Sunday, June 5, 2011

At the Met With A New Camera, Part I

I recently bought a new camera, a Panasonic Lumix Z58, and I've been trying it out here and there, mostly with the cats. Saturday, June 4th, I decided to take it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and see what I could do. All of the photographs in this post are mine. Any art history profs out there using Google Image Search who find these useful can help themselves. Permission granted.

The Met is the world's largest art museum with arguably the world's most comprehensive and best encyclopedic collection of art. There's a little bit of almost every culture on earth represented with magnificent examples of their art. There's no way you can see the place in a single day. I decided to confine myself to ancient art that day, specifically to Greek and Roman, and Egyptian art. That's still a lot, and I'm saving my Egyptian photos for another post. There are a lot of them.

Above is the main entrance on 5th Avenue designed by Richard Morris Hunt, the same architect who designed the base of the Statue of Liberty, and several "cottages" owned by the old Robber Barons up in Newport, RI.

Here is the great entrance hall of Hunt's original building, a magnificent welcoming setting for visitors to get their bearings and catch their breath before moving on to the rest of the museum. Not too many European museums have anything quite like this. Not very many modern museums have anything quite like this either. The only one that springs to mind that's comparable is the atrium of the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.

Here is the newly rebuilt entrance corridor to the Greek and Roman Galleries. These galleries have now been extensively redesigned and the space expanded to half the front section of the museum. They are now equal in size to the Egyptian galleries across the entrance hall which dwarfed the Classical galleries in size for decades. This rebuilding was almost 25 years in the making and represents a major change in taste and critical consensus. The long reign of Modernism confined most of the Met's Classical collection to storage. Classicism was sin, an offense to Pure Form. Classicism was the ancien regime overthrown by Modernism. Any interest or fondness for Classical culture was counter-revolutionary. Only those aspects of it that were considered "relevant" were given display room. A lot of the items now on display have been in storage for decades, some since the 19th century. I remember when the whole Classical collection was confined to about 6 galleries flanking this hall. The corridor used to be dreary, lit with electric lights and lined with grimy marble fragments and Cypriot art. The corridor was mostly a traffic lane for tourists on their way to the old cafeteria in the back. Now, the grimy marble fragments have all been cleaned and arranged to be looked at instead of bypassed. The Cypriot art is showcased in its own galleries. Those nasty electric lights are replaced with skylights, as Richard Morris Hunt originally intended. Since Saturday was a magnificent sunny day, the whole corridor shone with sunlight.

Below is just a selection of old favorites of mine, and not even all of my old favorites. I'm mostly trying out the camera.

A beautiful little Minoan cup with energetic painted decoration based on sea life.

After the Dorian Invasions and 5 centuries of dark ages, the old Minoan joi de vivre is replaced with 9th century BC Geometric period sobriety and fussiness. This is a detail from a funerary krater (a large vessel for mixing water and wine) from Attica. This was made at the time Homer, whoever he was, wrote his epics. This is the humble beginning of what would become in 4 centuries Classical art, a short hand version of Egyptian painting showing a funeral ceremony. Greece was a poor backwater when this was made.

Here is the famous Met Kouros, the bane of every Art History 101 student for decades. Students usually saw this statue in black and white photographs in Janson's History of Art, or Gardner's Art Through The Ages where he always looked formidable. In real life, he's not so forbidding at all. In fact, he's very young and charming.

The text book pictures always make him look crude, as nothing more than a necessary step on the way to fully developed Classical form. In fact, he's beautifully carved and gratifying in his own right. Here is his torso.

Here is his head with his remarkable abstract ears.

And here is the rarely photographed back of his head showing that splendidly carved elaborate hairdo with braids that might have once ended in gold pendants. We forget that he, and all other kouroi like him, were once brightly colored.

One of many many Roman copies of a once famous ancient sculpture, the Diadoumenos of Polykleitos showing a victorious athlete tying on a small headband getting ready to receive the laurels of victory. The original was in bronze and is long lost. The Romans loved it and had numerous copies of it made in less expensive, but still classy, marble, usually carved by Greek sculptors. There are several surviving copies. The Met has 3 of them. This one is a bit of a cheat. The head and lower legs are marble originals. The torso is a plaster cast from another copy.

Here is the head from the Diadoumenos copy. Amazing what a difference the sunlight in the corridor makes.

A longtime favorite of mine, a copy from the time of Augustus of a head from Polykleitos' Spear Bearer, or from another lost work.

A favorite with the tourists, and very beautiful, a grave stele from Athens of a girl with pet doves.

This is the new Hellenistic and Roman galleries. Roman art for a long time was crowded into about two galleries. Now it has a brightly sunlit wing to sprawl through. The central court was once the dreary museum cafeteria that served over-priced mediocre food to tourists. All of that is now gone. The Etruscan collection which languished in storage for 30 years now has its own gallery. This is out-going director Phillipe de Montebello's crowning achievement ending his long and very productive tenure as director of the Met. The rebuilt 19th century galleries, extensively rebuilt Asian galleries, especially the new South Asian galleries, are all his doing. Thankfully, he undid Thomas Hoving's showbiz hype and returned the Met to its original function of public education as well as entertainment, making the museum and its facilities so much friendlier to visitors than they had been in the past, and displaying the museum's collections as much as possible to the full advantage of the general public, artists, and scholars.

A magnificent Hellenistic bronze, the Sleeping Eros. The base is modern, but the original base probably was stone as well.

Head of the Sleeping Eros. His wings have beautifully sculpted feathers, but none of my attempts to photograph them were successful. A big problem is the reflections on the glass case around it.

Here is Eros all grown up, awake, and erotic looking in a Roman copy of a Greek original probably inspired by the sculptor Praxiteles.

Eros is definitely his mother's son. Here is the torso of a marble Aphrodite, a Roman copy of another Praxitelean work.

Here is a striking Venus torso fragment carved from fine hard basalt polished to look like cast bronze.

We could offer Venus and her son a libation poured out from this gold phiale. We'd put our thumb in the center and finger on the edges as we poured out wine from the other side. It is decorated with a pattern of alternating bees and acorns.

Another old favorite of mine, the Veiled Dancer

A new favorite, this small bronze statue of a philosopher or scholar.

An elderly Roman couple, probably from Roman Spain, from the time of Augustus, in bronze. I love Roman portraiture, and the Met has a lot of magnificent examples from all periods of Roman history.

A magnificent marble bust of everyone's favorite dirty emperor, Caligula.

Newly installed Roman house paintings. These are painted walls from the Imperial Villa at Boscoreale. For years they were displayed as wall panels covered with yellowing 19th century varnish. Now, they've been incorporated into a reconstruction of the original room beautifully done.

Here is the only detail shot from that room that came out in focus. I'll figure this out eventually.

Visitors in the newly reinstalled painted bedroom from the Villa of Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale. I remember when this room was an afterthought attached to the entrance hall with the window lit by fluorescent lights behind frosted glass. Now, natural light comes in from a window in a corridor behind the room in the new Roman galleries.

A detail from the painted bedroom. These paintings are probably based on Roman stage sets.

A woman playing a cithara from another room in the same villa, from a series of frescoes that may show a wedding ceremony. The woman behind the chair may be her daughter, but more likely is her personal slave. The woman playing the elaborate gilded instrument appears to be the lady of the house, and definitely not a hired musician. A beautifully grand painting.

Here she is in a detail from the above painting.

A splendid bust from Antonine Rome, the last hurrah of Classical culture in full flower before the chain of events leading to the Third Century Crisis. This bust is dramatic and extravagant with deeply carved curly hair, striking pose, and expressive eyes betraying the growing anxiety of the age.

The Emperor Caracalla in a magnificent head full of glowering menace. He's a thug, light years different from the image of the merciful philosopher-king cultivated by Marcus Aurelius. He cares nothing about Greek culture or any culture. His hair is short, and suggestively chiseled rather than fully carved. Caracalla and his Soldier-Emperor successors wanted to look like thugs, holding the Empire together by brute force if by nothing else. Caracalla came to the throne by murdering his brother, and lost it after he was murdered in turn, setting the pattern for so much of what was to come.

And here I am in a photo of me that I took myself while on my way across the entrance hall to the Egyptian wing. You can see a sweeping view of the hall and up my nostrils.

I will post my pictures from the Egyptian galleries next time.

So long for now.


June Butler said...

Counterlight, thank you for this post. When I visit the Met, I tend to be overwhelmed because of all that's there if I'm not headed to a specific work of art, exhibit, or gallery. A view of some of your personal favorites is refreshing.

The carving in the braids of the Kouros is magnificent. About the Diadoumenos, what came to my filthy mind, is, "Wow! He's got some balls!" The rest of him is beautiful, too, especially the head and hair.

When I came to the portrait of the elderly couple, I thought, "Clint Eastwood!" Perhaps it's because I watched "Torino" on TV last night. Caligula has such a mild look about him, but we know better. There is much that is beautiful in your picture essay.

And your nostrils are gorgeous!

Lapinbizarre said...

Apparently there are limits to "acceptable restoration". Never seen the Antonine bust before. Thanks.

Rick+ said...

Thank you so much, Doug! I am struck by the details in the statues and drawings. It's almost like the people are just taking a breath - they could then unfreeze and be alive in our own day.

JCF said...

Wonderful, Doug! (Love the self-portrait)

Predictably, I was taken by the "striking Venus torso fragment carved from fine hard basalt polished to look like cast bronze". ;-)

JCF said...

I think we need to see some cat pix too though. >^..^<

Counterlight said...

Cat pix are coming.

Counterlight said...

The black basalt Venus is indeed very striking, and a favorite of mine.

Counterlight said...

The Antonine bust is new to me too. I'd never seen it until the new galleries were finished. Apparently it's been in storage for a long time.

As for acceptable restoration, the label copy on some of the larger statues extensively itemizes what parts of each statue were added and others "re-carved" in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries.

Anonymous said...

All very nice! Thanks for the pics!

JCF said...

"...but none of my attempts to photograph them were successful."

Argh, I HATE this!

I just have a camera phone (not a fancy-schmancy "Panasonic Lumix Z58"), but I hate how (when I'm out hiking for example) I can't take a picture of what I see!

The camera (my camera) just can't duplicate my eyes. ("...or what's a heaven for?" eh? ;-/)

JCF said...

That "Veiled Dancer" is pretty damn incredible, too. (Suggests a "Dance of the Seven Veils": take 'em ALL off! *LOL*)

JCF said...

Wow, those last two are really striking!

"expressive eyes betraying the growing anxiety of the age"

His or ours? O_o

But even moreso

"[Emperor Caracalla is] a thug... His hair is short, and suggestively chiseled rather than fully carved"

Is it my imagination, or does his face look stubbly? I just can't believe how much he looks like OUR model of "Rugged Masculinity" today (even down to the deriguer stubble). That says SO much about who we are as a culture in 2011: Thug-Worship. (Oy vey)

A great class, Professor Blanchard. Thanks! :-)