New Art is True Art, Old Art is Cold Art

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Liam Hetherington on December 2, 2010

I am a bit of a museum junkie and ‘the Met’ is known as one of the great museums of the world, consistently ranked alongside the Louvre, the British Museum, the Hermitage and the Smithsonian. While I do like art I am probably more into the artefacts of long-lost civilisations, and it was these I was most giddy about. However, what I found was that – in a large number of cases – the Met suffered from being the new boy on the block; only founded in 1870 it was playing catch-up with the collections of the more established European imperial powers from day one. Simply speaking, the French and the British got there first, leaving only the crumbs for their American cousins. However from 1870 onwards the Metropolitan Museum’s collections are generally unmatched in their size and scope. Coming into the 20th century the greater purchasing power of New York attracted the research and artefacts that in previous years would have ended up in the capitals of Europe.

This is probably reflected in the fact that on first visiting the British Museum, the Louvre, the Egyptian Museum in Cairo or Florence’s Uffizi Gallery I already knew what I most wanted to see. Upon arrival at the Met I really only knew of one star exhibit – the Temple of Dendur. As such, my first stop was the Egyptian galleries north of the Great Hall. These are well-stocked with finds from the great interwar boom in Egyptology. In particular there are some excellent wooden models depicting life in pharonic times in workshops, kitchens and orchards. There is also the reconstructed mastaba tomb of a court official called Perneb, relocated from Saqqara, with vivid images and hieroglyphs on the wall, along with translations. The Temple of Dendur is the headline attraction, a small temple that would have been lost below the waters of the Nile when the Aswan High Dam was constructed in the ‘60s. In return for American financial assistance in rescuing Abu Simbel from the rising waters the Temple of Dendur was given as a gift to the nation. It is a very late-era temple, dating from the reign of Roman Emperor Augustus. As such it is a contemporary of the granded temple dedicated to Isis at Philae. The Museum has handled the reconstruction of the Dendur temple very sympathetically. It is in its own wing, half surrounded by a pool of water with the occassional papyrus plant to conjure up visions of the Nile. A full height glass wall looks out onto the greenery of Central Park, creating a very airy atmosphere, very different to the dimmed indirect light usually associated with museums.

From here I doubled back to continue a chronological circuit by passing through the Greek and Roman rooms. While the most eye-catching exhibits are the massive would be the stereotypical free-standing statues, though there are also frescoed bed-chambers excavated from Mount Vesuvius revealing a glimpse of aristocratic living conditions. Likewise I was amused by a very entertaining mosaic depicting cute little pygmies getting into all sorts of scrapes like fighting with bears, crocodiles and storks. There wasn’t that much to completely take my breath away however – I just got the impression that the museums and collections of Europe had got there first.

That was reversed in the next room, a large chamber that welcomed me to the cultures of Oceania. Here were exhibits from a world that, frankly, has not been well represented in any other museum I have visited. The Met has broken new ground with building up this collection since the 1960s. Many different cultures of which I knew nothing from the likes of New Guinea, the Bismarck Archipelago and Vanuatu were represented there with great wooden carvings – statues and house posts, ornate memorial poles and a superb crocodile-themed canoe with outriggers, all under the roof of a traditional longhouse. This lead into rooms devoted to the art of (primarlity west) Africa that could maybe do with a bit of reinvestment, and then a glowing treasury of gold, silver and macaw feathers representing the peoples of central and southern America, from Mexican Aztecs down through Colombia to Peruvian Incas. The gold and treasure genuinely did make me catch my breath in wonder, though really I would have expected a museum in the Americas to have a better range of exhibits from the Americas.

Also on the ground floor I went to see the Medieval Art collection. Again, I thought there was little here that was absolutely outstanding. Maybe being a European I have been spoiled by the presence of similar bits of gothic statuary, stained glass and choir screens around me. Heading upstairs to the section devoted to the near east I was once again awed by the unfamiliar, in the shape of the mighty Assyrian empire. I have seen the remains of their once-great civilisation in museums in London and in Istanbul, but their human-bull centaurs (lammasu) and eagle-headed humans from Nimrud still seem exotic and still always wow me.

At the start of this review I said that generally I am more excited by the artefacts of distant cultures than by art. But then again, I have also said that – with some noteworthy exceptions – I was not entirely awestruck by the artefacts on display at the Metropolitan Museum. However their collection of art on the second floor is quite simply phenomenal, a cherry-picked sample of the very best that Europe has to offer. From renaissance Italy there are Raphael, Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese; from the Low Countries Van Eyck, Bruegel, Rembrandt and more Vermeers than any other gallery in the world; from Spain El Greco, Velazquez and Goya; and from Britain Gainsborough, Constable, Reynolds and Turner. But for my money the burst of brilliance that took place in the late 19th century in France is the area that is best represented. All the big-hitters are here: Manet, Monet, Degas, Renoir and then on to Gauguin, Cezanne, Seurat, Toulouse-Lautrec and, of course, Van Gogh. In much the same way as the Uffizi in Florence is a roll-call of the biggest names and most famous pieces in renaissance Italian art, there are two or three rooms here that are filled to bursting with some of the most brilliant and beautiful works of the last 150 years. They are not worth seeing merely because they are famous; they are worth seeing because they are famous for a reason. Van Gogh’s tortured, spasmodic Cypresses give a view into his own fragile psyche. Degas’s little ballerinas are sweet and touching. And from Monet we have a sublime parade of snow-dappled haystacks, fog-bound Houses of Parliament, and his garden pond in Giverny – 37 works by Monet in total. I was annoyed with myself for leaving this part of the museum until last. If I return again these rooms would be my first port of call; one could in fact spend a perfectly wonderful day here without straying from the European art galleries. While the Met’s collection of historic artefacts does not compare with that of, say, the British Museum, in all honesty its art collection is at least the equal of any other gallery in the world.

And all this is only a fraction of the Met’s collections. I did not have the time to even look at the American wing, their Asian collections or their rooms of armas and armour or European sculpture and decorative arts. There is simply so much to see here. If you have the time (and the money) my advice would be to schedule a number of half-day visits to allow you to focus on particular areas of interest rather than trying to blitz the entire lot in one day. Even my stamina is not that great!

The Museum juts into Central Park from Fifth Avenue, an awkward seven blocks or so away from the nearest Subway stop. From the roof garden atop the museum you are able to get a superb view across the park’s green treeline to the surrounding skyscrapers and apartmant blocks – very useful if you need a breather. The ‘recommended’ fee upon arrival at the museum is $20, $10 for students. There are also maps and leaflets to pick up in the Great Hall, including ones detailing that day’s events and tours. If pressed for time then I dare say that one of the ‘highlights’ tours led by a summer intern would enable you to see as much as possible in the shortest amount of time. Taken together these can steer you in the right direction for your own personal interests and allow you to get the most out of one of America’s greatest museums – and one of the world’s greatest art galleries.
Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue
New York, New York, 10028
(212) 535-7710

© LP 2000-2009