Thursday, April 10, 2014

Museum Musings: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

My time at The Met was limited. Because the subway to my desired stop wasn’t running due to maintenance issues, I had to take a long walk in the rain. Which I didn’t mind because I otherwise wouldn’t have run into the house Eleanor Roosevelt lived in for many years, nor would I have had to experience Central Park in a cold, wet drizzle.  I love synchronistic moments, like the one I had in Paris where I ran into Theo Van Gogh's house, where Vincent Van Gogh lived for two years in Montmartre. 
After picking up my ticket at the Met kiosk (no lines!), I picked up a map and list of free guided museum tours from the information booth. Museum Highlights tour starting in 5 minutes. Impressionist and Post-Impressionist in an hour.

I made it to the tour with only a second to spare and I was ecstatic. I would recommend to anyone planning a visit to the Met to join these free tours. The Met is colossal and it won't be difficult to get sidetracked by the profusion of galleries.  I personally would have wasted a lot of time: (A) wandering around like a chicken with my head cut off trying to find the galleries I wanted to see, and (B) finding the works of art that I found appealing, but without an art history background, not really having a profound appreciation of what is before me.

Having a guided tour makes the difference between looking and seeing. A ticket to get in is $25, and for that investment, I got back a heavy return because it felt like I went to an art history class. The guides provide a lot more depth, insight, and context to the works of art.  The musings that follow would not have been generated had I not been on these guided tours.

The Splendid Galleries and Hallways
The Met was founded in 1866 by a small group of endowed Americans who were inspired by the Louvre while in Paris.  The interior of The Met is striking. The long marbled hallways, the domed ceilings, the Greek sculptures lined to impress – it really was grand and regal.  

This is an indoor courtyard featuring the restored and preserved facade of an old federal bank that used to be on Wall Street.  

Impressionism and Post-Impressionism
This is my absolute favorite period of art, and actually, it is more of a movement than a style. If you think about the heavy hitters such as van Gogh, Monet, Degas – they are all either Impressionists or Post-Impressionists.

Before Impressionism, Academic art followed a certain hierarchy. Works that revolved around history were the alpha. Depiction of scenes from the Bible, mythology, and any other historical event was considered the highest form of art. This was followed by “selfies” or portraiture, then pictures of the random things in everyday life, landscapes followed, then of animals, and lastly, still life, which includes pictures of flowers and fruit on the table (which must have been the #foodporn equivalent centuries ago).  Look at these two paintings where everything looks perfect and luminous, the brushstrokes so light and fluid they almost look like photographs.
Left: Pierre Auguste Cot's "Springtime", Cot's most celebrated work.
Right: William Bouguereau's "Nymphs and Satyr", which debuted at The Salon in 1873
In the mid 1800’s in Paris, a group of young artists rebelled against this hierarchy or Academic art. They felt that art should not only be a reflection of the literal and should also accommodate subjectivism. The Salon in Paris is the most prestigious of exhibits and everyone wanted to have their works displayed at The Salon. The jury though is so discriminating that Impressionism at the onset did not have a place at the Salon because of its defiance of the strict rules of Academic art.  This compelled the Impressionists to create their own exhibition in 1874 where their work would not be snubbed.  It changed art history forever.

Edouard Manet, the Trailblazer
Edouard Manet ("Mah-ney") is touted as the Father of Impressionism, although he himself was not an impressionist. With his painting called “Mademoiselle Victorine in an Espada Costume” painted in 1862, he defied the rules and stunned the art crowd. Exhibit A: Mademoiselle Victorine, Manet’s favorite model, is shown in a man’s attire showing, gasp, bare legs in a time when all of the above was considered taboo. The scale of the horseriders in the background, the scale is off. Do you think this painting would have been accepted at The Salon?

Of course it did not pass the draconian standards of The Salon and it was instead sent it to the Salon de Refuses, i.e. the exhibition of rejects. But the young artists loved it, found it groundbreaking, and were inspired to create art that abandoned the stuffy rules of Academic art. Thank you, Manet. I can’t imagine a world where art is homogenized to selfies and pears on a table.

This painting bears such significance to the history of art that it appears as the cover of the Met’s museum guide sold at the museum store. I otherwise wouldn’t have figured out why had it not been for Frances, our lovely museum guide!

Edgar Degas and His Dancers
Known as Manet’s frenemy, Degas ("Day-gah") is popular for his cornucopia of beautiful renditions of ballet dancers. He was obsessed with them. Degas is to dancers as Monet is to gardens. Next to Van Gogh, Degas is my favorite painter and I loved the Met’s expansive collection of his works including sketches and studies. His portrayals of dancers are graceful, soft and beautiful, while still maintaining a strong technique. His painting of “Dance Class” gives us that feeling as if we walked into a dance rehearsal. It bustles with activity and lacks that staged quality. Such is typical of Degas’ style. His paintings of ballerinas have details and perspective that create this illusion. If you stare at “Dance Class”, you’ll notice the figures cut off from the frame, a toe shoe at edge of the painting, a tutu peeking out, shadows of a presumed audience on one side. This type of rendering has never been seen in art before and was influenced by exotic Japanese prints which became fashionable in the mid-1800’s when Japan first opened its ports and eastern influence made it to Europe. 
"The Dance Class"
When I was at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris in 2012, I gawked at so many impressionist works until I was about to combust. There was so much beauty and emotion captured on canvas and concentrated in a small, confined space. One of the things that I took home from the museum shop was a postcard of “The Little Fourteen Year Old Dancer”, a bronze sculpture by Degas. It was loaned to d’Orsay and I had just missed it, but I found it so beautiful that I took the photo home with me anyway. I didn't realize that it belonged to the Met and when I ran smack into it in New York, I got shivers. What a beautifully moving piece and it was such a gift to have finally seen it in person.
Left: The postcard.  Right: The real thing
Vincent Van Gogh, In Beauty and Madness
Although small, the Van Gogh collection at the Met showed the progression of Van Gogh’s style of painting.  The contrast in style and technique, particularly the use of color, is stark between an early work, “The Potato Peeler” that Vincent painted in 1885 while he’s still in Holland, and a later work such as the “Wheat Field with Cypresses” painted in the south of France just five years later.  The former was dark and cast in a heavy shadow, while the former was bursting with life and color.  It would appear flat on pictures but Van Gogh’s paintings after his move to Paris actually have thick, heavy brushstrokes that burst out of the canvas.  

When he lived in an asylum in Provence, some of the recurring themes of his paintings were wheat fields (where ironically, is where he went to shoot himself in the chest that would eventually cause his death two days later) and cypresses. In “Wheat Field with Cypresses” Van Gogh masterfully created motion on the wheat grass undulating with the wind, the leaves of the trees swooshing, and the blue sky roaring with life and energy.  The only seemingly static objects in the painting were the cypress trees. 
Cypresses were usually found close to cemeteries since in the European tradition, they symbolize life after death.  Some say that the prominence of cypress trees in many of his paintings including “Starry, Starry Night” suggest that he was often pondering about death.  Whether that has any links to his eventual suicide, I dare not make a judgment.  What is significant about this though is that Impressionism not only allowed artists to create art from what they see, but also to express how they feel about what they see.  

Cezanne and the Painting about Paintings
Monet had owned Cezanne's painting, "Still Life: Apples and a Pot of Primroses", and kept it until the day he died. You would think it is just a painting of apples on a table, somewhat of a #foodporn of that period. But as revealed by Frances, our guide, this is a painting about paintings, hence its significance. Upon closer inspection, there are many things askew with this painting and apparently, they were deliberate. One leaf is not connected to a stem. One lip of the pot is missing. The perspective of the table is wrong. Why this painting is remarkable though is the appearance of balance. Even though it should appear lopsided with a heavy object on one side, the subtle repetition of color on the opposite side balances it. This work is so important and even revolutionary because it set precedence for cubism and abstract.
Bonus Round
A Room Fit for a King
This is what King Henry XIV's bedroom would have looked like in 1638-1715.  King Louis XIV was responsible for unifying France and was supposedly a known womanizer.  Hand sewn wall hangings, velvet walls, gold everywhere - can you believe this opulence? The wall hangings are actually needlework, each one hand-sewn - every single stitch of it.  They were commissioned by the King's mistress, Madame de Montespan.  
 There was a gate across from the bed which physically separates the royal from everyone else and only certain servants were allowed to come through the gate.  It also makes the bed chamber seem like a stage which is another deliberate act of separating the king from the rest.
There were so many things to admire and see in The Met, it almost feels like a microcosm of New York City itself.  This behemoth is two million square feet, housing over two million objects, and I'm almost certain it would be impossible to see everything in one visit.  I am in no way a connoisseur of art, but something about it - perhaps it is the collective human condition, the dramas we all share as human beings - draws me each time, which ever city I visit.  This particular Degas painting caught my attention and I stared at it for a long time.  It looked so damn familiar.  When I got home, I knew why.  It was the cover of a second-hand book I bought from the public library for $1 years ago.  It felt like I had tucked away this dream years ago, waiting patiently for its turn, like many, many, many things in my life at the moment.

And now, its time has finally come.
P.S. If you go, you might pick up a tip or two from my other NYC post here

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