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Burnishing Bernini: Model of Scholarship at Metropolitan Museum (with video)

Veteran art critic Holland Cotter, in his end-of-year art museum round-up in Sunday’s NY Times “Arts & Leisure” section, showed symptoms of what I call “exhibition ennui”—a malady that often afflicts those of us who have viewed a lifetime’s worth of museum displays. What we crave is (in Cotter’s words) “stimulation, to find what you didn’t already know” and also (in my words) the chance to appreciate aspects of certain art that you had vaguely sensed but hadn’t seen fleshed out in prior exhibitions.

Three very different but equally invigorating exhibitions that I viewed during the fall season met those criteria. One of which, also cited by Cotter, was the Metropolitan Museum’s Bernini: Sculpting in Clay (to Jan. 6), to which I referred briefly in a previous post, promising to discuss it in greater detail (which I’ll now do, below).

The other two were the much acclaimed traveling Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective, which I saw at the National Gallery in Washington (to Jan. 13)…

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Lichtenstein, “Artist’s Studio ‘Look Mickey!’,” 1973, Walker Art Center
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

…and a focus exhibition that ballooned into much more (and which, as far as I can tell, was never reviewed by the Times), Shipwreck! Winslow Homer and “The Life Line” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (to Jan. 1):

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Kathleen Foster, Philadelphia Museum’s curator of American art, under the television lights at press preview for “Shipwreck! Winslow Homer and ‘The Life Line’,” with the title painting behind her

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

What united these three very disparate curatorial tours de force was the keen scholarly intelligence that made us see three familiar artists in a fresh, revelatory light.

As I mentioned in my above-linked previous post on “Bernini,” that show, which opened soon after the the dispiriting “Regarding Warhol,”  marked the Met’s welcome return to form, thanks in part to the scholarship and flair of an old hand, Ian Wardropper, who had already left his post as head of European sculpture and decorative arts to become director of the Frick Collection.

In one way, though, the show was a disappointment. Focusing on the terracotta models, bozzetti (rapid three-dimensional studies for finished works) and related drawings by “the most famous and important sculptor in 17th-century Europe” (in the words of the press release), “Bernini,” of necessity, lacked the bravura, monumental marbles that we most associate with the artist.

Mary Flanagan, the Met’s indispensable press officer specializing in old masters, caught me gazing mistily at the photo mural showing the famous Bernini fountains of Rome’s Piazza Navona. She interrupted my reverie by asking, “Doesn’t that make you want to travel there?” Actually, I told her, it had made me nostalgic for when I had traveled there, several decades ago, and gazed upon the figures for which this was one of the models:

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Bernini, “Model for the Fountain of the Moor,” 1653, Kimbell Art Museum
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

As you will hear Kimbell curator C.D. Dickerson III (who conceived this show) discuss in the CultureGrrl Video below, this is the largest and most finished of all known Bernini terracottas (some of which are lost, because of their fragility). He relates the surprising story of why this is the case.

Here are two details, plus a rear view of this sumptuously modeled sea deity astride a suggestively spouting dolphin. He’s nicknamed “The Moor” because of his “exotic features” (as the label tells us):

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Many of the works at the Met are less completely satisfying than this breathtaking figure, but nevertheless give fascinating evidence of how the master devised his finished compositions. On this elaborate model, Bernini was experimenting with drapery:

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To give you a sense of the lucidity of the object labels, here’s the one for the angel pictured above:

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The show is informed by the curators’ minute scrutiny and (in many cases) technical analysis of the artist’s known terracottas, even those that couldn’t be included in the show. The initial checklist was hit hard by Russia’s ban on loans to the U.S., which prevented the arrival of hoped-for examples from the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. (These are illustrated among the 52 terracottas in the splendid catalogue.)

But enough from me. The most informed commentary on the exhibition’s goals and achievements comes from the curators themselves:

During the Q&A at the end of the press preview, I asked the organizers whether there were any aspects of Bernini’s work that they wished they could have represented in the show.

Here’s what they told me:

Wardropper: Huge marbles that we couldn’t bring over. Two of the largest models would have been fascinating—the equestrian monument in the Borghese and the one in the Corsini of this huge elephant, both of which people had some doubts about, but I think, through the course of our study, we’ve come to feel are more closely allied with the artist. Those are two we would have loved to have had.

Anthony Sigel(conservator of objects and sculpture, Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, Harvard Art Museums, which loaned 15 of the 39 terracottas in the show): I would also mention that in the Vatican are preserved five terra cruda models, which are unfired clay, built around an iron armature, bundles of reeds tied around them, and then packed with unfired clay and animal dung.

In fact, they were full-sized and probably used to take the molds for these bronzes—for the Cherubs of St. Peter’s that are preserved, the heads of the fathers of the church that hold the cherub. They’re too fragile to travel and they’re being conserved at the Vatican right now. It’s a three- to five-year project. That would have been a fascinating next step from these models to the final bronze or marble.

an ArtsJournal blog