The Met’s Sculpture and Decorative Arts 1850-1900 gallery shows European art at an exciting crossroads. Conservative Neoclassicism in the 18th and 19th centuries demonstrated that Western visual arts were due for a change. The idea behind neoclassicism was that Greek, Roman, and Italian Renaissance art were empirically superior to anything that came before or since, and so contemporary artists should copy their themes and forms. (To our eye, the Baroque and Rococo styles that preceded neoclassicism look a lot like ancient Greco-Roman art anyway, so a reactionary movement like neoclassicism seems redundant, but what do we know?)
About half of the work in this little room in the Iris and Gerald B. Cantor Galleries gave us the sense that sculptors and designers in 19th century Europe were just itching to get out from the crushing burden of classicism. How many urns depicting Homeric myth does it take before everyone gets bored of business as usual and just wants to try something new?
To wit: the Cantor Galleries contain a bronze statue of Perseus (1890), a vase (1911) with the same decorative motifs you see in the objects in the Hellenistic Galleries, and commemorative medals with sitters in profile (1880s) that are almost indistinguishable from those that had depicted Caesar or Alexander. It’s crazy. These artists were living in the age of the railroad and phonograph and telephone and automobile, but they kept emulating the art that Athenians and Romans were making before the birth of Christ.
And then something weird happened (in the flow of history, not in the Cantor Gallery). In 1854, under pressure from Commodore Matthew Perry, Japan opened its borders to the West for the first time in more than 200 years. The concisely named “International Exhibition of Arts, Manufactures and Products of the Soil and Mine” in Philadelphia in 1876 was America’s first world fair, where pavilions from thirty-odd countries—including Japan—exposed 9 million westerners to the wonders of the “Orient.” European avant-gardes like Toulouse-Latrec and Van Gogh began combining the clarity of line and flatness of picture plane from Japanese woodcuts with European techniques like oil painting.
The resulting biracial baby was named Japonisme, and it was awesome. No surprise there: when previously isolated cultures cross paths, cultural upheaval and fertility results (The Met’s own website has a concise entry explaining how a similar phenomenon had unfolded due to the silk and spice trade nearly two thousand years before). The Cantor gallery shows objects in both the conservative neoclassical and the radical japoniste modes.
Other great pieces in the gallery: a Russian cigarette case (1896-1903) designed for Fabregé, a creepy ceramic Infanta, and a terracotta Négresse, which stylistically could have come from quattrocento Florence, but whose inscription (Porquoi! Natre esclave!, or Why born a slave?) and year of commission (1867) make it a piece of political commentary. A bit late, but still, at least it’s not another bust of Ceres or Bacchus.
And finally: How often have you found yourself in the unenviable position of having toasted six pieces of bread, but you lack a receptacle to hold them? Regularly? Good news, because Christopher Dresser’s 1881 toast rack solves that exact problem.
The Iris and Gerald B. Cantor Galleries: European Sculpture and Decorative Arts 1850-1900
Highlights: Toast holder, duh.
Mom: We’re not going to the store.
Kid: (calm but incredulous) What?
Mom: We’re at the museum to learn and to enjoy each other’s company.
Kid: (visibly agitated) WHAT?
Next week: African art. All of it.