New York

Masterpieces of Fifty Centuries

The Met | Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Masterpieces of Fifty Centuries” rounds out the cycle of centennial exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum. Enough is already widely known about its general set-up, that it will be best here to steer clear of issues like the original (international) plans, means of selection, “experiments” (what can they prove?) in display, etc. For our purposes it is best to take it simply as it stands and decide, by being specific but without pretending to be exhaustive, how consistently and by what means the “masterpiece” standard is maintained.

For whatever reason, almost all the works of art in the exhibition are already owned by the Metropolitan Museum. Now we have, I think, a right to expect that the Museum which once hired Roger Fry is capable of readily discerning those of its possessions which faultlessly shine out as self-sufficient, A-1, top-drawer art works; and because it is half a century since Fry passed through, we cannot be expected to be amazed that masterpieces from different periods and different quarters of the world really can plastically accord. Yet we also know that the Museum has a taste for debased pedagogy, according to which works of art are poked and jostled into a kind of continuous Show-and-Tell for the benefit of a curiously heterogeneous audience composed of the bored poor and the ignorant rich. Just as this vaguely and passively spiritual experience replaces church on Sundays, so this show becomes a kind of secular Easter, announcing that art endures, and celebrating in a sort of Ninth Symphony, United Nations, secular-sentimental way the supposed spiritual unity of mankind.

Naturally this view on the Museum’s part obliges it to show as continuous an historical spectrum as it possibly can, since what it is after is not the discrete magnificences of individual works, in turn assembled, but instead the evocation of a generalized and deliberately indiscriminate vagueness which will allow history as an entirety to work upon the public an immense snow job.

Let me mention a few of these “masterpieces” which serve the purpose of sustaining the historical Muzak. Our Roman copy of a Greek Dancing Maenad had to be in, in order to supply the required dose of typicality with respect to neo-Hellenism in Roman art, even though it consists about one-third of plaster restoration, and despite the fact that European museums have quantities of these which are just as good and in much better shape. The Three Helpers In Need, attributed to Tilmann Riemenschneider, is a pleasant piece of sculpture, but it cannot be a masterpiece because it is inferior to even the average example in Frankfort. Granted, the Mosan Eagle Lectern (ca. 1500) is impressive, but mostly because it is huge; it is full of grossities, and when the vogue of this provincial Gothic brasswork cools off it will look inferior to smaller but more beautiful pieces in the Victoria and Albert Museum or even the Walters Gallery, in Baltimore.

Perhaps the best way to make sense of the show as a whole is to consider it as a “recent acquisitions” display which just happens to cover a hundred years. When you do that an interesting play of personalities develops (which I can only sketch out here), and it also becomes a little easier to put history aside and tell a real masterpiece when you see one.

The whole affair of the Lehman bequest is too complicated and mysterious to discuss now, but one naturally wonders whether the destruction of the Museum’s grand interior staircase (itself, we would have thought, an irreplaceable work of art, and a part of a worthy tradition which includes Leo von Klenze’s Alte Pinakothek)—is really worth that, just to accommodate the extant Museum (almost as a mere vestibule) to the collection of an individual. The question arises, at least rhetorically, would the Lehman Collection—one of the largest sources of masterpieces for this exhibition—actually justify the architectural mutilation?

A substantial number of works being shown do come from the Lehman Collection, but, set aside the Museum’s certain treasures, one avoids with difficulty the feeling that Lehman’s was a collection of bargains. (The apology that it would no longer be possible for anyone to amass an Altman or Havemeyer Collection today does not hold water: perhaps it is simply time to stop amassing art that way.) I am not saying that the collection is a cheat; I am sure they were expensive bargains, but the fact is that there are among Lehman’s paintings few towering masterpieces.

There is a large number of “name” paintings among the Lehmans, but hardly any Louvre-type examples,. Thus, Ingres’ Princess of Broglie is a fine picture, but no threat, in this city alone, to the Comtesse d’Hassonville. The Sassetta St. Anthony, even if it is by the same hand that painted the Met’s beloved Journey of the Magi, is conspicuously inferior to it. It would be nice to have Giovanni di Paolo’s Expulsion stay on, but for one leaf from a Fouquet manuscript, yet another brass aquamanile, some drawings (perhaps the most interesting is by Fragonard), two possible Costas, two “Circle of” Duccios, a Master of Moulins [!], and two dishes, I would still take the stairway. Add to that an at least second-class Botticelli Annunciation, in which the two very unstable figures, who seem cast from the same mold, threaten to crash heads, and I would still not hesitate. I admit that the choice becomes a little harder when it comes to pictures as rewarding as Giovanni Bellini’s Madonna and Child, the St. Eligius by Petrus Christus, or the beautiful de Hooch Conversation (no one, however, could say that the Museum needs this one), but then I would argue in favor of a Kress pattern of distribution, if what remains of the integrity of the Museum were still at stake.

So much for a bad guy. My approach to the show enabled me to notice that there was also a good guy. His name was Edward S. Harkness, and during his life and at his death he gave to our Museum a corpus of art of the most supreme quality. Mary Harkness gave too, and her Benin Rooster, nice Hobbema, and important Constable Salisbury Cathedral, are certainly appreciated by us all. But Edward’s Sphinx of Sesostris III (the most magnificent work of Egyptian art I have ever seen), Egyptian Fragment of Head of Teye, XVIII Dynasty Horse, Ptolemaic Ram-Headed Divinity, Holbein Wedigh portrait, and smashing Lawrence Lady Derby, make us marvel at the breadth of his competence and the incredible refinement of his taste. I wonder what demands Mr. Harkness made when he handed these treasures over to posterity.

In our own day, gratitude and praise are both deserved by the Bay and Paul families, whose combined foundations have, during the past three years, supplied the Metropolitan with three pieces of Baroque monumental sculpture, of which two, at least, are superb. Michel Anguier’s Leda and The Swan, it could be argued, fails to rise above the level of high-class garden ornament, but Lemoyne’s La Crainte des Traits de l’amour and Carpeaux’s Ugolino and His Sons, together with the Canova Perseus, which was bought by the Fletcher Fund, and the Giovanni Caccini Temperance, combine to produce a body of post-Renaissance sculpture whose absence would now be felt as a serious loss.

The fetish of absolute historical continuity, which one would have thought was antithetical to the notion of the timeless masterpiece, does, at least in a few cases, perform the task of politely hinting that certain objects now in private hands would fit very nicely, some day, into the Met’s collection. Thus, while the loan of a Cup From Ur by the University of Pennsylvania has a certain hopelessness about it—we will never have anything decent from Ur unless there is ever an American raid on London—the loan of an Epaulette from the Ziwiyeh Treasure, now in the Pomerance Collection, justly and politely indicates that this would be a valuable asset to our collection.

I will confine myself to only a few comments on the mounting of the show. It seems somewhat absurd to exhibit a one-half slice of Federigo da Montefeltro’s Gubbio study, just so that thousands more can zip through it. On the other hand, perhaps the decorated room (not in the show) from Boscoreale should be dismantled, for the way the other examples (in the show) shine out makes it possible to see beautiful Roman frescoes well for the first time. The room in which the New Kingdom sculptures of Hatshepsut, the lady-king, are exhibited, is a great success, and succeeds in producing just the sense of awe which must have been an essential part of their original effect. Many of the trans-cultural juxtapositions, throughout the show, are fruitless and unenlightening (the African sculptures and Rembrandts refuse to converse, like hostile delegates to some international congress), but at last we have a chance to see Manet’s Woman With a Parrot, and Whistler’s Duret portrait on the same wall. On the other hand the Badminton Sarcophagus should not have been separated from William Kent’s eighteenth century base for it: ordinarily it simply shows more art history, with no esthetic compromise to the sculpture, than it does here.

A purpose which the show does serve is to give the spectator who is already familiar with the Museum a kind of new deal. You notice some things which you always walked past, things like our supremely magnificent Bodhisattva, Byzantine Virgin and Child (where was this hiding?), the pair of Meissen Goats, or Degas’ monotype The Fireside. And you also greet with familiarity works which you never passed by, but whose super-human power you could never exhaust: paintings like Rubens’ Venus and Adonis. The museum which owns these, and Géricault’s Nude Man, and Bingham’s Fur Traders, and Courbet’s Demoiselles, and Degas’ Woman with Chrysanthemums, and Monet’s Terrace at Sainte-Adresse, and Cézanne’s Gulf of Marseilles, and Gauguin’s la Orana Maria, and Van Gogh’s Arlésienne, and Seurat’s Parade, and Picasso’s Gertrude Stein—that museum has a right to take a less deferential attitude toward the Lehman bequest.

This is in one respect the most stimulating of all the centennial exhibitions; it encourages us to face up to matters of the greatest magnitude—issues like quality, timelessness vs. time-boundedness, style, and esthetic judgment. It does drive home both the necessity and the difficulty of subjective response. The Mona Lisa, deposited on the moon, could have only potential esthetic value, contingent upon its eventual rediscovery, and in the same way we are here encouraged to realize to what an amazing extent even masterpieces need, as it were, somebody to talk to. What you get out of it is a sometimes strenuous exercise in active subjectivity, and also a boost in respect for the beatific objectivity towards which that exercise aspires.

It is impossible to avoid the question of what a masterpiece is. Even when it meant simply proof of competence, following upon apprenticeship, the term implied some kind of demonstrative strength. This now often leads off on tangents such as pedagogical demonstrativeness (the merely “representative” piece, the work that makes a point, the chronological “connecting link,” etc.), but even then it persists in reminding us that a masterpiece must in itself be something remarkable. What we mean by a masterpiece today is one of the few best works by one of the best “masters” or groups (in the case of entire fluorescent periods) of masters in an art. It cannot, even if it is by a top artist, be just another piece (here is where typicality is distracting). It is a work which it would be worth the sacrifice of any number of non-masterpieces to save from oblivion. If you had ever seen it and heard that it had been destroyed (e.g. the Monet Waterlilies which burned in the Museum of Modern Art) real tears might form. It is the only kind of artwork which moves with anything like love, and we don’t really mind if it sometimes occasions a little purple prose.

A masterpiece must be a top banana. It must exhaust our proud appreciativeness and remind us that it has more to say than we will ever circumscribe: it must be better than the cleverest thing that could be said about it, even while it makes us feel ourselves at our cleverest. Here are twelve objects in the show, of which seven strike me as masterpieces, and, very briefly, why or why not.

Both the Sesostris III Sphinx and the Byzantine Virgin and Child are masterpieces. They are both damaged, the first more than the second, but neither has by that fact any of its astounding perfection compromised. (In contrast, we feel that the Fragment of Head of Teye may once have been a masterpiece, but has now sadly slipped away.) It is not irrelevant that they both deal with lofty subjects, indeed, with super-human aspirations: a masterpiece need not be a religious object, but it must think big. The handling of the diorite grain in the Sphinx, and in both pieces the unwavering attention of the relation of every form to every other form, flatter and accompany (as if musically) the loftiness of subject so that the works themselves seem to share in the pneumatic being of the figures.

Certainly the same goes for the splendid Bodhisattva, which may represent Siddhartha, but not really for the Mummy Portrait of a man who might in fact be his contemporary. Both can be considered portraits, but the one of the mere mortal is also just another old painting. (How grateful we are made to feel for the least formal consciousness in the relation of eye to beard, or in the actual painting of the beard on the chin.) Here is a case of settling, and you never have to settle for a masterpiece: it is not comforting to realize that most surviving Fayum portraits are even more obviously hackwork than this one. This is the kind of realism (for which we are also supposed to be teleologically grateful) that inspires iconoclasm. This painting would glow in the dark if it could.

The importance of noble subject matter is beginning to emerge, and Joshua Reynolds rears his hoary head. But nobility of subject isn’t a guarantee of “masterpiecehood” either. Two Byzantine silver plates, David and Goliath and David Anointed by Samuel demonstrate this, for both represent the same poet-king. And both have the benefit of appropriate dignity of material, for silver is as precious and masculine as diorite is recalcitrant and eternal, or ivory feminine and warm. Now we notice first some practical differences. The Goliath plate is bigger and shows the (virtuous) hero in three moments, once in dignified repose, once in passive encounter, and once actively engaged; the Samuel plate shows one moment, and a rather staged one at that. We would think that this should not matter, that it would just not bear on a judgment of quality. But it is only required that we compare the snake of the large plate with the bow on the ground in the smaller to notice that the more ambitious work actually also gives more plastic satisfaction: as a form the snake alone has more vitality than anything in the Samuel plate. The Samuel plate is beautiful but not extraordinary, not a masterpiece; the Goliath plate is.

In the Sung dynasty painting The Tribute Horse everything conspires to impress with significant details like the snake in the Goliath plate; in fact the work as a whole seems like a completely interdependent system of interlocking formal moments. Certainly the most salient such detail is the billowing streamers held by the hunter on the black horse, and the way these gather and skim the edge of the mountain in middle range, but everywhere there is the same concern: see how the rear of one horse and the head of the next both actively relate to the great foreground tree. These gentlemen are enjoying a hunt in the country. The landscape, as large-looming as it is, doesn’t swamp them; instead it seems to accommodate them in painting as they have accommodated to it in life. Whether this is ultimately a masterpiece might be affected by its comparison with similar pieces still in the Orient, but we need have little doubt that it would hold its own. On the other hand, the T’ang dynasty Standing Horse is not a masterpiece. Its mane and saddle-blanket are indeed beautiful, discreetly and as they relate one to the other; but not enough else is. The spots on the horse’s body are interesting, but in its overall character and especially in the less than perfect shape its glaze is in, it is inferior to several such horses in London alone, so it can’t really be a masterpiece.

Thus the issue of rarity or uniqueness arises, even if we would prefer that it didn’t: it is not possible for a masterpiece to be interchangeable with, or replaceable by, other works of art. Hence a print has to be really stupendous, as Rembrandt’s Three Crosses is, before it seems to qualify, and even then we feel grateful for the limitations of “states.” Gauguin’s la Orana Maria is a hard nut to crack, and partly because of this problem of interchangeability. We love Gauguin, and he is unquestionably top-drawer as an artist, but if this painting were lost, we could almost—we suspect—reconstitute it in our mind, by reference to other of his works. It would almost be like a chess game that got upset, but the pieces of which, and a knowledge of their position, survived. Nevertheless, I would let this pass. It is too beautiful and there are not enough Gauguins around to make this dispensable.

Ingres’ Princess of Broglie, however, does not quite make it as a masterpiece. The relation of the settee and drape to the wall panelling is interesting, but there is something just a bit hammy about the arms. This lady was related to the Comtesse d’Haussonville, and exceeded her in rank, but the Haussonville portrait (in the Frick Collection), which may in fact represent the identical room—to judge from the woodwork and chair—has so much more intellectual substance to it, that this one cannot be a masterpiece because we would gladly sacrifice it to save the other. As certainly as the Princess of Broglie is just another good Ingres, and not a masterpiece, Picasso’s Gertrude Stein is. We are of course happy to have it for other reasons, particularly because it is a “key” picture, but that isn’t why it is a masterpiece. It is a masterpiece because its subject is great, it is superbly painted, it is unique, and because we can imagine with some delight all the paintings and sculptures we would be willing to ditch to keep it. Gertrude Stein herself helps us to understand why. In “What are Master-Pieces and Why there are so Few of Them” (1936) she wrote that “The manners and habits of Bible times or Greek or Chinese have nothing to do with ours today but the masterpieces exist just the same and they do not exist because of their identity, that is what any one remembering then remembered then, they do not exist by human nature because everybody always knows everything there is to know about human nature, they exist because they came to be as something that is an end in itself and in that respect it is opposed to the business of living which is relation and necessity.” No wonder, once they do exist, masterpieces seem so necessary.

Joseph Masheck