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Another Bronze Deal-Buster: Ken Johnson Bashes Met’s Shapely French Show

Jean-Baptiste Pigalle, “Denis Diderot,” 1777, Musée de Louvre

While we’re on the subject of bronze-related ambushes

Ian Wardropper and James David Draper: I’ve got your back:

Draper’s back. (Wardropper’s front)

They’re the chairman and curator, respectively, of the Metropolitan Museum’s department of European sculpture and decorative arts, who must have been caught off guard by a brash attack from Ken Johnson in his NY Times review of Cast in Bronze: French Sculpture from Renaissance to Revolution—a luscious assemblage that I savored but hadn’t originally intended to write about.

If you relish the fluidity and expressivity of the bronze medium for its intricate detailing (as in the wrinkly, unsparingly honest Diderot portrait bust, above), its lustrous patinas and its ability to morph from the simplest shapes to the most intricate, complicated forms, you should find this show appealing for:

…its compelling sensuality

François Girardon, “The Rape of Proserpina,” 1693, Heckscher Museum, Huntington, NY

…its bursting energy

François Lespingola, “The Child Hercules Strangling the Serpents Sent by Juno,” ca. 1675-1700, Abegg-Stiftung, Riggisberg, Switzerland

…and its rich historic associations, including this celebratory confection glorifying such legendary French cultural forces as Racine, Molière, Corneille, La Fontaine, Voltaire and Lully:

Louis Garnier (Medallions by Simon Curé; Later additions by Augustin Pajou), “The French Parnassus,” 1718-1721; Pajou additions, 1762 and 1777, Musée National de Versailles

But this rare feast of seldom-explored material lost Johnson before he crossed the threshold. He wrote:

If French bronze sculpture of the 17th and 18th centuries is not your thing, you probably have plenty of company [including, one assumes, Ken]. For nonspecialists, “Cast in Bronze: French Sculpture From Renaissance to Revolution” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art will be a tough sell….

[The works] in this exhibition display a cold impersonality, cramped imagination and slavish obeisance to the official culture of their times. This is not art discovering new possibilities of romantic individualism but a conservative, backward-looking genre that affirms and celebrates imperial power and order.

I’m certainly a “nonspecialist,” but didn’t see those negative attributes that Johnson so broadly assigned to these works on both artistic and political grounds. If Ken can’t stomach art commissioned by the politically and economically powerful, there’s a broad swath of art history that he needs to avoid—both personally and professionally.

an ArtsJournal blog