New Light on the Old Masters

Fig. 1. Madonna and Child by Duccio di Buoninsegna (active c. 1278-d. 1318), c. 1290-1300. Tempera and gold on wood, 11 by 8 ¼ inches (including engaged frame). Museum purchase, Rogers Fund and numerous generous gifts. 

 

from The Magazine ANTIQUES, September/October 2013.

In its ceremony and its symbolism, the staircase that leads up to the Metro­politan Museum's galleries of Old Mas­ter paintings is one of the grandest theatrical experiences that New York has to offer. There are elevators, of course, and an escalator has been discreetly tucked away on the left. But to use them is to miss the point of those stairs, which are literally and metaphorically central to the museum and to its entire mission. Ascending the forty-six granite steps, we feel elevated and improved, as though we had earned the right, the privilege of entry into the European Paintings Galleries, which have just reopened after being overhauled for the first time in more than half a century.

Now the spirit of the age seems to demand of museums that they democratize and level the experience of museum attendance, that they dismantle that hierarchical stagecraft, those daunting Corinthian symmetries that were so essential to museum design a century ago, when the Met began to rise along Fifth Avenue. Such tendencies are surely visible elsewhere in the museum, but as regards the Old Masters, the Met is having none of it. In their latest incarna­tion, these remain, as they have always been, feverishly elitist. The wall texts, though brief and to the point, never talk down to the visitor or attempt to recommend a work through some spurious claim of contemporary relevance. The paintings themselves are mostly hung according to such old-school Courtauldian categories as style, period, and nationality. One can easily transpose to these galleries, in their renovated form, Matthew Arnold's famous quest, with regard to literature, for "the best which has been thought and said."

It is no accident that the Old Masters sit en­throned in the very center of the building, where they have always sat, representing the unshakeable core of the Western artistic canon. Whether they still command today the sovereign prestige they enjoyed a century ago, or whether that status has been transferred to modernism or contemporary art, clearly makes no difference to the curators of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

At first glance the galleries do not look substan­tially different from their earlier arrangement, based on a modernization carried out in 1972. The skylights preserve something of their earlier postwar function­alism, and this sense is also borne out in the lucid, uncluttered hanging of the paintings. But within that context of sameness, the place seems more focused and welcoming than it has in a very long time.

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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