A Banquet of World Art, 30 Years in the Making
Exhibitions come and go; they are what museums do. Collections are slowly built and stay; they are what museums are. “The Philippe de Montebello Years: Curators Celebrate Three Decades of Acquisitions” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art plays both sides of this dynamic. It catches a monumental institution at a moment of major change.
As the title implies, the show is a tribute to Mr. de Montebello, who is leaving the Met after being its director for more than 30 years. For the occasion, curators in 17 of the museum’s departments have chosen objects in their fields of expertise from the permanent collection. These have been assembled and intermeshed under the coordinating eye of Helen C. Evans, curator of Byzantine art.
Collaborative though it is, the cavalcade of world cultures that rolls through the museum’s second-floor special-exhibition galleries is very much Mr. de Montebello’s creation. Everything in them was acquired under his aegis. Curators may have proposed specific items, and donors offered others, but it was Mr. de Montebello who ultimately signed off on the acquisitions, giving each his famously resonant, bass-baritone “O.K.”
And there were many O.K.’s: some 84,000 in total. The 300 objects in the show represent a tiny fraction, and a madly eclectic one. Chinese scrolls, Greek vessels, Oceanic effigies and an 18th-century American pickle holder share the spotlight, with no object privileged as better — grander, rarer, prettier — than any other. This is a wonder-cabinet situation, an exercise in proprietorial pride, an unabashed, if surprisingly low-key, display of fabulousness.
It is also one of the more radical exhibitions of Mr. de Montebello’s tenure. As director, his goal was to create a culturally inclusive museum, and he did. Yet within that museum, cultures were sorted out and confined within traditional, in many cases artificial, borders. In this show the borders are down: all cultures share a common space; they mingle, exchange ideas and vibes, and sometimes clash, as they do in real life.
Real life, or at least contemporary life, has never gained full admission to the Met in the de Montebello era. When culture wars raged outside in the 1980s and ’90s, the museum barely acknowledged them. Mr. de Montebello declared himself elitist, and proud. Uplift, not political relevance, was art’s proper sphere. The chill, bracing perspective of a “new” art history, which posits that art is ideologically manipulative and is as often as not an advertisement for top-down social power, has found scant response here.
There isn’t much evidence of such cultural commentary in the show, either, except perhaps incidentally, in the way certain objects line up. When standing at the entrance to one gallery, it is possible to imagine that the American Indians in Delacroix’s painting “The Natchez” are under fire, both from an ornate French flintlock gun mounted on the wall nearby and from Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s gilded statue of Diana, who aims an arrow in their direction from halfway across the room.
What’s most interesting about the show, politically, is the leveling process it represents. At the Met we are accustomed to seeing Greek art, seedbed of Western classicism, isolated from the rest of the museum in immaculate, light-flooded halls, a kind of sanitary zone. Here it’s throw into the mix, and that changes our thinking about it.
Classicism begins to look like an impure, iffy proposition in an installation halfway through the show, where the marble head of a startled-looking Hellenistic goddess is sandwiched between Brancusi’s neo-Cycladic “Bird in Space” (1923) and a Grecian evening gown designed, around 1965, by Madame Grès. Athena meets Modernist abstraction, and abstraction meets Ava Gardner.
One of the Met’s most exquisite Gothic sculptures, a 15th-century Virgin and Child from the Cloisters, is in the same room. So is a Charles Rennie Mackintosh washstand, and a red-pine bust of the 18th-century Russian military leader Aleksandr Menshikov, who looks like a crazed Dr. Strangelove in a massive fright wig. (Mr. de Montebello took one glance at this piece and decided that the Met had to have it.)
Under the circumstances, everything registers as both high and low. Uplift means whatever turns you on. Beauty, as a concept, is relative, and not necessarily elevated. Art assumes different meaning and value depending on how you view it: as a social historian, a finely attuned connoisseur or as a recreational window-shopper.
Much of the work is just plain great no matter where you’re coming from. Almost everything in the first room is, beginning with a scroll painting of a horse named Night-Shining White from Tang-dynasty China, its surface swarming with seals left by admirers since the eighth century.
The Met’s oldest African piece is here: a twisting terra-cotta figure of a man, his back covered with boils or jewels — was he meant to record or ward off a plague? — from Djenné in Mali. From India comes a red sandstone Buddha, but also an Islamic inscription carved in relief, its letters as slender, upright and dense as bamboo shoots in a grove.
European painting was Mr. de Montebello’s original field of expertise, and he has made some amazing catches. Vermeer’s extraterrestrial “Study of a Young Woman” is one. It took up residence in the museum in 1979.
Another is a full-length self-portrait of Peter Paul Rubens with his second wife, Helena Fourment. It’s a heartbreaker. The artist, then in his 60s — he wouldn’t live much longer — gazes down tenderly and regretfully at his young wife, with her pearlescent skin and baby-fine hair, as they walk through the Garden of Love. The picture is said to be one of Mr. de Montebello’s Met favorites. Mine too.
As marvelous as much of the work is, the show was not designed as a greatest-hits display. Its stated purpose was to give a sense of how Mr. de Montebello fleshed out the unbalanced collection he found when he began as director. In the early 1970s a small Chinese painting collection occupied a few cases lining the Great Hall balcony. In 1981 he inaugurated a majestic suite of galleries to hold what has grown to be the largest collection of classical Chinese painting outside of Asia.
Through the 1980s the museum’s Indian and Southeast Asian collection languished on the same balcony, having no place else to go. One of its treasures, a standing bronze Shiva or deified king from 11th-century Cambodia, was stuck in a dark niche, sometimes lighted, sometimes not. In 1994 the museum carved out the equivalent of a whole new interior wing for this material. The Cambodian Shiva is in the show.
Sometimes a single object can fill a huge void. The virtual absence of significant Ethiopian art from the African collection was remedied in 1998 when the museum acquired a magnificent 14th-century Gospel, illuminated with figures dressed in robes of saturated yellows and reds.
The small but growing Korean holdings were put on the international map with the purchase at auction, for more than $1.5 million, of a gilt-bronze bodhisattva in 2003. A 17th-century Japanese koto the size of a compact car introduced a plangent East Asian note to the Met’s musical-instruments orchestra. And there was Duccio di Buoninsegna’s tiny, transporting “Madonna and Child.” Mr. de Montebello broke the bank for it, and good for him. Much bigger money is spent on absolute nothings. The picture looks more precious by the day.
One could go on, and the exhibition does, with mini-shows along its route in the form of cases filled with very small things: Roman rings, Tiffany pins, Mesopotamian seals, Indonesian earrings, Egyptian amulets, daguerreotypes (Frederick Douglass, Tom Thumb), and teensy paintings, among them a remarkable 1828 watercolor-on-ivory called “Beauty Revealed” by Sarah Goodridge of Boston, depicting a pair of exposed breasts, her own.
(You’ll find images and descriptions of all of these objects on the Met Web site that serves as a catalog for the show: metmuseum.org/curators_celebrate.)
The whole business ends with a nothing-but-the-finest flourish in a gallery of masterpiece drawings: Leonardo, Michelangelo, Titian, Raphael, Poussin and a smudgy, rare little two-sided scrap by the Netherlandish painter Gerard David that joined the all-star lineup just this year.
If late-20th-century names are scarce, that’s probably just as well. Despite the presence in the show of first-rank paintings by Mark Rothko and Jasper Johns, contemporary art has not been the strength of a museum that has tended in the past three decades to favor huffy-puffy old master-ish types like Lucian Freud. One hopes that Mr. de Montebello’s appointed successor, Thomas P. Campbell, a Met curator, will feel free to explore other paths.
Mr. Campbell, like Mr. de Montebello, is a European-art specialist. The two immense tapestry exhibitions he mounted at the Met were, to the surprise of many, among the museum’s strongest recent draws. Mr. de Montebello was surely not surprised. He knows fantastic when he sees it and, in a curatorial intervention, he requested that his tribute exhibition open with a tapestry — 16th-century, Flemish — called “The Triumph of Fame.”
It depicts the allegorical figure of Fame, tall and slender, surrounded by writers renowned for their praise of the past, all gathered together like expectant picnickers in a flowery field. A close look reveals that some of the flowers are in full bloom, others have gone to seed, some are still in bud: the cyclical story of art and life, institutions and collections. But while Fame and his friends seem to wait for a feast to arrive, ours is already here. Mr. de Montebello has been providing it, special delivery, for 30 years. Farewell, and hail.
“The Philippe de Montebello Years: Curators Celebrate Three Decades of Acquisitions” remains at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through Feb. 1; 1000 Fifth Avenue and 82nd Street, (212) 535-7710, metmuseum.org.