Gravestone from Ancient Greece
Though New York has often been considered an aesthete’s paradise, it boasts a great deal of dross along with the gold. There are magnificent things in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Frick Collection, as well as a few fine things in the Museum of Modern Art – and aficionados well-remember the past glories of the late, lamented Dahesh Museum.
However, New York is also home to the trashy post modernism found at the Whitney and the errant tushery store-housed in the Guggenheim, along with galleries aimed at the well-heeled sucker and crammed with all manner of pickled sharks, troughs of broken glass and other detritus peddled by a pandering and corrupt marketplace.
The great shame of all of this is that it often so hard to see the great things that are here; a thought which crossed my mind repeatedly this weekend while visiting the Greek and Roman Gallery at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Fully renovated and reopened in the Spring of 2007, the Greco-Roman wing now has some 57,000 square feet of exhibition space for classical antiquity – about as much space as all the Whitney Museum galleries combined. And unlike the Whitney, here are treasures actually worth seeing, if one could.
The Greco-Roman wing houses some magnificent statuary, stunningly preserved bits of pottery and jewelry, and gravestones that left your correspondent deeply moved by our universal humanity and capacity for grief. It is easy to see the deep and abiding debt the modern world owes the Greeks and the Romans: everything from the language of our art to the confines of our thought and the boundaries of our aesthetics. We are the Greeks and Romans – no other ancient (or modern, for that matter) cultures have had so titanic an influence over us.
Considering the size of that debt – both aesthetic and intellectual – one would think that the Metropolitan would make it easier to see the work on display. Good luck. The grand halls housing the treasures are quite wonderful: lofty expanses with many windows, allowing a generous amount of sunlight. However, many of the pieces are behind thick pieces of reflective glass, and I often found myself looking at my own reflection (or that of the window behind me) and not the art.
Museums in Rome have conquered this problem by leaving treasures in the open, surrounded by sensors which beep when one peers too closely. It’s something that the Metropolitan might want to consider.
Many of the statues are placed so high that details are lost – which is a puzzlement, considering that many of them are on a human-scale and meant to be seen eye-to-eye. It’s great for connoisseurs of thighs and the occasional ankle, but we big-picture types have nothing for but to look up.
More disturbing still is that it seems neither the curators nor the staff have bothered to proof-read the information cards near the exhibits. When one statue is described as having a wound under the breast, when it is clearly bleeding beside the breast and near the armpit, it means that either the curators are sloppy or the staff negligent.
However, with all of that grumbling aside – New Yorkers and art historians with an interest in the ancient world will find that there is much to savor in the Greco-Roman wing of the Met. It is a surprisingly comprehensive collection, tracing the evolution and decline of a mighty civilization. We can only hope that millennia from now, we are treated as kindly by our successors.
Tomorrow: Extravagant Inventions; The Princely Furniture of the Roentgens