Tuesday, November 13, 2007

the Metropolitan Museum of Art Highlights

The next day I did my usual pilgrimage to the Metropolitan Museum. There are several really great shows there; Tapestry of the Baroque, Eternal Ancestors (African sculpture), and three panels from the Gates of Paradise by Ghiberti, and a small exquisite show of Egyptian bronze statuettes titled, Gifts for the Gods. There are several other great shows at the Met, but most of them, such as the Age of Rembrandt and a collection of Abstract Expressionist paintings, are not of such interest to me, and such art already has so many fans being hugely popular.

The tapestry exhibition is a follow up to a wonderful show they did in 2002, Tapestry in the Renaissance, which made quite an impact on me. I had never really considered tapestries, and this exhibition made the point that they were the non plus ultra of their time, the absolutely top expression of wealth, taking years and many hands to create, being made of the most expensive materials available, and because of their huge size, having a great impact upon the viewer. The tapestries were coupled with examples of armor, and there I saw a steel man skirt, a suite of armor with a skirt for wearing on a horse while jousting. Really swinging.

What makes this show so worthwhile going to see is that many of these tapestries are the very best of their kind in existence, some seemingly in pristine condition, either from just being well preserved or restored; with brilliant intense colors with glittering silver and gold thread accents. A few of these photos should give an idea as to what I mean. Unfortunately they are mostly just details, but that was all I can do since they won’t let you take photos in the exhibit and the Met’s website only has a few details on view. Go see the show, even if you never thought you would be interested in tapestries, they are pretty wonderful.

This tapestry is after a cartoon by Rubens, woven in 1620-29 in Brussels.
It is of the Battle of Veseris and the Death of Decius Mus.
This is one of the only photos of a complete tapestry panel on the Met. website, where this and the other photos come from since they will not allow you take your own photos. The panels are huge, this is 13 by 19 feet and is one of the smaller ones. They may be simply too large to photograph well.

Detail of the panel illustrated above showing the incredible skill at rendering a painting in thread.

This was one of my favorite panels in the show; designed by Peter Candid, and woven in Munich in 1614, it measures
13 by 9 feet apr., and is in wool, silk, and gilt-metal wrapped thread. The preservation is amazing, the colors are intense and vibrant, the next illustration will give an idea of its quality.

While a depicting a hag, the quality of the workmanship, and intense deep colors and glittering gold thread makes this one of the most beautiful figures in the exhibit.

Of course the famous gilt bronze doors of the Baptistery in Florence by Lorenzo Ghiberti, hardly needs introduction, they are among the most famous works of art in the world. Only three are on view at the Met, the last time they will travel and for that alone one should go see them.
Ghiberti, 1425-52, from the Baptistery in Florence.
Gilt bronze, 31 1/2 x 31 1/2 inches.

My favorite panel is here, Jacob and Esau, is very spare and airy in feeling with the figures occupying the lower third, the space above being given over to a fantasy of Roman arches and pilasters, very simple, giving a sense of depth and space pictorial in effect and quite unlike a sculpture. The foreground figures are nearly in the round and fully detached from the background, like actors on a stage in front of the set. Interesting the foremost figures present their backs the viewer which oddly brings the viewer into the piece, these figures relate to the other figures in the piece, not to the viewer, we are truly observing the scene as if we were there ourselves.
The doors have just been cleaned by a new laser process and look brilliant, sparking gold with deeper hints of the bronze underneath. The doors are now in the museum, the doors on the Baptistery itself are reproductions, the original doors are now kept in a climate controlled nitrogen rich atmosphere where no oxidation can take place. This is a very special opportunity to see some of the world’s greatest art objects up close. In my Renaissance art history course at Harvard one mind blowing fact about these doors stood out; they were hugely expensive for the time, costing the equivalent of many millions of dollars to make today. Our society today is not willing to spend that kind of money on the ornament for a public building today. Not to say that art has no value, there is a lot of money being spent on art, but not for this type of communal public works that are really everybody’s property because they are there for everyone to enjoy.

Fang peoples, Gabon, 19th Century.
Element from a Reliquary Ensemble.
wood, Height: 24 13/15 inches.

The show, Eternal Ancestors, The art of the Central African Reliquary, is a slim excuse to gather as many great Fang sculptures in one place as possible. I say this, even though the show has a host of Kota copper covered figures and objects from other cultures like the Kwele from Gabon. However for me, it is the abundance of Fang sculptures that struck me. This great artistic tradition is great not only because the sculptures are so intrinsically compelling, but also because they were seminal in their impact upon the West; they helped create modern art. And many of the important pieces known early on are included in this exhibit; pieces that were seen by Picasso, Braque and the other creators of modern art are here on display. Rarely does one get to see such a gathering of Fang sculptures. One feature of them is they are glistening black with a sheen of oil, they were soaked in it as a part of ritual ancestor worship and they are almost weeping with it.
Again pictures are better than words in telling the story.

This amazing sculpture is in our own Brooklyn Museum's collection.
I find it very compelling, although it is not classic Fang, it is brown, and does not weep oil, the expression and quality of carving makes it a great sculpture.

Kwele mask, 19th Century, Gabon.
This white ghost like mask is a classic, very recognizable in its type.

photo shows display of Kwele masks and how well the Met displayed them.

case with Fang heads, one of which has been so worshiped that its features are rubbed off with adoration. Classic Fang with weeping surface, and hair.

The last show I will cover is one of the types of shows that only a museum as committed to scholarship as the Met would have; namely a small show of rare Egyptian bronze statuettes titled, Gifts for the Gods. I know this field, I have looked at Egyptian bronzes for years, and this exhibit opened my eyes to them. Often considered of marginal interest, there are a lot found in late Egyptian sites, the examples here reveal that they belong along with all the other great aspects of Egyptian art. Our impression of the bronzes is shaped in part by their deteriorated condition, originally they were often highly decorated either by paint or inlays of various types. Here are some examples with extensive traces of inlay in gold, silver, copper, niello, etc. Some bronzes contained in their alloy allot of gold, which made them nearly black, and also gave them a sheen. Again photos tell the story, some of the greatest objects in the show are but fragments of even greater sculptures.

Fragment of a Menit. Bronze inlaid with precious metal and copper alloy inlays.
Amazing object in which metals have been used to pictorial effect in a labor intensive manner to depict the Goddess Sekhmet receiving an offering from the young child Horus, with the vulture goddess Nekhbet watching. A Menit is a counterweight to the enormous collar necklaces the Egyptians wore at high occasions.

This amazing fragment is of a statuette of King Pedubaste, 3rd Intermediate Period, ca. 818-793 B.C.
The complete figure was large for a bronze, and this fragment shows it to have been of the highest quality despite its degraded condition. Again we see the use of metal inlays to pictorial effect on his belt. The crispness of the pleats of his kilt also give a sense of the quality of the workmanship of what was a splendid statue. In addition to marveling at the technical excellence of this fragment is the sense of motion conveyed in such a bit of a sculpture, you feel his forward movement in just this kilt fragment.

This small bronze of the child Horus, may well be of a royal child, and dates to the 18th or early 19th Dynasty, ca 1300 B.C. What is remarkable about it is the sheer quality of its facture and it is cast in a bronze alloy that contains a high amount of gold, which accounts for its black patina and lack of corrosion. Until this show, I had not heard of a gold containing bronze alloy, but the Egyptians were quite experimental in their metal mixes always searching for new better casting alloys and different coloristic effects. In the profile, not available on the Met website, the head of this child reminds one very much of the famous Amarna Princesses, supporting the dating to the late 18th Dynasty.


Trixie said...

Where are the photos of men in steel skirts?

C'mon, Tom!

Plus, are you covering the new art exhibit this Saturday in Hudson?

See ya,


Toms art report said...

thanks for the reminder Trixie, I think I will. And there is a show in Catskill too in case you forgot. Should be a fun evening.

Anonymous said...

Hi Tom,

From where did you get that "Kwele mask" photo???

Toms art report said...

I took it myself with my iphone, the mask was in the exhibit I was going through.
I will look at your website, looks interesting.