Skimming through various museum sites for their fall schedules, the first thing that caught my eye was a notice for The Art of the Chinese Album at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The accompanying image — a painting of a gloriously enrobed and masked opera performer — is the kind of thing you can get lost in, a kaleidoscopic profusion of intricate patterning, densely populated with hues of green, gold, blue, black, red and white.
The text on the Met’s site describes the album as “one of the most intimate of Chinese painting formats,” noting that its “special structure” allowed the artist “to remake the world anew” with a turn of a page. The show will feature works by artists such as Shitao (1642–1707), who used the album as an “opportunity to shock and surprise the viewer with radical shifts in perspective and subject,” and Dong Qichang (1555–1636), who displayed his knowledge of art history “by devoting each leaf to the style of a different old master.” (For a short video on Shitao’s album “Returning Home,” ca. 1695, click here.)
What the exhibition will also offer is a respite from the pervasive grandiosity of our visual culture, an invitation to lean into a work of art to study its details rather than step back in deference to its size. For a few moments, you and the artist will enter into a conspiracy of two, communing through the image’s complex arrays of line and color.
In his evisceration of the Frick Collection’s plans to replace its pocket garden with a new building (The New York Times, July 30, 2014), Michael Kimmelman wrote, “The fact is that the Frick is perfectly well loved as is. People revere it precisely because it isn’t (yet) like all the museums that have been busily remaking themselves for big crowds and blockbuster shows.”
With the Museum of Modern Art swallowing midtown, the Whitney abandoning its Brutalist jewel box and Planet Guggenheim running amok, the close, personal interaction between artwork and viewer — the kind of relationship nurtured by the city’s smaller galleries and alternate spaces — has become an increasing rarity within the walls of a museum.
But if you look, it can still be found. Two New York museums that regularly combine an intimate viewing environment with dazzling artwork and matchless scholarship are the Morgan Library & Museum and the Neue Galerie, each of which will be presenting exhibitions of special interest.
The Morgan, which, despite its substantial 2006 Renzo Piano expansion beyond the historic 1906 library and 1928 annex, continues to offer up-close encounters in human-scaled rooms, will open The Untamed Landscape: Théodore Rousseau and the Path to Barbizon on September 26th. Rousseau (1812–67) and the Barbizon School — a group of mid-19th-century French painters that also included Camille Corot and Jean-François Millet —painted en plein air in the forest of Fontainebleau, fusing the brooding colors of Romanticism with an observational approach and painterly freedom that anticipated Impressionism.
This will be the first U.S. museum exhibition to focus on Rousseau, and it will include more than 70 paintings, drawings and oil sketches. The freshness of this work, which can be thought of as French painting’s last pre-modern blossoming, saves it from nostalgia, as the artist’s sometimes turbulent brushwork betrays the Baudelairean rumbles beneath the surface.
In another first, the Neue Galerie will hold the first museum show in this country devoted to the often harrowing portraiture of Egon Schiele (1890-1918), the meteoric Austrian peintre maudit who died at the age of 28, a victim of the Spanish influenza pandemic.
The wildness of Schiele’s art — raw and unsparing in its fleshly decadence but rendered with a boldly elegant, even classical sense of abstraction — and the controversial aspects of his personal life (suspicions of incest with his younger sister; explicit drawings of underage models; a 24-day jail sentence for public immorality) seem tailor-made for today. His images, often splayed against a stark, blank backdrop, confront us with a hedonistic nihilism that feels oceans away from the luxe, perfumed Expressionism of his mentor, Gustav Klimt. Oblivion stalks us daily, and Schiele’s cadaverous bodies, drawn with pitiless, razor-like precision, don’t let us forget it.
The Art of the Chinese Album opens today and will continue at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through March 29, 2015.
The Untamed Landscape: Théodore Rousseau and the Path to Barbizon opens on September 26 at the Morgan Library & Museum (225 Madison Avenue, Midtown, Manhattan) and will continue through January 18, 2015.
Egon Schiele: Portraits opens on October 9 at the Neue Galerie (1048 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) and will continue through January 19, 2015.