What a way to go! New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art bids farewell Friday to Philippe de Montebello by opening an exhibition of carefully culled objects acquired during the director's 31-year tenure.
During de Montebello's reign, the museum acquired 84,000 objects. From that bounty, 300 were plucked for the exhibition. But as curator Helen Evans notes: "We could do this show three more times with equally good art."
Walking through the exhibition, the breadth and range of the work on display is incredible. In one gallery, a Richard Avedon photo of Marilyn Monroe faces a brass and silver Russian Imperial table, which sparkles near a mahogany highboy made in Rhode Island before the American Revolution. Another gallery has a Rothko painting from the 1950s, chunks of some 14th-century Egyptian temples and — from the 18th century — armor for a French prince and a busy silver mirror from Germany.
Evans, who coordinated the tribute, heads for a case of tiny objects and points to a little tip — gold, with colored enamel and tiny, microscopic pattern — that went on the end of a pointer in 11th-century Constantinople. It looks like a thimble for your pinkie.
"It's mine," she says. "[De Montebello] thought it was the smallest object ever allowed to come to an acquisition meeting."
It's not really hers, of course, but as the curator of Byzantine art, Evans was responsible for pitching the item to de Montebello. She remembers sitting at a long table with curators presenting objects, waiting for her moment to present the 1-inch artifact to the acquisitions committee. The meeting ran over time, but finally Evans got her turn.
"I was able to say, 'It's really important. You've got all the papers, and you all want to leave, so just please buy it,' " Evans says. And they did — though Evans will not disclose the price.
Elijah Boardman — an 18th-century merchant who lived in New Milford, Conn. — probably wouldn't have been coy about pricing. His portrait (painted by Ralph Earl) is also in the show. Boardman poses in his shop amid bolts of fabric and some leather-bound books with gold lettering on the spine.
Curator Barbara Weinberg says those books speak volumes about early American capitalism.
"[It's] not just account books, but books that bespeak Boardman's learning and savoir-faire," she says of the volumes by Shakespeare and Milton that sit on shelves behind the merchant.
Paintings and artifacts seem to be a natural fit for the Met's collection, but curator Ken Moore says the museum also houses some 5,000 musical instruments — the largest collection in the United States.
One instrument of note is a guitar that Hermann Hauser made in Germany in 1937. The guitar once belonged to the Spanish classical guitarist Andres Segovia, who called it "the greatest guitar of the epoch," says Moore. It came to the museum in 1986, when Segovia handed it to the museum director. (Both men took turns playing it.)
De Montebello admits that the museum's collections may not seem relevant to a younger generation accustomed to instant gratification and technological gadgetry. But he is sure that if they spend some time, young visitors are likely to come away feeling what he calls a restored sense of "psychic equilibrium."
"I do believe that many [young people] ... have a sense of relief when they put down a video game and enter a museum such as ours," says de Montebello. "If they make the effort to approach a work of art and give it a little time, [they] will actually find a serenity which they certainly do not find in the frantic, mechanistic actions that they perform at home."
A young person would likely be mesmerized by a color photo Thomas Struth took in Venice's San Zaccaria church in 1995. It's a huge photo — 6 feet by 9 feet — that captures, in focused and precise detail, both the church's 16th-century wall paintings by Giovanni Bellini and a 20th-century crowd of tourists.
"The whole point of this picture is that you can imagine the people in this church walking up into Bellini's paintings, and the people in the Bellini could walk down and join their space," says curator Doug Eklund. "It's all about that intermixture between past and the present that photography is able to capture."
The Struth picture is one of some 20,000 photographs in the Met's collection. It was bought in 1996, a year after it was taken; Eklund says the museum wouldn't be able to afford it today.
So how much did the photo cost?
"We're not allowed to say that kind of thing, but nice try," says Eklund. "We could [tell you], but we'd have to shoot you afterwards."