Thursday, March 12, 2015

Small Shows Currently at the Met

By Charles Kessler

I love the Met for the small shows they do. These shows are hardly ever reviewed or even publicized, so you have to find out about them either on the Met's website, spot them on the list of current exhibitions given out at the entrance, or, best of all, happen upon them as you walk around the museum. Usually these shows focus on a major work loaned to the Met for a short period, augmented by work from the permanent collection. Some of the most memorable have been Rembrandt at Work, The Great Self-Portrait from Kenwood House, from a few years ago; Velázquez's Portrait of Duke Francesco I d’Este: A Masterpiece from the Galleria Estense, Modena; and last year’s Goya and the Altamira Family.

One such small show currently at the Met is Innovation and Spectacle: Chinese Ritual Bronzes (through March 22nd).
Second Floor, Asian Art, Gallery 207. 
It includes some of the rarest, best preserved, most dramatic, and fantastic (in all senses of the word) Chinese bronzes you'll ever see, including three fifth-century B. C. bronzes, lent by the Shanghai Museum, that have never been seen outside of China.
Ritual Wine Container in the Shape of a Buffalo, early fifth century B. C., Eastern Zhou dynasty, bronze (Shanghai Museum).
The relief patterns on the bronzes are stylized eyes, ears, snouts, fangs, wings, horns, etc. of animals such as tigers, buffalo, owls, birds, and dragons and other mythological animals. As you can see from this closeup detail (below), the technical virtuosity of the bronze relief is astounding, especially given how old they are.
Detail: Ritual Wine Container in the Shape of a Buffalo, early fifth century B. C., Eastern Zhou dynasty, bronze (Shanghai Museum).
The Met augmented the work from the Shanghai Museum with even older bronzes from their own outstanding collection.
Altar Set, Shang and Western Zhou dynasties, late 11th century B. C., bronze, table is 7 ⅛ x 35 ⅜ x 18 ¼ inches.
Spouted ritual wine vessel (guang), Shang dynasty, early Anyang period (ca. 1300–1050 b.c.), bronze, 13 inches wide.
The bronzes were used in ritual offerings of food and drink for ancestors, so while they have the vitality and animation of a real animal, they are also abstract, symbolic and timeless.


Painting Music in the Age of Caravaggio (through April 5th).
Painting Music in the Age of Caravaggio, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2nd floor, gallery 624.
The subject of this small show, completely drawn from the Met's collection, is the status of music from the late 16th century through the 17th century in Italy. To this end, Caravaggio’s The Musicians is installed along with two other gorgeous paintings from the period that also have music as a subject: Valentin de Boulogne’s The Lute Player, 1626; and Laurent de La Hyre’s Allegory of Music, 1649. In addition, instruments like the ones depicted in the paintings are on display. Best of all, piped into the gallery is a recording of music from the period that was played on these instruments.
Caravaggio, The Musicians, 1595, oil on canvas, 36 x 46 ½ inches (52.81).
Music was experiencing its own renaissance during this time. There was a growing demand for professional musicians, especially solo singers; and opera as an art form was just emerging. It was also a time when many new musical instruments were invented. (If you want to learn more about these instruments, check here.) The music depicted in Caravaggio's The Musicians (it was originally legible) was chosen by his patron, Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte, who was passionate about music.
Detail: Caravaggio,  The Musicians, 1595.
Caravaggio’s The Musicians, the focal point of the show, is an allegory about how music goes together with love (Cupid, sporting wings, is in the back left), and wine (Cupid is holding grapes). But even though there's a pagan god with wings and they're wearing classical drapery, this is not a typical High Renaissance allegory. Caravaggio's painting is more realistic, less idealized, than High Renaissance allegories. Caravaggio painted real musicians (including Caravaggio himself in the right background); and the scene includes music and instruments casually scattered about, and the drapery they're wearing is all bunched up. Also, the composition of the painting isn’t hierarchical in the High Renaissance manner; it isn’t ordered with higher ranking people given prominence. Instead it’s an all-over composition with everyone given similar attention. The god Cupid is, if anything, given less prominence.


Another small show is Hans Hofmann: Selected Paintings (through July 5th). Like many of the other small shows, this is an opportunity to see work that's usually in storage. The Metropolitan Museum owns a lot of work by Hofmann – 15 paintings and 29 works on paper, but only one or two of them are usually on display.
Hans Hofmann: Selected Paintings, 2nd floor, gallery 918.
Four of the paintings in this show are from a series of nine paintings Hofmann made in 1965 as a tribute to his wife, Renate. This is work done at the peak of his mature phase. The masterful painting (below), for example, is pure joy. It just keeps coming at you with color, light and movement.
Hans Hofmann, Renate's Nantucket, 1965, oil on canvas, 60 x 72 inches (1996.440.4).
Hofmann was know for his teaching, and the main thing he taught was what he called "push/pull." To over-simplify, "push/pull" is a way of creating the sense of depth by using the natural properties of color instead of the traditional methods of perspective or tonal gradation (modeling volume) which Hofmann felt did not acknowledge the essential flatness of the painting surface. So, for example, warm colors (red, orange) tend to advance (push) and cool colors (blue, green) recede (pull). Hofmann acknowledged Cézanne's influence in this. In Search for the Real, Hofmann wrote "... Cézanne understood color as a force of push and pull. In his pictures he created an enormous sense of volume, breathing, pulsating, expanding, contracting through his use of colors."
Detail: Hans Hofmann, Renate's Nantucket, 1965.  (This detail is redder than the painting.)
And just like Cézanne, in order to simultaneously keep things flat and frontal (i.e."real"), everything is tied together, butted up to each other like a mosaic or puzzle. (See especially the right and top edge of the red/purple rectangle.)  

Hofmann was a master of riffs and had a large bag of tricks he used and taught. One of my favorites can be seen in the detail above. The red small brushwork at the top of the rectangle looks like it's going underneath and making the purple rectangle seem redder; and the blue on the left looks like it also floats underneath, making the red more purple. Among other things, this keeps the rectangle from becoming solid, opaque and clogged up. Instead, it breaths and glows.


Warriors and Mothers: Epic Mbembe Art (through September 7th).
Installation view, Warriors and Mothers: Epic Mbembe Art, 1st floor, gallery 359.
This is a more typically curated show in that all the art is borrowed. But it’s not a large show, and it hasn't been publicized as far as I know, so, to that extent, it fits in with the other small shows.

These sculptures are almost three hundred years old, and because they were kept outside for most of that time, they are very eroded. They are the oldest wooden figures from Sub-Saharan Africa, and they're among the largest too (almost life-size).

Mbembe peoples, Seated Mother and Child, 17th-18th century, wood, 35 x 23 ½ x 29 inches (private collection).
The subjects of the sculptures are nurturing mothers and defending warriors – both protective, but in different ways. Originally the figures were painted and covered with ornaments, and their eyes were mirrors. They were positioned on either side of a carved drum made from enormous hollow logs. When the drum was played it could be heard from 12 miles away. Looking at these striking figures while listening to that great drum must have been a thrilling experience.

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