Metropolitan Museum of Art unveils new galleries for 19th-century European art

September 26, 1993|By Edward J. Sozanski | Edward J. Sozanski,Knight-Ridder News Service

The visible part of an art museum's permanent collection is never as "permanent" as it may seem to occasional visitors. It changes constantly in subtle ways, as objects are removed or added for various reasons.

Unless one visits a particular museum frequently, such minor alterations may escape notice. But when a museum fundamentally revises the way it presents an important part of its collection, the result can seem startling, even disconcerting.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has just completed such reconstructive surgery with its galleries for 19th-century European painting and sculpture.

The change is so dramatic that all traces of the former installation have been effaced. At 20,000 square feet, the exhibition space is not only larger than it used to be but more imposing, more opulent and more in concert with the museum's beaux-arts ambience.

The 21 new galleries allow the Metropolitan to flaunt its wealth of impressionist and postimpressionist painting, particularly the first circle of masters -- Manet, Monet, Renoir, Cezanne, Degas and van Gogh -- that draws tourists like bees to nectar.

To inaugurate the new display, the fabled Annenberg Collection of 53 paintings, watercolors and drawings (not all of them impressionist and postimpressionist, however) has been installed temporarily in the galleries that the collection will occupy after Walter Annenberg's death, when it will come to the museum.

The Annenberg pictures will remain on view through December, when they will be replaced by works from the permanent collection.

The former space for 19th-century European painting and sculpture was basically a vast open room sectioned into areas by free-standing partitions. The space had a provisional character; it felt more like a showroom than a museum.

In reconfiguring the space, the museum decided to create discrete galleries. Emphatically beaux-arts, they're laid out in a rectilinear grid. They provide a clear chronological progression, from neoclassicism at one corner to van Gogh, Gauguin and Seurat at the other end, but you aren't forced to follow it.

Rather, you can enter in the middle, at Courbet and Manet, or in the impressionist half, at Monet. Once in the suite, you're pretty much free to go forward in time, or backward, or to roam as your fancy dictates.

This is what you will find: A large central gallery devoted to Manet, mainly full-length figures; two galleries each to Monet and Courbet, one each to Corot and Cezanne, one primarily to Pissarro and another primarily to Renoir, and three smaller galleries to Degas (sculpture, paintings, pastels).

A long salon-style gallery that functions as a transit way contains an abundance of Rodin sculptures as well as a small selection of academic paintings, such as the ever-popular "The Horse Fair" by Rosa Bonheur. In total, about 250 paintings and 120 sculptures have been distributed through the suite. As you may have guessed by now, they're almost all French.

Just in terms of scale, this is very impressive. So are the 16 van Goghs, including two given recently by Mr. Annenberg. These are hung with his collection, which I suppose is only fair considering that he covered half of the renovation's $10 million budget.

(The Metropolitan owns one other van Gogh, which, in accordance with terms of its accession, hangs in the Lehman wing.)

The museum set out to create period galleries that looked and felt old. They have succeeded too well. The galleries are painted in various odd shades of green and tan that suggests government offices. The wires from which the paintings hang create faint shadows on the walls that look like streaks of dirt.

Some galleries, especially on the impressionist side, feel too cluttered, but then this display has a showoff, tourist-attraction quality to it that invites excess. Crowding may be compatible with 19th-century taste, but one would like to see the van Goghs in particular given more breathing room.

As for the Annenberg Collection, it fits into its centerpiece position like an octagon into a circle. It's supposed to connect with the permanent-collection galleries that flank it, but not all the transitions make sense, nor do all the works in it -- such as the 20th-century ones -- belong in this display.

When a museum is forced to reconcile art history, common sense and the wishes of a mega-benefactor, the solution is preordained. It may be a bit awkward on the walls, but relatively few tourists are likely to complain.

The Metropolitan's 19th-century galleries represent a reconfiguring of environment, not a revision of aesthetic priorities. Salon painters, while still represented, have not displaced Cezanne, Degas and Monet in the museum's esteem.

MUSEUM

What: Metropolitan Museum of Art

Where: Fifth Avenue and 82nd Street, New York

When: 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, and until 8:45 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays

Cost: Suggested admission is $6 for adults, $3 for senior citizens, students and children under 12

K? Call: (212) 535-7710 (recorded information) or 212-879-5500

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