Timing is everything. For a few weeks either side of the New Year, it was as if the moons of different planets had drifted into alignment. At the far end, Constantin Brancusi's first Bird In Space, in marble; if we could see the thermals a condor soars on, this might be what it looks like. In the center, the kilted torso of a striding general, from Egypt in the 4th century B.C.E., in jet-black sandstone. And to the right, a Greek-revival evening gown in soft white silk, by Madame Grès, of Paris, ca. 1965.
Thomas Struth (German, b. 1954)
Like the Golden Age it documented, the show is history now. It was the only major show of de Montebello's 31-year tenure as Director of the Met to have gone without a coffee-table catalogue—for good reason, since the concept was in effect no concept at all. Selected by curators from the institution's 17 departments, the 300-odd works on display stood in for 84,000+ acquired, by gift or by purchase, during that time. An inspired design team led by Helen C. Evans, curator of Byzantine Art, orchestrated what might have seemed the estate sale of the ages into a vision of undreamt-of harmonies.
The good news is that The Philippe de Montebello Years lives on in an online catalogue. Most important, the catalogue features a comprehensive image bank, each image accompanied by the sort of commentary and scholarly background information you find in a conventional catalogue. A Duccio Madonna, a pint-size parade armor for the five-year-old Prince of Asturias, an Olmec mask, a folio from the Blue Qur'an… the range is staggering, and there is simply no dead wood. You can spend happy hours just browsing.
Also on offer are various videos affording glimpses of the installation. But can anyone who missed the show begin to sense the artistry of the juxtapositions? In another coup de théâtre, Rodin's foot-high Pair of Nude Male Figures Demonstrating the Principles of Contrapposto According to Michelangelo and Phidias, in terracotta, was mounted in a Plexiglas box lined up, at some distance, against the luminous backdrop of Rothko's No. 13 (White, Red on Yellow).
In architecture and real estate, virtual tours of imaginary or inaccessible sites are common now. Maybe someday exhibitions will receive the same treatment. The Philippe de Montebello Years would have made the perfect prototype. The next best thing (since no one seems to have thought of that) might be to add floor plans, challenging visitors to visualize.
The Online Catalogue for The Philippe de Montebello Years: Curators Celebrate Three Decades of Acquisitions (Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 24, 2008 – February 1, 2009)