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by Thomas Hoving
The great Metropolitan Museum has a near-sacred acquisitions policy -- strive for top quality, collect only the best example possible in every area, a work that's the summation of its epoch or artist, a work that's exerted strong influences throughout time, but above all is something that grows continually and has a visual impact of mysterious, pure beauty. There are exceptions, call them footnote acquisitions, those that add information to something the museum already has. But supreme quality is the stated goal and it's a sound one.
I just received my issue of the Met's fall Art Bulletin with 105 of the museum's 1997-1998 acquisitions out of the total of 1,400. I was delighted to find some sensational, world-class pieces, worthy of any great institution on earth, the kind of thing you rush to see when it's first displayed and which changes the way you see the joint forever after and which makes you yearn for the piece in your sleep.
Knockout number one is Edgar Degas' 1881 pastel At the Milliner's. It's roughly two by two feet and is simply one of the best five or so pastels ever created by anyone, anytime. The pastels writhe like greasy thrums of the thickest oil paint imaginable.
The thing throbs with colors -- a fantastic spectrum ranging in excitement and intensity from the infinitely complex and muted beige-green-pink-rust-red back of the sofa on which the client and milliner sit to a startling blue-green-lavender-blue-blackish-azure that is the formal guts of the picture. This electrified swash appears in the ribbon and bow on the hat the client is having arranged as she looks at herself in an unseen mirror, on her scarf, in the delicate shadows of her face, on her arms and back, in the blue shadows on the milliner's white lace neckpiece, in her blond hair, in the white draperies shimmering over the window, very subtly in the richly textured fabric of the sofa's upholstery, and in the plant in the corner. This magical blue is like some kind of St. Elmo's fire dancing everywhere, lighting everything up. The psychological center of this immensely powerful and gorgeous work is the milliner's eye (blue, of course) that is fixed with an almost unforgivable intensity on the mundane task of arranging the brilliant ribbon on the straw hat.
According to the Met's 19th-century paintings curator Gary Tinterow, this shining image is the first of the extraordinary series of pastels of millinery scenes which are way up there among Degas' finest achievements. This mouth-watering beauty is part of the Walter and Lee Annenberg collection of Impressionists and "Posts," and as the caption tells us, it is a partial gift. The collection is slowly ootching its way into the museum's complete control (diluted by a bunch of restrictions like never deaccess or fail to exhibit everything on pain of institutional decapitation.)
The Chinese-water-torture nature of the gift is well worth it. Look at the Gauguin Two Women painted in Tahiti probably in 1903, the last year of his life. Ambassador Annenberg adores this strong, rather creepy image and always thought the aging mother, her face a near death mask, was holding back the not-so-sunny secrets of life from her naive and happy daughter. So what if Gauguin took the ladies from a photograph and they are aunt and niece? The facts don't diminish the punch.
Another killer-diller is the second Annenberg Gauguin, the Tahitian Still Life with Teapot and Fruit of 1896, a wonderful work that emulates a Cézanne Gauguin owned when he was flush, the Compotière, Glass and Apples of 1880, which the Met blurb tells us is in a private collection (and which the museum, hopefully, is grinding hard to get -- for what a twosome that would make hanging together if the Ambassador agreed!)
Annenberg's late sister, Enid Haupt, left a sensational Tang dynasty (late 7th-early 8th century) tomb figure, the Court Lady in wood, painted and gilded, nearly 20 inches tall. She's the very image of elegance and calm aristocracy; her delicately carved visage is a divine combination of inscrutability, resignation and come-hither. Can you imagine suddenly coming face to face with this lovely concubine! Across the USA there are a plethora of Tang figurines, most of them terra-cotta (many of them non-Tang) and the finest real ones are in Kansas City. But this creature surpasses even those and is one of the hottest additions to the Oriental Collections of the MMA in years.
It's not so easy to find American furniture that's not already well-represented in the groaning collections, but the Met has garnered a superior, confidently architectonic tall clock by James Doull -- no mere attribution this, for his name is painted on the huge dial. The case, probably crafted by Thomas Seymour, is mouth-watering in the finesse of the detailed carving, the veneer, inlay and finish. Delightful paintings depicting the four seasons and a child in a landscape complete the fabulous array. This magnificent work of art makes you want to genuflect in admiration of its consummate artistry. It's one of the best arguments I know of that furniture ranks equal to any art form. I'd like to live in this.
There are a bunch of drawings, one of which is a blockbuster and another a grand footnote. The smasher is a breathtakingly beautiful brown ink drawing by Raphael Sanzio some 15 inches high, representing in stunning clarity Lucretia about to commit suicide by plunging a horrifyingly deadly knife into her bosom -- she'd been raped by a son of the tyrant Tarquin and in choosing death she precipitated a series of acts that ousted the tyranny and led to the Roman Republic. It's so gripping you can almost imagine what it's going to feel like when that needle point smashes into the heart or, worse, ricochets off a rib. This is a rare instance -- Raphael's working drawing is almost better than a painting, for there's a verve and sweep and psychological tension that sometimes Raphael didn't quite achieve in the finished product.
The admirable footnote is the pen and brown ink drawing (a foot by a foot and a half) by Claude Gellée showing Queen Esther Approaching the Palace of King Ahasuerus, signed and dated 1658. This drawing, although not very evocative, nor poetic, nor deeply imbued with the mysterious landscape harmonies Claude is so well known for, is nonetheless a sublimely finished pre-study with a thoroughly splendid (and outrageous) palace looking like a puffed-up Campidoglio, and in the moody distance the looming Breughelesque Tower of Babel. Figures were never Claude's strong suit, but these do have some sense of humanity and are at least acting their parts. Sadly, the painting for this, which Claude considered his best ever, was burned and only a fragment survives at Holkham Hall, England.
There are also some worthy photographs, especially those from the Rubel collection -- the Met has apparently decided to go on a photo binge, probably because it's relatively easy to store hundreds upon hundreds of pieces.
That's half a dozen grandiose masterpieces out of the 105 and presumably these are thought to be the finest out of the approximately 1,400 total. So what do I think about the rest? To me, they don't really stack up to what the Met already owns, over three million works stuffed into a 14-acre space that is already pretty much filled.
Far below the collecting ideal and indisputably not world-class are such acquisitions as:
* The bulbous fragment of a hippo of the 18th dynasty, which will get lost even in the galleries of the second-rate Egyptian material.
* The tepid very, very late Gothic (mid-15th century) French Virgin and Child.
* The so-so illuminated French 13th-century Bible with pleasant, but by no means pulsating illuminations of initials. The Cloisters long ago decided than the few manuscripts it would collect would be indisputable masterworks like the lyrical Belles Heures of the Duke of Berry and the 13th-century Apocalypse, and this minor work doesn't stand up to that ideal.
* The acquisition of any work by the stormy 17th-century genius Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, whose light altered the course of art, might be considered an unbelievable coup. But this Denial of Saint Peter, supposed to be a late work (and I'll take the experts' word that it's a signature work), is a botched, dully painted and uninspired exercise. Almost every Caravaggio sings out in triumph; this groans. The MMA should have kept on waiting for a finer example -- the museum needs a great Caravaggio, for the condition of the early The Musicians is marred. Not this blob.
* John Singer Sargent's glib and lazy portrait of Mrs. Hugh Hammersley. The Met's Sargents are second to none but this automaton cliché is second to everything he produced. Was it swept up because it might be nice to have a footnote example of the painter when he was flaccid?
The real reason why the Met collected this and so many mediocre works last year and the year before and so on is that the ideal goal of getting only the best of the best in world history is far from the real goal. Collecting here -- and to be kind to the Met -- at most big-time American museums, is less about the search for what's really needed or the uncompromisingly, sensationally great than it is about office politics, fundraising and ego.
Curators are driven to collect -- it's the heart of their egos. When recruited they're promised they'll be able to search the world and buy. They equate doing their job well virtually only to the acts of search and capture -- getting. Directors are reluctant to demand that curators be more discriminating especially since they cannot be discriminating themselves because of trustee and donor toadying and money raising.
When you've just hired a star to be curator of drawings you can't say, hey, slow down and wait for the one in a million.
Realistically, how can a director reject the gift of, say, a not-so-scintillating Mary Cassatt flower piece when the giver is a former chairman of the board who gave zillions (and doubtless will give far more one day)? No director can or should.
Or reject a partial gift (additional money had to be raised) of a routine and under-embellished 6th-century B.C. Greek Oinochoe from the classical art collectors Leon Levy and Shelby White? Never. For the simple reason that the museum is panting for the large (although erratic in quality and interest) Levy-White collection.
How could any director turn aside the offer of the Annenberg Foundation's kind donation of money to purchase a self-portrait bust by the capable but by no means genius French 18th-century sculptor Philippe-Laurent Roland as a trophy in honor of Jayne Wrightsman (a member of the acquisitions committee), whose late husband gave much and who herself has given much and will perhaps give much more if kept purring? Even if the bust is a lightweight work of art not really worthy of the mighty Met? No way.
Every fundraiser knows that a wealthy art lover is far more likely to give the crucial endowment fund moneys if he or she knows the museum will slaver over and accept as a gift any art they want to give.
Everybody knows the Met has far more art than it needs or can show well (the galleries these days are almost comically overloaded.) What to do about it? Easy -- come up with a simple, two-part plan, call it the Millennium Plan, to deal with the art overpopulation problem (the entire Egyptian holdings, which are all on view, number something like 5,000, which means last year alone the MMA grabbed up a fifth in numbers.)
* It should go back to the ideal and therefore cut its acquisitions to a tenth annually of what it soaks up now -- or no more than a single piece per department, say, 20 max for the whole place.
* It should form a blue-ribbon committee of insiders and outsiders to come to grips with what to get rid of and how. Briskly trade off the excess with reputable dealers (the new AG might reconsider the current Draconian trade-off measures which force the Met to sell only at auction) or sell the supernumeraries at auction. If it quavers at the rational amount of deaccessioning by trade and auction sales, form a firm program to lend out the surplus massively to less-rich museums around the country. Many beg the Met to lend, but are told routinely that the institution already does.
Will any of this above happen? Will any leader at the museum plunge into a Millennium Plan? Hell, no. Donor toadying, office politics, egos and get, get, get are the rules now and ever shall be.
THOMAS HOVING is former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.