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The Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met) is a large-scale museum located on the famous “Museum Mile”, by Central Park West. Renowned for its prized collections of ancient and modern art from around the globe, circulating throughout the various exhibits open at different times of the year, the Met is an institution wholly dedicated to the preservation of the ancients’ art. With over two million pieces in their possession, from Asia, Africa, Europe, Oceania and the Americas, the Met has earned its place as among the most visited art museums in the world.
The exterior of the museum is aesthetically pleasing to the eye, modeled after ancient Greco-Roman architecture founded on the principles of the Doric order, with towering pillars, metopes, with reliefs of various deities etched into the marble. This style was most likely chosen because of the Western obsession with going back to its roots in ancient Greco-Roman ideals, and the architectural designs are only a reflection of that. As an institution, the Met is fully-funded by donations, large and small, to keep themselves running and able to cater to the artistic tastes of the public. The interior of the museum is just as astounding, especially with the enormity of space available and the monumental sizes of some of the artwork, such as the sculptures. With such space, comes the larger-than-life magnitude of these artworks and their overbearing presence within the halls of the museum. Even the decorum is impressive, with the rounded, Roman arches leading from hallway to hallway; the geometric carvings along the walls of the steps going from exhibit to exhibit. Organized based on cultural background, entering the Met there is a noticeable divide between East and West, with the ancient Greece and Roman exhibits located on the left side of the museum, and the Asian and ancient Egyptian art located on the right side. This puts into context the division between the cultures based on differences in artistic style, methodology, and inspirations. Visitors are often led to the ancient Greek and Roman gallery first, and then later escorted to other areas in a clockwise manner.
Walking through the ancient Greek and Roman art gallery, one sees the dedication Much of the artwork found here include painted vases, robust sculptures of varying sizes, and grave markers that showed careful attention to detail in the carvings, as well as included epithets attached to the individual person if he/she was of a high status. Statues of the Greek/Roman gods were proliferous in the exhibit, common since these deities were thought to have had tremendous influence on the lives of the Greeks, but were all too human with their petty jealousy and desire for worship, and so came about the solid bronze statues of the Greeks, and the marble replicas made by the Romans that came after. There were also statues of many demigods/heroes of Greek myth, because of their function as intermediaries between humans and gods, as well as having the accessibility to help the Greeks in their time of need, such as during wars, the presence of Greek monsters etc. Above the Roman art gallery are entirely glass ceilings, so that light can enter the building and shine upon the statues, giving them an aura of timeless beauty and physical perfection of the human body. The structure of the building was taken from Roman architectural styling, which found that light (symbolizing divine presence) can enter a room and give off the feeling that this was a ‘sacred space’.
North of the Greco-Roman section are the arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, incorporating all different types of artwork ranging from objects used for day-to-day activities, to ritualistic and ceremonial objects that held tremendous value to those cultures and their peoples, and had an intrinsic aesthetic value to them as well. One eye-catching, popular piece in the exhibit was a gigantic statue of what is believed to be an African deity, standing hunched-over and glaring out into the hall. It stood perhaps ten-twelve feet tall, its hands were positioned so that it appeared to be reaching out into the into the distance. It most likely served as a stand in for a popular deity, venerated ancestor etc. and was likely central to the culture’s religious system. One of the signature features of African art that was shared among the figures is their ovular face, and stoic expression, contributing to the air of seriousness in the exhibit, an homage to the merits of an entire civilization and the various cultures that influenced African art. With this, there were also African masks that had a spiritual/religious significance to the peoples, Mini figurines were also admired in the exhibit, and were used as fertility idols to promote impregnation, or as good luck charms to ward away bad energy (evil eye) amongst them.
Still further up the museum, passed the Greek/Roman and Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas was the modern and contemporary art gallery, displaying art from prominent members of various schools of contemporary art e.g. Henri Matisse, William de Kooning, Jackson Pollock etc. Abstract, yet somehow concrete in their depictions, the images in the exhibit are excellent pieces, illustrating symbiotic and conflicting ideas in the same space, and using a range of colors, textures, patterns, shadings and lights/darks to shape the image and the symbolism confined within. One of my favorite pictures in this exhibit was Untitled by Sigmar Polke, a gelatin silver print made in 1975, and blends together the dark colors with the background scene of the print, which appears to be a crosshatch and perhaps an individual as well. The image is meant to portray a group of men drinking in a bar in Paolo, Brazil, but due to the purposeful distortion in the image, it is hard to tell anyone is in the image. Pole was experimenting with pictures, using the creasing and folding of wet negatives as his technique. Other paintings, prints etc. use similar and different methods to express their ideas and get their meaning across to the viewer.
Opposite the ancient Greek and Roman gallery is that of the ancient Egyptian and their cultural artifacts, such as slabs and bands of hieroglyphics, chiseled into the walls of the exhibit. Though some of the halls were narrow, they were nonetheless up to capacity with various sarcophagi; ushabti, which were funerary figurines that held the role of the pharaoh’s servants in the afterlife; and among the largest, were statues of royal pharaohs, and their sacred dog-headed guardians (modeled after the ancient Egyptian god Anubis). The lighting in these halls was dim, which added to the haunting images of the statues, sitting or standing in absolute silence. The narrow halls led out into a vast space, where a pond lay by the entrance, and a grand worship space stood tall at the back, The Temple of Dendur, constructed during the Roman occupation of Egypt, and the only sight in the vast expanse of the space. Inside the temple were depictions of the ancient Egyptian god, Hapi, who was often personified in the form of a hippo, along with other carvings into the wall showing dead kings making offerings to deities wielding scepters and ankhs, the ancient Egyptian symbol for life, and a symbol that continues to be used to this day. The temple marked the end of the exhibit, and beyond that was the gift shop.
Located at the very upper right of the Met is the American Art galleries, exhibiting art based on and from early America, which includes oil paintings, antique furniture, and the like from the late 1700s, when the United States was just becoming independent from the British Empire, and ends at the early 20th century, with the Ash Can School. It includes the Décor is an integral part of the exhibit, with luxury silverware, dinnerware, etc. a shared feature of American nobility at the time, and had aesthetic, as well as practical, qualities to them. Most objects around this time were similar, having everyday uses, yet remained quality pieces of art to be admired when not in use. A favorite of mine is Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze, painted in 1851 with oil on canvas, and shows George Washington and his men, carrying the American flag, and crossing the icy Delaware River, prior to his attack on the Hessians (German troops enlisted by the British). It presents him as a formidable leader and courageous man willing to his life and the lives of his brothers-in-arms to fight for independence, a man of true heroism and character. Traditionalism is often the root of early American art, and continues in later works that seek to imitate the old-fashion nature of the predecessors. The same principle is applied for the craftsmanship of furniture e.g. bedding, tables, chairs, chandeliers etc. and the careful detail in the construction, carving and furnishing of any of these. Domestic architecture was an essential part of the early American experience, and a defining characteristic of that period. Some of the Native American pieces, such as the Raven Rattle, dating back to the 19th century, tell the story of peoples and their cultural heritage prior to the invasion of European colonists, and the spiritual practices of shamanism and faith healing that were used through these rattles in ceremonial chanting and spirit-invocation. The rattle is adorned with bright red, blue, and black pigment for the most part, and is but one object from one Native American tribe, but gives us a glimpse into how these tribes operated before white settlers, and a tremendously rich culture whose beliefs can oftentimes be determined through their artwork and the objects they’ve left behind.
At the very center of the museum, is the Medieval Art gallery, featuring art from the fall of Rome in the 4th century to the early Renaissance in the 16th century, with some pieces from pre-Medieval Europe, during the Bronze and early Iron Age. The exhibit evokes a feeling of churchiness, a certain holiness that emanates in the exhibit. This collection endeavors to show the religiously-oriented artwork of the Middle Ages in Christianized Europe, inspired by biblical narratives and royalty whom sponsored such works as patrons of the artists behind them. Sculptures, such as that of the Mourner, points to the significant of Christianity, particularly Catholicism, to the cultural background of Europe at the time, and influenced it to such an extent that the same impact would not have been had if the influence wasn’t there. Perhaps one of the most remarkable pieces in the gallery is the Relief with Scene from the Legend of the True Cross, made circa 1400 in the Southern Netherlands, and depicts the scene of a crowned Saint Helena, with a bearded Jude kneeling in prayer as they discovered three crosses, one of which is the cross Jesus was crucified on. A local story of the region, demonstrating the cultural variations of different tales told based on biblical content. The story of St. Helena and the True Cross is no different than that of the Holy Grail, or any other lore told through the ages.
Lastly, there’s The Robert Lehman Collection directly above the Medieval Art gallery, largely a result of Robert Lehman’s bequest to the museum of over 2,600 works of art, from paintings to antique frames to jewel-encrusted objects. Included in the collection are around 750 Old Master drawings from the 15th-20th centuries, from Italy, France, and Northern Europe. An all-inclusive art collection, Robert Lehman spent the better part of sixty years collecting many of these famed works, some of which were passed down from his parents. One of the more interesting pieces in the collection is the Study for a Caricature, a French cartoon drawn up in 1931 by Jean-Louis Forain and shows two men in conversation with a weeping woman by a fence, and the caption in the middle (in French) discussing what’s happening in the image. This shows the evolution of artwork from highly-detailed, crafted sculptures to simple scene-by-scene drawings. This exhibit was very popular, with dozens of people scoured across the room.
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