direction and perception of the Met and played a personal role in acquiring such masterpieces (not in the exhibition) as the Bury St Edmunds Cross, Claude Monet’s Garden at Sainte-Adresse and Diego Velázquez’s Juan de Pareja. Although major special exhibitions had been instituted by Francis Henry Taylor in his years as director (1940–55), it was Hoving who made the ‘blockbuster’ a permanent phenomenon, which continued in the more placid years under De Montebello, director from 1977 to 2008, who also oversaw the superb refurbishing and reinstallation of many of the permanent galleries.

The final section of the exhibition attempts to fill the gaps in the striving for a ‘a web of intersecting narratives told through multiple voices’ that will form a ‘global narrative of art history’, as the current director, Max Hollein, defines it in the audio tour. The museum has in recent years acquired representative and extraordinary works of Judaica as well as pieces from Ethiopia, Latin America and Africa, the last represented here by an ‘epic’ assemblage work of 2007 by the Ghanaian artist El Anatsui, Dusasa II (Fig.19). Such additions are commendable, but one wonders why no selection has been made from the recent gifts of ‘Outsider Art’ from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation or of Latin American Colonial painting from the collection of James Kung Wei Li of São Paulo. Nevertheless, what is displayed is amazing, and when one leaves the exhibition and passes through galleries filled with masterpieces of photography and prints and drawings, and into the newly installed spaces for British art, one cannot but be overwhelmed by the past and continuing achievements of this great institution, which we are so happy to welcome back into our lives.(3)

1. Catalogue: Making the Met: 1870–2020. Edited by Andrea Bayer with Laura D. Corey. 288 pp. incl. 280 col. ills. (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2020). $50. ISBN 978–1–58839–709–6.

2. C. Tomkins: Merchants and Masterpieces: The Story of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 1970, p.71.

3. The museum’s new British Galleries were reviewed by Duncan Robinson in this Magazine, 162 (2020), pp.611–14.