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New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art is currently celebrating the donors, the wealthy collectors who have provided it with its greatest masterpieces. In its traditional galleries is The Age of Rembrandt, a vast array of its holdings of 226 Dutch paintings, many of them overwhelmed by 14 stunning masterpieces from Rembrandt, more from his followers and pupils, and five Vermeers, one of them his tongue-in-cheek apotheosis of Catholicism, a commission turned into a comical send-up.
Lesser lights like Frans Hals, Emanuel de Witte, Jan Steen and Pieter de Hooch also entertain. The opening gallery, dominated by a marvelous Rembrandt potentate, comprises a dozen works topped with the names of the collectors who donated them painted large on the wall. To the hoi polloi, these may appear to be the names of the artists.
The works donated by these multimillionaires are displayed throughout the galleries according to an odd chronology: The date they were donated, beginning more than 150 years ago. One critic has waggishly suggested that future shows might be hung in order of the artists' hat sizes.
But the point is that even the Met is hungry for even more donations, and one way to get them is to let some of the immortality rub off on the donor. Nothing new in this. In early Flemish painting, a figure of the donor was often prominently sited in the foreground of an altarpiece, praying as if present at the scene of the crucifixion.
The Rembrandts are glorious and his best pupils (Flinck, Bol, et al) are well represented.
But it is the Vermeers of simple housemaids that rightly draw the most attention, though none of them have the stunning resolution of the artist's famous Girl With a Pearl Earring (in the Hague's Mauritzhuis). If you are spending the autumn in Manhattan, don't miss this show. (Till January 6).
ENTRANCE TO the Met is theoretically free, but adults are asked to pay $20, seniors $15 and students $10. If you can't brazen it out with a $5 bill (as many do), you might usefully plan to spend much of the day there and get a glimpse of a half-dozen or more worthwhile concurrent special exhibitions. A must-see is the superb and recently donated collection of Muriel Kallis Steinberg Newman. The 63 large paintings, sculptures and works on paper by 50 artists are a first-class overview of Abstract Expressionism and other modern works and the best private collection of this type of art that I have seen.
The most striking canvases are several in broad, black, calligraphic strokes by Franz Kline and others by Willem de Kooning. Their purchase is a tribute to the eye of Muriel Kallis (b. 1914), herself an artist who worked out of Chicago but loved New York and its "school" and came to Manhattan almost every month. She began collecting with the help of husband Steinberg and, after his death, went on buying the best of everything with second husband Newman.
A large early but representative Pollock from 1950 is a gem, and there is an intriguing drawing-cum-painting by Arshile Gorky. Miro, Arp, Leger, Schwitters and Ernst are all well represented. Only a large early Clyfford Still from 1947 left me cold. If you have no time for anything else at the Met make sure you see this wonderful collection. It closes January 6.
THE MET is particularly rich in Egyptology and its latest show, Gifts for the Gods, of images in metal from Egyptian temples, all of gods and kings, is a tribute to the artists and metallurgists of the earlier dynasties, as well as some from the ultimate Ptolemaic period. The wall texts to each of the 63 exhibits - made variously from copper alloys, bronze, silver or gold - are a potted history of each depiction and its role. A stunning solid gold cast of Amun from the early eighth century BCE is a masterpiece of fitted parts. Sadly, part of its sun-disc is missing, but you would not know.
Egyptian metal statuary dates back to 2500 BCE but flourished, thanks to royal patronage, after 2000 BCE. Numberless thousands of these precious items, so much more alive than the stylized works in stone, have been looted over millennia. Some were melted down for weapons. This show runs till February 18.
SOME OF the sources of modern Western art are immediately apparent in Eternal Ancestors: The Art of the Central African Reliquary, at the Met until February 3. The Fang symbolic figurines and Kwele masks are mostly 19th century (wood rotted quickly in the equatorial climate and earlier examples rarely survived) and once stood guard over vessels full of ancestral remains.
The power of these artifacts actually stems from their intrinsic sculptural qualities. They are not in the least inferior to the efforts of modern Western sculptors and often better. This show is open until March 3.
THREADS OF Splendor - Tapestry in the Baroque is all sumptuous Sturm und Drang, conceived as a sequel to the Met's acclaimed 2002 exhibition, Tapestry in the Renaissance. In these royal commissions, historic battles are recreated, while rescues at sea provide dramatic details. About half the exhibits are Flemish, the Low Countries having dominated tapestry production in the 16th and 17th centuries.
The Brussels weavers produced The Triumph of the Eucharist designed by Rubens for the Archduchess Isabella in 1626; they also executed a major commission for England's Blenheim Palace showing the victories of the Duke of Marlborough. The kings of England and Denmark ordered lavish canopies. Perhaps the most ambitious tapestries were woven for Louis XIV at the Gobelins, established in Paris in 1662. A special section of the show describes how Jean-Baptiste Colbert amalgamated all the various Paris workshops at a single site under the direction of painter Charles le Brun in order to further aggrandize Louis XIV.
The Medicis also had their own workshops. One of their designers was Lorenzo Lippi.
Many of these tapestries are loans from international collections, including that of the Vatican. This quite magnificent show closes January 6. It will then move to Madrid.
ALSO AT the Met, British Photographs from Paper Negatives, 1840-60, reviews the invention of the negative-positive process by William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-77), chemist, linguist and, above all, pioneer photographer. Henry Talbot, as he called himself, patented his calotype process, which, via the later development of glass negatives, soon put the daguerreotype out of business. Talbot recorded some of the great moments of Victorian history, among them the construction of Trafalgar Square.
THE FIRST Chinese author I read was a cultured expatriate named Lin Yutang, who became an American professor of Chinese literature and an unofficial ambassador to the West. Lin had a fine collection of Chinese art and it is now on show in the Met's Chinese galleries, till February 10.
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