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Four Exhibitions

June 3, 2012

Christina writes: The January 2012 issue of the Art Newspaper, to which Wayne and I subscribe, is usually accompanied by a substantial Guide to This Year’s Exhibitions and Fairs Worldwide, which I scan for interesting exhibitions within our reach. This year, I noticed that a visit within a narrow time frame would allow us to see two major exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York: The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini, finishing on 18 March, would overlap with Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition, opening on 14 March. We agreed to plan a brief holiday around these, but left booking a hotel room until early March to give us a better idea of likely weather conditions. As it happened, we needn’t have worried, as spring arrived early (see here).

On 14 March, we left home in late morning and drove to Greenwich, Connecticut, having lunch on the way. We arrived at the excellent Delamar hotel in Greenwich by late afternoon, relaxed in our room for a while, then strolled past Greenwich’s avenue of shops to Morello, an Italian bistro. We both had the ricotta gnocchi lamb bolognese as a main course, but chose different desserts: Wayne opted for chocolate mousse with milk gelato, while I, because I am very fond of nuts, chose crunchy hazelnut mousse with amoretto ice cream.

Byzantium and Islam coverOn Thursday we walked five minutes to the Metro North station in Greenwich and took a morning commuter train to Grand Central Station in Manhattan (about forty-five minutes), and then a taxi to the Metropolitan Museum, arriving not long after they opened. We went first to Byzantium and Islam, which we found rather sparsely attended. This was very pleasant for us, as it included many small objects in cases which needed to be examined closely. The catalogue commented on ‘the period’s most notable arts and artifacts. Resplendent images of authority, religion, and trade – embodied in precious metals, brilliant textiles, fine ivories, elaborate mosaics, manuscripts, and icons [which] highlight the dynamic dialogue between the rich array of Byzantine styles and the evolving Islamic aesthetic’. Although my interest in history and art is quite wide-ranging, I have always been particularly intrigued by this period in which the late Roman Empire gradually metamorphosed into the early Middle Ages in the West and Byzantium and Islam in the East. I have even visited several of the places and sites from which the exhibits came.

After spending almost two hours in the exhibition, we made our way to the Museum’s elegant Petrie Court Café for lunch. Usually we have to queue for a table, but this time we were seated quickly. Wayne chose duck confit, which neither of us had had before and were not sure what to expect (other than duck). I decided to have something lighter, a mushroom bisque, but supplemented this with a Sangria Royale – and few pieces of Wayne’s duck. We both finished with apple crostata, and I also had a coffee. (Those who have eaten with us know that Wayne does not drink coffee or any alcohol, while I need my coffee and when eating out often have an alcoholic beverage.)

Renaissance Portrait coverWe then made our way to the Renaissance portraiture exhibition. As the title suggests, this was almost entirely concerned with Italian works of art rather than Renaissance portraits generally, though one or two Northern works of Italian subjects were included (e.g. Rogier van der Weyden’s portrait of Francesco d’Este). Many of the works showed the sitters in profile, sometimes only shoulder-length, rarely much more than waist-length, with the subject often unidentified. It was interesting to see how different artists adapted this formula, but the exhibition might have made a greater effect if it had restricted the number shown. This is not the first time that I’ve had this thought about an exhibition at the Metropolitan: a smaller, more selective display can sometimes make a point more clearly while not overloading the viewer. Other paintings showed more variety in pose, including such well-known works as Domenico Ghirlandaio’s sensitive Portrait of an Old Man and a Boy, featured on the catalogue dust-jacket. Further variety was provided by a large number of medals, very fine drawings (a few preparatory for exhibited paintings), and some exceptionally fine pieces of sculpture in relief or fully three-dimensional: the latter appealed to me more than many of the paintings. For some of the famous people of the period, such as members of the Medici family, one could see and compare their features in multiple formats.

Steins Collect coverWhen I looked at the guide to exhibitions in January, I did not notice that there was yet a third major spring exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum: The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde – probably because the name ‘Stein’ did not mean anything to me, and I am not generally interested in Modern art. The show (which ends today) was concerned mainly with the collections formed by the Stein siblings – Gertrude, Leo, and Michael (with Michael’s wife) – while living in Paris in the early 20th century, when avant-garde paintings could be purchased for comparatively small sums. But it also had a lot to say about the Steins’ personal lives. The Stein collections have long been scattered to museums and private collections around the world. Closer to our visit, Wayne had realized that this exhibition would also be current and was more attracted than I, as he has a special interest in the formation of collections. This was by far the most crowded of the three Metropolitan shows – of course, taste today seems to incline more to Modern art. We went round quite quickly, in part because we were tired from seeing the other displays, and however unavoidable, crowds make for a less pleasant viewing experience. I did admire a few early Blue Period Picassos, but not much else. I was rather stunned by the large number of Matisse works, mainly small: the Steins must have had a standing order!

We then spent some time in the Museum shop, noting regretfully that less space is now given to books and more to objects and media. We had intended to visit the new Islamic galleries, but suffering from visual overload, we decided to leave them for another time.

Weather permitting, we like to make the return journey to Grand Central Station on foot, about an hour’s walk. This time the warm spring weather was positively inviting. On the way, we visited Brooks Brothers’ Madison Store, but for once did not find anything to attract us. We took the train back to Greenwich and ate that evening at Mediterraneo, a restaurant we have often visited before. Since we were not sure when we would get back from Manhattan, we had booked a table rather later than on our previous visits. Before, the restaurant had been relatively quiet, but later in the evening it was much more noisy, with the tables full and much conversation going on at the bar (we were in the main room). Obviously other people were enjoying themselves, but we prefer a more quiet atmosphere so will restrict any future visits to earlier in the evening. We both had a veal main course and shared a bread pudding after.

On the day we return to Williamstown from Greenwich, we typically don’t need to start off until mid-afternoon. This time, there was nothing else on in New York that we particularly wanted to see, and we had visited Academy Records and Books of Wonder as usual (see here) quite recently at the end of October. We therefore decided to take a longer route home via New Haven, Connecticut, to see the exhibition Making History: Antiquaries in Britain at the Yale Center for British Art. This explored the ways in which the Society of Antiquaries of London has devoted itself for over three hundred years to the understanding of Britain’s history, and for much of that time was regarded as the main repository in Britain for antiquities, historical documents, and pictures. The material lent by the Society for the exhibition was supplemented by items from the Center’s own collection, including works by Turner, William Morris, and Burne Jones.

Wayne’s research had found us the Union League Café in New Haven as a good place for lunch. We liked the ambiance, food, and service very much, and hope to return there before long. The atmosphere as well as the cuisine was French, especially in the sense that a meal is an important occasion and should not be rushed, even if it is only le déjeuner (lunch). Having enjoyed my taste of Wayne’s meal the previous day, I now chose duck confit, with crispy potato galette, Granny Smith apples, walnuts, and salad. Wayne opted for a lighter croque monsieur, but finished with profiteroles. I was very impressed that, though the drinks list did not includes margaritas, our waiter said he thought the barman might be able to produce one, and he duly did. I also had a cappuccino.

Four exhibitions and another almost six inches of shelf space taken up by the catalogues! We sometimes buy catalogues in advance, to read before seeing the exhibitions, but on this occasion we did not, partly because our decision to make the trip had to be made quite late, but also we were not sure if we would want all of them. I remember the days when catalogues were much smaller and could be used while going round the exhibition. Not one of these four would have been any use for this, not only because of the length of the entries, but also because of their weight. Still less would we have wanted to carry even one of them (average weight five or six pounds!) back to Greenwich. Unfortunately, we assumed that all would be available to purchase online, and did not check in advance, only to discover on our return home that neither the Steins Collect nor the Antiquaries catalogue was available. The former did eventually come back into stock, but we have had to buy a secondhand copy of Making History.

Images, top to bottom: upper covers of the catalogues of the exhibitions Byzantium and Islam, The Renaissance Portrait, and The Steins Collect.

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