The problem I faced visiting the Met was the same I had with all great museums on earth: Too much to see. Too little time.
Over two million artworks spanning 5,000 years is a lot to digest, even for hard-core museum addicts.
I visited New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art five times, from opening to closing, always first in, last out. But if I spend a single minute to browse each item, I’ll take three years to finish. To make the most of each trip, I broke up my itinerary to manageable bits.
The free Met highlights guided tour was a good way to start. (They post the day’s schedule on the right side of the South Wing entrance. Ask for updates at the information desk.) So, I took the evolution of the human figure in art, from 600 BC to the 19th century.
This covered an artwork each in five galleries – one of the earliest Greek nudes, the stylized carving of a couple in Mali, Africa, the sunken relief of a Roman emperor who ruled Egypt in the Temple of Dendur, the medieval armor of an English monarch and a modern portrait of an American couple.
First stop was the Greek antiquities, the curly-haired Kouros (youth) with a hint of a smile on his face. Sculpted in Attica between 590–580 B.C., this marble nude strides forward rigidly over the grave of a young Athenian aristocrat.
Athens was the world’s art center at the time and Egyptians came to the city and taught the Greeks how to carve. As a result, the Kuoros, one of the earliest marble statues of a human figure, was naturalistically portrayed, undressed, in an Egyptian stance, when nudity was just coming into vogue.
Elsewhere in Africa, carvers abstracted the human figure.
Mali’s Dogon Couple (16th to 19th century) depicted a husband and wife with overly elongated torsos, ovoid head, squared shoulders, tapered extremities, pointed breasts, forearms, thighs on a parallel plane, hairdos stylized by three or four incised lines.
The artists reduced the human body to essentials but while they conveyed lack of motion with a mysterious serene majesty, they also suggested latent movement.
Interestingly, the Dogon Couple wasn’t meant for public display. Carved with magical spells and replete with hidden symbols, it was ornamented with iron in the hair, ears and wrists, anointed with oil and secretly used at the funerals of influential Dogon men.
Up close, the twin elongated figures mirrored each other. One of the man’s hands rested on his genitals, signifying his role as creator; the other rested over the woman’s breasts. The reverse side showed a child clinging to the woman’s back while the man sported a quiver on his.
Except for elongated breasts drooping from suckling babies and a labret – lip ring adornment, the woman looks almost identical with the bearded man, nurturer and provider joined together to procreate and sustain life.
This is in keeping with Dogon men and women’s view of marriage as a partnership of independent equals with shared responsibilities, a balanced duality, a central tenet of Dogon myth.
However, sculptors through the ages also idealized men of power and imbued their work with symbolisms.
Hence, men with breasts signifying fertility and a flesh-and-blood pharaoh walking with deities adorned the Temple of Dendur which Emperor Augustus Caesar of Rome built in Nubia in 15 BC for the goddess Isis of Philae.
As a ruler of Egypt, Augustus ordered sculptors to depict him in the traditional regalia of the pharaoh, a god-king. So, the temple’s outside wall portrayed Augustus in sunk relief in the Aeolian sandstone, looking inside, with the gods residing there looking out.
The pharaoh, identified by cartouches – elongated oval shapes beside his head – carried a censer for incense in one hand, an offering in the other. Osiris, god of the underworld, and his wife, Isis, welcomed him, holding out the scepter and the ankh, the symbol of life.
Fast forward to the age of chivalry half a millenium ago, artists glorified the human figure as the ultimate fighting machine.
Of course, the ultimate show of power was a king encased in steel, bulked up and invincible, riding out to joust or to battle. And King Henry VIII of England must have been a sight to behold face-on, encased from head to toe in over 62-pounds of steel gilt and etched armor garniture.
The garniture in the Met was the only one of three surviving armors made for the Tudor king and the most richly decorated.
Before his weight ballooned in his fifties, Henry VIII was a tall handsome man, his round face as pretty as a woman’s. He loved sports – archery, wrestling and real tennis. But he must have suffered brain injuries from a couple of serious accidents in jousting – two armored horsemen charging at each other with wooden lances.
The king’s second jousting accident almost killed him and plagued him with migraines thereafter, “becoming a comfort-eating paranoid recluse – a 28 stone man-mountain.” Dramatically, his personality also changed from a genial ruler to a tyrant.
Henry VIII devoured 13 dishes daily, mostly meat – lamb, chicken, beef, game, rabbit, peacock and swan. Because water was unsafe, he drank 10 pints of ale a day plus wine.
Correspondingly, the armour measurements of the six foot one inch monarch’s waist expanded from 32 inches in his twenties to 52 inches in his fifties. His chest widened from 39 inches to 53 inches. By the time he died in 1547 at the age of 56, he suffered from paranoia and melancholy, unable to walk, with badly ulcerated legs and fading eyesight.
Nonetheless, the armor he left behind was magnificent, with a ventral plate (inner breastplate) worn strapped to the chest beneath the breastplate to lessen the weight of the cuirass and arm defences from the shoulders.
The specially made exchange and reinforcing pieces allowed him to switch from battle to tournament mode easily. His reinforcing breastplate has a lance rest to suit both purposes. His left hand gauntlet reinforce, or manifer, can be used with lances in tournaments while a right-hand locking gauntlet was meant for mounted tournaments with swords.
Finally, I viewed a modern rendition of the human figure in John Singer Sargent’s oil on canvas portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes.
Sargent(1856-1925), a well-traveled American born in Florence, was known for his palette and brushwork derived from Spanish master Diego Velázquez; a profile view reminiscent of Titian, a Renaissance master, and an unmodulated treatment of the face and figure inspired by Japanese prints and the Impressionist Édouard Manet.
Yet to me, his elongated figures of the couple at the Met was more El Greco sans distortion, though his palette for this portrait was a subdued monochrome.
When a friend of the couple commissioned him to paint shipping heiress Edith Minturn as a gift after her wedding to architect and author Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes, the scion of a wealthy New York family, Sargent was a mature artist, aged 41.
Indifferent to conventions of pose, modeling and treatment of space, he picked out a blue satin evening gown for Edith’s sittings but decided to paint her in the less formal outfit she wore to his studio one day, as if she was just returning from a walk outdoors with a Great Dane at her side.
When the dog became unavailable, her husband volunteered to take the animal’s place, getting a double portrait for the price of one.
Strikingly, Edith’s long white skirt almost stole the whole show, seemingly taking a life of its own. You can almost hear the crisp white satin rustling.
To keep his subject grounded, Sargent painted a red shoe in high contrast peeking out from her hem. Her husband, who stood in for the dog, recedes in the shadows behind her immaculate figure but remains a powerful, if not a somewhat ominous presence.
(To be continued…)