A few weeks ago I received a letter from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s chairman, James Houghton, saying that there’d be a major exhibition in October celebrating Philippe de Montebello’s three decades as director. Three hundred choice works from every Met department out of 84,000 acquisitions had been chosen by his devoted curators.
To give you an idea how many 84K works is: that’s two-and-a-half times the 30,000 Egyptian pieces on view in the already overloaded galleries.
It seemed to me nuts that the Met had gorged itself on 84K things knowing that further expansion up, out, down or wherever was impossible. Where would the stuff be stashed?I asked the museum’s publicity department if the phenomenal figure was accurate. Yes. Then at the press opening of the show -- "The Philippe de Montebello Years: Curators Celebrate Three Decades of Acquisitions," Oct. 24, 2008-Feb. 1, 2009 -- I collared director de Montebello and he assured me that the real count of acquisitions was closer to 5,000 or 7,000 and that the inflated figure took into account groups and series of works. Whew! For a moment there I thought the Met had secretly re-started its bizarre "new master plan" that envisioned a huge storage space to be blasted in the schist under Fifth Avenue costing a mere $650,000,000. A community action committee squashed that cockamamie scheme a few years back. The 300 works, ranging from paintings, sculpture, drawings, prints and photos to furniture, arms and armor, costumes and quilts and playing cards, were chosen because they fundamentally transformed and uplifted the curatorial department and the museum. Every one a top quality, vital addition to the Met.
Perhaps. But I could find only 16 works that are both world class as well as being key additions to the museum’s sizeable holdings. Eleven are Old Master drawings. The rest -- the 284 -- are, to be kind, not globe-shakers; they are just acceptable examples of curatorial endeavor. The 18th-century table that is not quite like the one we have and is going to be donated anyway; the parade armor that would fit in nicely with two we already have; the Pollock which might make an interesting foil to the far superior Autumn Rhythm; a damaged medieval aquamanile that’s a good study piece.
Two works should never have been acquired. One is the early Balthus, The Mountain of 1937, a painfully stilted effort by a once trendy artist whose reputation has faded over the years. The other is a terracotta fragment of the Virgin, supposedly Bohemian of the vaunted "Beautiful Style" around 1375. I have suspicions about its authenticity and I hope to hell I’m wrong. (For more on this, click here.)
Several great pieces are not in the show and should be. One is an impressive early 9th-century ivory of St. John at the Cloisters. It’s the rarest of the rare -- one of the dozen surviving products of Charlemagne’s court workshop. Another is the massive Greek 6th-century B.C. drinking cup on loan from the Italian government in exchange for the Euphronios kalyx krater, the splendid vase that the Met had to send back to Italy because it came from an illegal dig. De Montebello cut a visionary deal with the Italians to return the krater in exchange for objects equal in importance and beauty every four years virtually forever. Perhaps the loaned vase isn’t in the celebration gallery because the director loathes the landmark deal he struck. Odd if true, because it was one of his finest achievements.
To me the top acquisition of the past 31 years is the delicate and tender late Gothic Madonna by Duccio di Buoninsegna (late 13th, early 14th century). This beauty, brimming with humanity, is unquestionably one of the most important acquisitions in any field since the museum opened in 1871, and the label ought to praise Philippe de Montebello for courageously going for it.
Close in importance is Picasso’s masterpiece, Au Lapin Agile (1905). It ranks in the top ten percent of Picasso’s entire oeuvre and for the Metropolitan it ranks within its top five paintings. The young Picasso depicts himself as a raffish Saltimbanque dandy with his lover, Germaine Pichot, a lissome model. She seems to have walked out of a Toulouse-Lautrec poster. The club’s owner, Frédéric (Frédé) Gérard, strums a guitar in the background.
Look at and be captivated by:
Picasso’s gloriously handsome face.
His tensile hands with their elegant half-gloves.
The daring flatness of his body.
The exquisite bone-white face of his lover. Those red lips alone are worth the awesome price paid at auction a few years ago -- $67 million plus.
The cabaret Au Lapin Agile was named after its sign, which was painted by Andre Gill and showed a rabbit jumping out of a saucepan. The neighborhood began calling its local joint "Le Lapin ŕ Gill," or "Gill’s rabbit." In crazed all-nighters, unknowns from the world of art, music and letters gathered to drink and sing along to Frede’s guitar. Picasso gave the painting to the club and in 1912 Frédé sold it for $20. The club, at 22 Rue Saules, is a disco now. For that reason alone it’s better that this incomparable treasure, given by the ace connoisseur Walter Annenberg, is at the Met.
Another blockbuster is the Mangaaka Power Figure from the Congo, a vitally ugly, even loathsomely attractive wooden figure of the 19th century. It’s as if all the symbols of war and aggression ever created were summed up in this one figure. If this were Saint Sebastian you can be sure that in a few seconds those wounding bolts would be flying back at his torturers and they’d be wiped out.
A serene knockout is Caspar David Friedrich’s lyrical canvas, Two Men Contemplating the Moon. The U.S. has but four paintings by this quintessential romantic painter, and this is by far the best. This breathtaking work seems to symbolize all the times mankind has stared in wonder at our neighborly celestial body. Moon glow. Moon rapture. Visual poetry.
This 18th Dynasty plaque depicting two Iknaten princesses with their distinctive elongated heads was part of an extensive series given to the Met by the premier collector of Egyptian antiquities, Norbert Schimmel (he donated 25 panels in all, 24 in 1985 and one more in 1991). They rank among the finest treasures of the treasure-rich Egyptian department.
After King Tut, the best known pharaonic celebrity of ancient Egypt is the radical king Iknaten, whose wife was the beauteous Nefertiti. He was the monotheistic ruler who reigned in the 18th Dynasty from ca. 1349 to 1336 B.C. He stamped out the old pantheon of the sun god, Amun, and replaced them with one god, Aten, the sun-god giver of life and the sun. Under Iknaten artistic style changed violently. Depictions of the Pharaoh –- slack-chinned, pot-bellied, with a grotesquely elongated head -– are among the most gripping in all of art history. His palace, now totally gone, was at Tel el Amarna. Excavations there have been going on for years and hundreds of limestone panels have been found; most of them have been for years in underground storage at the Talatat storage area. Somehow Schimmel got his hands on several dozen.
One problem, however. The Iknaten hoard at the Met may become the Euphronios kalyx krater of the Egyptian department. According to Egyptian officials, the Talatat storerooms were broken into and hundreds of limestone panels stolen. Today, Egypt’s hard-charging head of antiquities, Dr. Zahi Hawass, is making lists of pieces in foreign lands he will insist on having returned to Egypt. Will the Iknaten pieces be listed? Will they go back? Stay tuned.
The pinnacle of this rambling show is the galleries dedicated to drawings. There are 41, mostly Old Masters, and every single one is a killer! They were collected by the super-connoisseur George Goldner, the curator of drawings. He was formerly at the Getty Museum, where he cut quite a collecting swath in paintings as well as in drawings. He pooh-poohed critics who claimed that the Getty was ruining the art market by paying high prices. That’s what the Getty money is for, Goldner shot back. When you look at this almost unbelievable treasury of drawings, you’ll know why Goldner is really the grand acquisitor of the Metropolitan.
Titian’s crackling Two Satyrs in a Landscape.
Raphael’s adorable Lucretia, shown just before the knife plunges. Don’t do it!
A Leonardo da Vinci! Studies for Hercules. Yes, a Leonardo.
And a miraculous Lucas van Leyden of The Archangel Gabriel Announcing the Birth of Christ.
The show is arranged chronologically according to the year of acquisition, with the first gallery showing works de Montebello especially admired. I was surprised to find the works there rather bland. An oddly flaccid 2nd-century AD Roman porphyry fragment; a portly naked man seen from the back, a late, somewhat mechanical work by Lucian Freud; and a stiff and formulaic early 16th-century Flemish tapestry of the Triumph of Fame, one of a series of five. None of the scintillating drawings nor even the divine Duccio.
No grand printed catalogue accompanies this show about collecting in the big time. There are no essays singing about the thrill of the chase or the delight of the capture. The exhibition labels are commonplace, dry-as-dust registrar’s stuff. The show does have its own special website, and it has, I believe for the first time in the Met’s history, a fully illustrated checklist of all the objects. Bravo! At last!
But as a piece of scholarship, the text is banal with no insights on what the objects are or why they were collected, except for a couple of intriguing comments. The site has a spate of pitches to become a member and to buy in the shops. There is one entertaining video about the purchase of a spindly Russian table and an intriguing transcript of a conversation between de Montebello and curator of paintings Keith Christianson about the Duccio. Yet, sadly, the charges that the picture is fake by the loose cannon, the late Dr. James Beck, are not mentioned and refuted. Also too bad is the fact that there are no insights by grand acquisitor Goldner. Where did he find these treasures and how did he snag them?
The show’s website is amateur and unrevealing, just like the museum’s overall site. This would have been the time to have every one of the 300 works described in detail, especially as to condition (showing before and after restoration photos), plus multiple photographs showing pieces in the round with a ringing statement from the curator as to why it was important to acquire -- why not the curator’s written presentation to the Acquisitions Committee?
Creating a professional, scholarly website is perhaps something for the Met’s next 30 years.
"The Philippe de Montebello Years: Curators Celebrate Three Decades of Acquisitions," Oct. 24, 2008-Feb. 1, 2009. at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10028
THOMAS HOVING is author of Master Pieces: The Curator’s Game (2005). He is former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.