Little Boxes on the Hillside

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This will come as a shock to regular readers of this column, but I have done some ill-advised things in my time. I have bathed in plaster, shaved Charlie Brown’s zig-zag shirt pattern into my hair, and let two crack dealers named—I am not making this up, Pimplenose and Trouble—make a series of calls from my cell phone one long night in Birmingham.

I have eaten more than one insect on purpose, and worn more than one pair of pleather pants. I played rhythm guitar in a band called “The Alarm Cock.” I have also purchased, and it pains me to write these words, no fewer than three ICP albums. Purchased, not pirated.

Among my biggest blockheaded boners was participating in a little ritual we dreamed up in college called the Trifecta. The Trifecta was designed to get you as far from sobriety in as little time as possible, using only–get this–tobacco. In retrospect, I don’t know why we didn’t just huff gasoline or something, because the Trifecta was viiiiile. To do this properly, one needs to pack a “double horseshoe” of chewing tobacco, stuffing the upper and lower lips with about a handful of Peach-Flavored Skoal for each cavity. As the juices begin to flow and you feel like you’re about to pass out, the discerning Trifecta-er will take a massive drag of an unfiltered mentholated cigarette and hold it. The final component is a hefty line of snuff—powdered tobacco. After releasing the smoke, the trifecta has been acheived, and the resulting buzz is more or less guaranteed to make you vomit, or at the very least tilt lazily from verticality and start frowning at the earth, which will have suddenly betrayed you by roiling violently.

Snuff. Like Steve McQueen said, it seemed to be a good idea at the time. My snuff came in a blue plastic box covered with German writing that probably said something to the effect of, “Do not do snuff. It is terrible and will make your snot brown. The inside of your head will burn and taste like cigarettes. Seriously, cocaine is better for you. Throw this away and go smoke varnish or something.”
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I bring this up because the Met has a small gallery in the European wing consisting mostly of snuffboxes from pre-revolution France (that’s called a segue, kids). The gallery itself is as far as I can tell nameless, and it’s really nothing more than an eight-foot wide alcove filled with precious boxes. Needless to say, I thought it was awesome. Only a museum with a collection like the Met’s can take what would otherwise have been an overlooked span of wall facing the bathrooms, and turn that into a delightful little revelation.

The snuffboxes are no more than a few inches on a side, usually gilt, and often covered with porcelain or inlaid mother of pearl. The vitrine also has other kinds of objets de luxe, including étuis, which the wall text defines as “any small portable container, case, or box that conforms to the shape of its contents” which could include “ear spoons” and “tongue scrapers.” Um.

There’s something appealing about a box that conforms to the shape of what’s in it, rather than just idly sitting box-shaped, regardless of what someone wants to put in there. One-use boxes made of precious metals. Ah, France. And you wondered why a mob of malnourished malcontents stormed the Bastille!

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Also, another discovery: “souvenir” denotes not only a chintzy replica of the Empire State Building, but also a tiny notepad in an ornamented case (souvenir=to remember; writing=an act of memory; me= a linguist). They were usually decorated with portraits or little allegorical scenes and contained little baby pencils. Adorable.

The Snuffbox Gallery

Highlights: Blinged-out boxes for ear spoons (seriously, what are ear spoons? A prize to the SD reader who can answer).

Memorable Quote: “In France, snuff was praised for its power to bring on a healthy and hearty sneeze, but it was not until the last quarter of the seventeenth century that it became socially fashionable—despite King Louis XIV’s disdain for the habit.” From the wall text, Definition of Terms.

Next Week: We travel to South America and see a skull-shaped jug.

China is Like a Hundred Years Old

Were you aware that non-Europeans have made art? I was not, until my recent visit to the Charlotte C. Weber Galleries of The Arts of Ancient China (insider tip for elite museum-goers only: when visiting the Met, enter through the door labeled “Groups and Tours” to the south of the main entrance. It’s much less crowded than its more impressive counterpart at the façade’s center).

The Weber galleries impress in their breadth and scope. The artifacts are from Neolithic and Bronze Age China, and they range from ornamented wine vessels from the Shang Dynasty to clay figurines crafted by nomads living North of the Great Wall.
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To the rube (me), the wow factor here comes from the sheer age of these objects—some of the carved jade ornaments predate the Roman Empire by two thousand years. Walking through this place, I think of the flawed but attractive idea of the telescoping nature of technological progress. For obvious reasons, it’s limiting to think of “progress” as directional. But if we’re forced to graph it, we can imagine technological innovation like a hockey stick, its handle flush with the ground and the blade shooting up at the graph’s very end. So it took however many thousands of years to get from horse riding to the internal-combustion engine, but it only took a few decades to get from the engine to space-travel. You know the drill.
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Anyway, I think about all that deterministic poppycock because you have on display in the Weber galleries some two thousand years of Chinese art, and to my (rube) eye, it all looks of a piece, like the passage of time had no effect inside the Great Wall (this was probably desirable in a culture that prioritized harmony as an intrinsic good). There’s clearly some innovation there—the decoration on the bronze vessels, in particular, gets more ornate over time—but basically, it all looks like Old Pretty Things to me.

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I guess what I’m trying to say here is: I don’t know anything about Chinese art. Or  history (on review: is my argument really that China made no technological advances for three thousand years? I guess it is. If only I could edit this “blog-posting,” but everyone knows that the Internet is a permanent and unalterable record. Woe!) Also, I’m ignorant about determinism. And I’m not totally sure that the end part of a hockey stick is called a blade (foot?)

But contained in the Weber galleries is a beautiful collection of belt buckles and daggers, tiny figurines, rhythmically engraved stone, and cast metal. Wall text sheds some light on the mysteries for the patient. For the rest of us, the aesthetic impact of five thousand year-old axes is enough.

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The Charlotte C. Weber Galleries

Highlights: Ceremonial bronze wine vessel with its lid cast in the form of a slug/giraffe creature; really old axes that still look dangerous as shit.

Memorable quote: “Another common type of weapon from the steppe was the ax with a tubular socket first conceived of in the West and later introduced to North China through Central Asia.” From the wall text.

Next week: Arms AND armor.

We Will Destroy the Museums

On February 20, 1909, a manic Italian theorist named F. T. Marinetti published The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism in the French newspaper Le Figaro. It began:

We had stayed up all night, my friends and I, under hanging mosque lamps with domes of filigreed brass, domes starred like our spirits, shining like them with the prisoned radiance of electric hearts.

Marinetti and his impish cohorts shrugged off the weight of history. They  embraced intertia in dynamic sculpture and tumbling, energetic prose, and in their affection for the automobile. The Futurists celebrated novelty, revolt, brashness, and above all, the machine, the Machine. It was Nietzsche gone wild, violent and nationalistic, fervidly misogynistic. It was an art movement whose adherents rejected museums, a mode of thought that presaged Buck Rogers and the atomic bomb and the The Factory and the transistor radio and the plastic century. Among the Futurist Manifesto’s calls to arms are this one:

We will destroy the museums, libraries, academies of every kind, will fight moralism, feminism, every opportunistic or utilitarian cowardice.

For Marinetti & Co., technology was an intrinsic good. But their movement, which put such a premium on energy and youth, aged quickly and wilted by the beginning of the First World War. The prominent futurist artist Umberto Boccioni was killed in 1916; Marienetti formed a Futurist political party that later merged with Mussolini’s. Marinetti, who had written that war was “the world’s only heigyne” volunteered–and was summarily rejected for–active duty in the Fascist army when he was in his sixties.

In honor of this misguided movement’s centenary, we bring a you a photograph of Umberto Boccioni’s sculpture that typifies Futurism’s visual aesthetic.

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Boccioni’s “Unique Forms of Continuity in Space,” 1913.

The Lila Acheson Wallace Wing: Room One

Highlights: Picasso and Braque squaring off with Cubist still lifes; Boccioni being a maniac.

Memorable quote:

Museum-goer lectures his Girlfriend on the importance of Picasso’s bronze 1909 sculpture, Woman’s Head:

“I love the muscularity of it. It’s like a woman’s trapped in there. Like there’s stuff just slathered on her head.”

Museum-goer motions slathering stuff on the sculpture; A Guard watches nervously; Girlfriend is nonplussed.

“Know what I mean?”

Girlfriend walks off.

Next Week: Neolithic China

Boccioni's

Just slathered on there.
Just slathered on there.

The Whig Dining Room

img_0282 British architect Robert Adam designed the Lansdowne House for Prime Minister John Stuart in the 1760s. Stuart sold it before completion around 1768 to William Petty-Fizmaurice, Earl of Shelburne, who used his new home as a gathering place for Whig politicians. When Landsowne was converted into a club in 1930, the dining room was sold and transported to the Met in 1931, where it was rebuilt as a mirror image of its original self, due, according to explanatory text, “to the exigencies of space.”

As it stands now, the room is a grand hyper-Classical space with fluted columns and period (though not original) furniture of mahogany and leather. This is one of a very few spaces in the museum with columns, and the Met’s floor plan renders them as tiny dark blue dots. It’s a place where I can imagine mustachioed men of power complaining about the burden of being very, very rich, while servants roll their eyes and wonder just how difficult it would be to fatally poison a member of Parliament.

A dinner table sits beneath an overwrought chandelier; classical statuary flanks diners. The bluish gray walls and ceiling are beautifully decorated with ornate vegetal and nautical molding. Rigid griffins preen and fluted fans and egg-and-dart motifs cover the surfaces like lichen. A grisaille over-mantel painting momentarily fools you into thinking it’s bas-relief carving.

The Met does reassembled architecture well, but these resituated places always feel off to me. Landsowne shares a west wall with Central Park; on its north side, black fabric covers a floor-to-ceiling window, obscuring what would otherwise be a surreal view of the American Wing Café.

The Dining Room from the Landsowne House

Highlight: The wine cooler made of old-growth hardwood, not high-fructose corn syrup and malt liquor.

Memorable quote: “Lansdowne House, designed by Robert Adam and situated in the Southwest corner of Berkeley Square, London, was begun for Prime Minster John Stuart, third Earl of Bute, who sold it, unfinished, about 1765 to William Petty-Fitzmaurice (1737-1805), Earl of Shelburne, later first Marquess of Lansdowne and a leading Whig statesman of the period.” From the text for 32.12

Next Week: Cubism! Cubism! Cubism!

Here is a sad griffin I saw walking to the Museum. I was. I was walking to the museum. The griffin, who’d just been abandoned by the love of his life, was lying there in pieces.

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Eagle-Rape

The Spyros and Eurydice Costopoulos Gallery lies along the Met’s west façade, just south of the newly renovated Greek and Roman Galleries. It contains Greek art of the 4th Century B.C., a period that saw Greece grow from a collection of sparring city-states into an empire stretching to India.

Among the Costopolous’ treasures is a row of six marble heads, long since cleaved from their bodies. The forlorn faces are broken and smooth and stained. There’s a shiny gilt scabbard and three marble stele, or grave markers, all of which feature bas-relief portraits of the deceased shaking hands with someone in their family. Particularly moving is the veiled face of a statue representing mourning. Nothing like some drapery executed in stone, am I right? Right? Yeah.
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The gallery’s clear stars are its smallest artifacts. They’re so unassuming I overlooked them on my first pass through the room. It was only on revisiting yesterday that I caught them: the most wonderful god-damned earrings I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen some beauties.

Each of the earrings is a tiny scene showing Ganymede being spirited away to Mt. Olympus by Zeus in the form of an eagle (the gods had decided to kidnap him because A. they needed a bartender and B. he was GORGEOUS).

What’s remarkable here is not just the craftsmanship—though the detail is impressive, in Zeus’s feathers especially. But more notable to my eye is the mood of the tiny pieces, the tenderness that the man and the animal show each other. In Rembrandt’s formulation, the abduction of Ganymede was a rape, á la Leda and the Swan (Leda was also violated by Zeus, who, in addition to his penchant for serial rape, was a bestiality enthusiast. Take that, The Internet! Hellenic mythos makes you look staid by comparison!)

But in these Macedonian earrings, the two figures have an affinity. Ganymede slings an arm above his head, delicately encircling the neck of the disguised Zeus, whose talon grips the youth’s other hand. They look like lovers. Miniature, solid-gold, interspecies rape-lovers.

The Met is so fucking weird and great and I suggest you go immediately.

The Spyros and Euridice Costopolous Gallery

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Highlight: The Ganymeade Earrings

Memorable quote: “Marsyas was so proficient at playing the double-flute that he challenged the god Apollo himself to a contest. Apollo agreed on the condition that the victor could do as he pleased to the vanquished, and after winning, he had Marsyas flayed alive by a Scythian slave.” From the text for exhibit 12.139.4a.b.

Next week: Nobody at the Met knows what’s in the Met. And, by overwhelming popular demand, an in-depth look at the dining room commissioned by John Stuart, third Earl of Bute. Try not to pee in your pants with excitement!!!