“I’m excited to announce a major show opening in May, which I will say can only happen at the Met,” Max Hollein, the Metropolitan Museum’s director, said yesterday at a press reveal of plans for upcoming exhibitions.
Actually, it was Christie’s auction house that made the first (oblique) public announcement about the Met’s potential blockbuster—Van Gogh‘s Cypresses—to include some 40 works by that ever-popular artist. As CultureGrrl readers (and art-market mavens) may remember, Christie’s revealed the following at the end of its lot description for “Orchard with Cypresses,” 1888, which sold for $117.18 million, an auction record for the artist, at the Nov. 14 auction of the collection of Microsoft’s late co-founder, Paul Allen:
Please note that this painting has been requested by the Metropolitan Museum of Art as one of the centerpiece works for their exhibition “Van Gogh Cypresses” from May-August 2023.
Huh? What exhibition? As of the day before the press event, there was no mention of it in the online list of the Met’s upcoming shows. I emailed a query about this to the museum’s press office, receiving no reply—uncharacteristic silence from an operation that, under the leadership of Kenneth Weine, has been the most gratifyingly responsive Met communications team of any that I’ve dealt with, going back to the 1970s.
Here’s what I had tweeted (with my own photos) about that lusciously tactile painting:
Here’s my close-up of the impasto on that almost sculptural surface: pic.twitter.com/WR3GRLBfvW— Lee Rosenbaum (@CultureGrrl) November 10, 2022
After the press event where the plan for the “Cypresses” show (May 22–Aug. 27) was revealed, I asked Susan Alyson Stein, the Met’s curator of 19th-century European painting and organizer of the upcoming show, about whether the painting that I had seen at Christie’s would be included. She declined to comment, which I thought might mean that a loan was in the works, but had not yet been finalized. (A Met spokesperson later confirmed that supposition.) Stein had been editor of Van Gogh: A Retrospective, published in connection with the Met’s 1986 ”Van Gogh in St. Remy and Auvers” (organized by Ronald Pickvance, installed by Gary Tinterow and coordinated by Stein).
Stein was happy to discuss with me the sparkling condition of the ex-Paul Allen painting (which I had admired at Christie’s presale exhibition), noting that it had never been lined. Conservators sometimes line the reverse of a work to help consolidate and stabilize a fragile paint surface, but that practice may flatten the work’s appearance.
But back to this post’s headline: Why did I suggest that the ghost of Walter Annenberg is haunting the Met’s upcoming show? For that, let’s go to my way-back files, to extract “Free the Annenberg 53” (my then editor’s cheeky headline), which I wrote for the Wall Street Journal about the publishing magnate’s and ambassador’s 1991 gift to the Met (under the directorship of the legendary Philippe de Montebello) of 53 works from his collection.
As I reported in the WSJ on June 26, 1991 (no online link, to my knowledge), Annenberg’s munificent gift had tight strings attached:
Mr. Annenberg had held out a rich offering to the Met, but he hadn’t by any means let go of it. And his grip will stay almost as tight even from the grave, thanks to an extremely restrictive agreement with the museum….The Met must show all 53 of his pictures at all times, in their own area, that will be carved out of the Met’s 19th-century European galleries….
If some foolhardy future Met director has the effrontery to banish one of the lesser works (and there are some) to the museum’s storerooms, Mr. Annenberg grimly told a New York Times interviewer that he will personally “get out of my grave and hit the director over the head.”
Here’s a sign that you can see in the Met’s Annenberg galleries today:
“Wheat Field With Cypresses” came to the Met in 1993—later than the mega-collector’s other works, but it was purchased with $57 million in Annenberg funds (more than he had ever before spent on a single painting, he then said). Although it wasn’t part of the original gift, it is apparently regarded as being bound by restrictions similar to those governing the “Annenberg 53” (and could be subject to a similar posthumous curse from the deceased donor, if loaned). Hollein told the assembled journalists that “an exhibition like this can only happen at the Met,” in part because “‘Wheat Field with Cypresses’ is not allowed to leave our premises due to the donor’s restriction.” (He never referred to Annenberg by name.) The Museum of Modern Art’s “Starry Night,” he observed, “will be reunited [with “Wheat Field with Cypresses”] for the very first time since 1901 [emphasis added]—since the time, of course, when van Gogh lived with them [emphasis added].”
Not exactly: Van Gogh died in 1890. Whatever their past history, they do make a tasty promotional pairing today:
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