2016-12-08 23:06:21
50-Minute Critic: Got an Hour? See the Met These 4 Ways

New Yorkers live booked-up lives, and tourists are the busiest people in town. Who else dashes in beat-the-clock time from the World Trade Center to Rockefeller Center, to Trump Tower to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, pausing for selfies at each stop?

And when you hit the Met with your meter running, what can you do? The place is huge; ridiculous. Macy’s, but more. So you have a decision to make. If you restrict yourself to a special show, or a gallery or two, you’ll be able to see some art in a focused way, though you’ll miss the breadth that makes the Met so awesome. If you opt to cover a lot of ground fast, you’ll get the lay of the land, but as a drive-by blur.

Let me propose a compromise: a thematic tour, or set of tours, that would take in the multicultural mix of a great global museum, but selectively, in a purposefully hopscotching way, with an eye on the clock; tours that would last somewhere under an hour, the span of a workday lunch break.

In the future, The New York Times will apply this model to several museums, in and out of the city, only a few of them Met-size. But I’ll start with my home museum, and I’ll take as a shaping theme images both of, and by, women in the collection, specifically women of power, with power expansively defined. The choice is partly inspired by a moment in time that might have given us our first female president, and gave instead a woman-baiting president-elect. It’s also a personal choice. Images of, and by, women are some of the most beautiful and complex in the museum.

Even with a thematic frame, organizing a tour is tricky. It would be nice to follow a neat chronological route, but the Met isn’t laid out that way. Nor, for that matter, is history: Timelines of art in different cultures don’t run on parallel tracks; at any given point, forms of art that were hot in Europe were irrelevant in, say, China, and vice versa. And again, with the Met, there’s the inventory issue: unmanageable tons of stuff to consider, even within a theme.

So we’ll break the tour up into subthematic mini-tours. Some will have you speed-walking the museum’s length and breadth (it covers nearly 14 acres); others will keep you more or less in one place. All will require the same gear: soft soles, minimal luggage and a floor map, with all galleries numbered, available at the Met’s information desks. And you’re off.

You can start with ancient and monumental. Enter the Egyptian Wing from the Great Hall, on the first floor, and head straight back. It’s a hike, but sensationally scenic, taking you past wall reliefs, mummies and the fragmentary head of a New Kingdom queen cut from honey-yellow jasper and glowing like a lantern, till you come to Gallery 115, devoted entirely to images of one person, the female pharaoh Hatshepsut.

She ascended the throne around 1478 B.C. as regent for a toddler-age nephew, declared herself king and ruled, effectively solo, for more than 20 productive years.

During that time, she kept the peace, revived Egyptian trade and commissioned major art and architectural projects, including countless sculptures of herself. The gallery has several. In the largest she has the leonine masculine bulk that was considered the monarchic ideal. But in the center of the gallery, set up as a cross between throne room and a chapel, she sits, nearly life-size, carved in pale stone, looking youthful and lithe in a sleek sheath dress.

Works melding features of goddess and queen stretch across cultures and account for some of the Met’s most glamorous images. Dash upstairs to Gallery 240 in the Met’s Asian Wing and you’ll find another in a fabulous South Indian bronze temple sculpture of the goddess Parvat, her arms like vines, her hands like flowers. Or sprint the length of the museum to Gallery 352 of the Africa, Oceania and Americas collection and take in a superb 16th-century ivory pendant mask owned by a Benin king in Nigeria. It’s a portrait of his mother, a queen, and he wore it as if it were a combination of searchlight, shield and talisman.

Near it, in Gallery 357, is a breath-catching recent addition to the collection, an arched and turreted gold repoussé crown, studded with emeralds, from Spanish colonial Colombia. It was made for a statue of the Virgin in her role as Queen of Heaven. Glowing in church candlelight, she must have been an imperious sight, though not all her images are so regal. A short walk away in the museum’s Medieval Hall is one that conveys the opposite impression.

Isolated in an inconspicuous spot near a door, and indifferently lighted, it’s a sculpture of the Virgin Enthroned from 12th-century Scandinavia. Just under three feet tall, cut from a piece of poplar, she has the recessive, round-shouldered posture of a shy adolescent and the large-eyed face of a dove. She’s one of my usual destinations in the museum. I often check in with her, say hello.

Were it not for her veil, the Virgin Enthroned could be male or female, boy or girl. She’s a reminder of how much religious art can look gender-fluid or gender-free. That’s the story with Hatshepsut. (A current show at the Brooklyn Museum, “A Woman’s Afterlife: Gender Transformation in Ancient Egypt,” addresses the subject.) And it’s true of the much-loved Buddhist deity Avalokiteshvara, who appears in a female manifestation given the name Guanyin in China. The Met’s Chinese collection has several examples, including, in Galley 208, a marvelous wood-carved one notable for its voluptuous torso, tapering fingers and calm-beyond-calm hauteur.

For their part, the ancient Greeks had Amazons — not divine maybe, but gender-challenging, for sure. Herodotus claimed they wore trousers, packed arms and hunted men. To the xenophobic Greeks, they were the original Nasty Women, an embodiment of the Other, despised and feared. But they had attractions, too, evident in “Wounded Amazon” in Gallery 153. A Roman marble copy of a Greek bronze, it’s of a strappingly handsome woman in a skimpy chiton. She has taken a hit in battle but is still on her feet, bearing her pain with a defiant indifference that the sculptor clearly admires.

Images of warrior women are relatively rare at the Met, though you’ll see a couple of thrilling ones in a loan survey of paintings by the 17th-century French artist Valentin de Boulogne on the second floor, in Gallery 999. The pictures, with their David Lynch lighting, both depict the Jewish heroine Judith, who leveraged her sexual charms to gain access to and decapitate the Assyrian general Holofernes. In one picture, we see her slicing through his neck with a sword. (Artemisia Gentileschi also painted this scene.) In another, Judith, deed done, lifts a hand in an air pump as if to say “Score!”

Fiercer-looking, though benign, is the female figure in a 17th-century Mughal manuscript painting called “Goddess Bhairavi Devi With Shiva,” in Gallery 463 of the Islamic Wing on the same floor. It, too, is of a decapitation: the Great Goddess, fire-red with rage, seems to be cutting up a male corpse, head first. But as her devotees would know, her fury is a purposeful illusion. She’s an aspect of the god Shiva, creator and destroyer, an entranced male version of whom sits nearby. The goddess may appear to be going ballistic, but it serves the cosmic balance, for which the positive charge of female energy is indispensable.

In secular portraiture, supernatural power translates into force of personality. The Met has charismatic examples, of and by women. Many are in the European Painting galleries; several are audience favorites.

Johannes Vermeer’s “Study of a Young Woman” (circa 1665) in Gallery 632 is one. It isn’t exactly a portrait, but like his “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” it’s a made-for-the-market image of the fashionable type, an “it girl” of the day. Here, the subject’s shaved eyebrows and plucked hairline give her the slightly amphibious look of an E. T. Rembrandt’s “Woman With a Pink,” two rooms away, is more certainly a portrait, though it, too, suggests an illustrative dimension: It catches the moving shadow of age in action.

Age is a phenomenon that the 16th-century Italian realist Giovanni Battista Moroni embraces in his extraordinarily candid portrait of the middle-aged Abbess Lucrezia Agliardi Vertova, hanging in Gallery 608. And it’s a reality that the 18th-century French salon painter Adélaïde LaBille-Guiard defies in her majestically assured “Self-Portrait With Two Pupils: Marie Gabrielle Capet and Marie Marguerite Carreaux de Rosemond,” in Gallery 613.

The LaBille-Guiard picture is above all a tribute to female artists, generations of them. So, in this gallery, is Marie Denise Villers’s backlighted portrait of the young Marie Joséphine Charlotte du Val d’Ognes sitting with a sketch board and interrupted at work. It’s a portrait of a female artist, by a female artist whose older artist-sister was a contemporary of LaBille-Guiard.

Over in the American Wing, in Gallery 764, Thomas Eakins’s “The Artist’s Wife and His Setter Dog” is, in its ambiguous way, a tribute to a female artist, too. From the 1880s, it’s a portrait of Susan MacDowell Eakins, who had been the painter’s student at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, had married him and weathered the scandal that engulfed him — he insisted on nude models, male and female, in his class — and led to his being fired.

Whatever the tenor of their marriage, it sapped her ambitions for painting. She gave up art to promote Eakins’s career, and only returned to it after his death. The Met has one of her early pictures, “Woman Reading,” but it’s not in the galleries. It hangs chockablock with the numerous other second-tier items in open storage on the American Wing mezzanine, dim behind thick plexiglass and hard to find.

It’s a good picture, of a young woman, probably MacDowell’s sister Elizabeth, absorbed in a book; not, in other words, just sitting there blank and staring, but focused, self-contained, occupied, the way the reading, talking and listening women in Mary Cassatt’s paintings are, and the way Gertrude Stein is, just by being there, a human magnet, in Picasso’s marmoreal 1905-6 portrait in Gallery 911 of the Modern and Contemporary Wing. “Picasso never painted another woman like that,” the New York artist Deborah Kass once said about this work, “who looked like that, with that kind of presence, who wasn’t a thing!”

It’s an image — you get the sense that Stein’s personality forced it out of Picasso — of a woman thinking critically. In a different way, Florine Stettheimer’s “Cathedrals of Wall Street” (1939) a few rooms away, with its insouciant image of the financial district, the capitalist heart of the nation, packed with preening politicians and soldiers, is the product of an artist painting critically. So is Alma Thomas’s “Red Roses Sonata” from 1972, an abstract view of nature as a gorgeous but tattered curtain of red and blue.

Thomas’s painting is in Gallery 923, near the museum’s southwest corner, all those acres away from Hatshepsut’s room. And if during your tour you’ve tracked down and stayed with even a fraction of the images of and by women en route, lunchtime is long over; it’s probably too late to go back to the office, and your travel group has moved on and left you behind. So you might as well stay and look further: for an ancient Greek oil jug with paintings of women spinning yarn; a Zandra Rhodes wedding dress, pure ’70s punk; for an exquisite willow basket by the Native American artist Datsolalee, patterned with dancing flames. The more you look, the more there is. So keep touring till closing time.

Yes, you can dash around checking the boxes of traditional highlights as you peer at this El Greco or that Goya, and, of course, the Temple of Dendur. Here is what the 50-Minute Critic recommends instead.

GODDESSES AND QUEENS

50 minutes.

Four stops on two floors, heavy on sculpture, taking in Egyptian art on the first floor; Asian works directly above on the second; then back to the first floor, but at the opposite end of the museum for African art; and finally, in the middle of the first floor, a straight line from the museum entrance, the Medieval Hall.

SHIFTING GENDERS

30 minutes.

Two stops: the Asian galleries on the second floor and the Greek and Roman galleries at the opposite end, on the first.

VIOLENT FEMMES

30 minutes.

A quick and bloody tour in two stops, both on the second floor: Gallery 999, a special exhibition space near the European Paintings, and, in an attraction of geographical opposites, the Islamic Wing.

PORTRAITS OF AND BY WOMEN

50 minutes.

Three stops, all on the second floor, all featuring paintings. Start in European Paintings and then head next door to the American Wing and then back through the European galleries to the Modern and Contemporary Wing.