Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Recently I was lucky enough to take a pilgrimage, of sorts, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. As many an art lover knows, the Met must surely be counted among the great museums of the world. Their permanent collection contains many great works of Western art by some of the most renowned painters of all time: Picasso, Van Gogh, Dali, Monet, El Greco, and countless others. As my personal interest leans toward paintings of a religious nature, I was spellbound by some of the works I was able to see first hand. My photography skills, lacking at the best of times, was doubly challenged by the requirement that no flash photography is allowed in the museum, but I did mange to cobble together a few good shots that I have complied here for all to enjoy.

Title: Massacre of the Innocents
Artist: Francois-Joseph Navez
Navez was a student of Jacques-Louis David in Paris. Navez’s style fuses David’s naturalism and idealization of Ingres, whom he also admired. Exhibited to great acclaim in the Brussels Salon of 1824, this work presents the Massacre of the Innocents as an intimate family drama, whose frightening realism struck critics. The delicate brush work, and the sense of depth were both striking to see in person. The swollen, tear stained eyes of the mother, as well as those of the muffled baby, made the work even more touching.

Title: The Dead Christ with Angels
Artist: Edouard Manet
This was the first of several paints by Manet with a religious theme. After the painting was already on its way to the 1864 Salon, Manet realized he had depicted Christ’s wound on the wrong side. He was advised to correct this “mistake” before the painting was exhibited so not “to give the malicious something to laugh at”. He chose not to, and although there was some ridicule, French writer Emile Zola gave the work the respect it deserved, noting that Manet’s intention was to emphasize the reality of the corpse, while calling attention to its holiness by including a halo. This painting, very large at (approximately) 6’ x 5’, was breathtaking to see in person. The stark portrayal of the body of Christ captivating the eye, as though the angels are propping Him up for all to see what has been done. Gorgeous.

Title: Joan of Arc
Artist: Jules Bastien-Lepage
With the loss of the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine to Germany in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71), the national heroine from Lorraine, Joan of Arc, acquired new symbolic importance among the French. At the 1880 Salon, Bastien-Lepage, himself a native of Lorraine, exhibited this painting, which represents the moment of Joan of Arc's divine revelation in her parents' garden. His depiction of the saints whose voices she heard elicited a mixed reaction from Salon critics, many of whom found the presence of the saints at odds with the naturalism of the artist's style. But, in fact, it is this juxtaposition that makes the painting so compelling. From across the gallery even before the ghostly saints could be discerned, the look in Joan’s eyes was noticeable. I even remarked “What’s with that girl’s eyes?” as I strolled over to take a closer look.

Titles: The Adoration of the Shepherds & The Vision of Saint John
Artist: El Greco
One of my favorite artists, El Greco, was nicely represented in the European Painting section. His stylistic idiosyncrasy and the deep religious devotion demonstrated in his paintings has, as I have grown older, made his work a joy to behold. Despite its unfinished and mutilated state (is a large fragment of one of three altarpieces El Greco was commissioned to paint in 1608 for the church of the Hospital of Saint John the Baptist), The Vision of Saint John remains enormously powerful. Its visionary treatment of space and dematerialization of form have been shown to have played a crucial role in the genesis of Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon

Title: The Crucifixion with the Virgin and Saint John
Artist: Hendrick ter Brugghen
The strikingly archaic qualities of this picture, such as the angular figure of Christ, the shallow space, and the starry sky, have reminded many viewers of late-Medieval woodcuts, prints by Dürer, and Grünewald's Isenheim altarpiece. I was immediately struck by the color scheme the artist chose, with it’s greenish-browns and dripping blood, highlighting the macabre scene at the crucifixion. An arresting work that ter Brugghen, a protestant, evidentially painted for a Catholic "hidden church" in the Nerherlands.

Title: Madonna and Child
Artist: Carlo Crivelli
This modest-size, devotional painting of the Madonna and Child is one of the Crivelli’s most exquisite works. Exceptionally well preserved, it is usually dated to the 1470s. A willful contrast has been set up between the hyper-refined features of the Madonna—as precious and brittle as an eighteenth-century porcelain figurine—and the over-sized, naturalistic rendered fruit, which casts emphatic shadows onto the moired silk hanging, shown as though fastened to the frame by red laces. The haloes are embellished with jewels that are depicted as though they were actual objects applied to the flat, gilt surface. I was not familiar with Crivelli before my trip to the Met, and was just one of several wonderful discoveries there.

Title: Saint Julian
Artist: Taddeo Gaddi
Saint Julian, a nobleman of the ninth century, is shown holding his attribute, the sword with which he accidentally slew his parents. This well-preserved picture, which dates from the 1340s, is a cut-down lateral panel from an altarpiece. Taddeo Gaddi was a pupil of Giotto's and one of his most inventive followers, working alongside the master for many years.

Title: The Annunciation
Artist: Philipe de Champaigne
This picture was painted in 1644 for the private chapel, or oratory, of Anne of Austria, the widowed wife of Louis XIII. At first glance, I was inclined to dismiss the work as too stiff and too formal, but I soon became mesmerized by the details. From the grinning cherubs to the delicate toes of the angel, this work was full of small touches that made the painting a pleasurable viewing experience.

Unfortunately, I only had a few hours to tour the museum, with obligations elsewhere that took precedence over my trip to the Met. I will certainly endeavor to return one day (God willing) to look over some of the great works I had to give short shrift or miss altogether. With admission by donation, the entry fee is no obstacle to viewing some of the greatest artwork ever created. I would highly recommend a visit to this institution as it holds some real treasures, some irreplaceable works of art that enrich the soul and the human experience.