Today the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened its Picasso exhibition, stuffed to the ceiling with more than 300 works by the Spanish artist that are in the museum's possession. But as this major show about a major artist begins, it is worth taking time to briefly note a few small shows at the Met soon to end this spring and early summer.
While walking through one of those shows, I remembered that Jorge Luis Borges once described monsters as “necessary” because the making of them is “congenial to man’s imagination.” Lining the pink walls of this show, “Playing with Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photocollage," are 50 book pages, all quite quirky and congenial to the imagination, from albums filled by high-born Victorian ladies in England who practised the casual art of photocollage, 60 years before synthetic cubism was born.
While there are, strictly speaking, no monsters in these delectable pages, there are fanciful hybrids aplenty, such as ducks whose heads have been replaced with those of young ladies with grave, parallel lips who wear Sunday bonnets. Such duck-ladies aren’t monsters in the frightful sense, like Borges’s (or Picasso’s) minotaur, just in the literal Latinate sense—monster coming from monstrum, a thing seen, a thing so peculiar that it demands your attention and, as such, invites comment. Another image made: a full set of blue-and-white china, painted in watercolors, and to each piece glued the headshot of a family member cut from early photographs—called, to be exact, cartes de viste. Such photographs were the first very cheap, even disposable, type of picture one could buy (a dozen for 12 shillings in 1854). An uncut sheet of them—of a man in his best threads, posing with white cane and top hat—is at the very start of “Playing with Pictures,” showing that eight images came on a single sheet and, as such, already necessitated someone to cut them apart. Once scissors have been brought to paper, it's not a large leap to begin cutting out the whole body from the background, or just the head—or hat.
Smartly, Elizabeth Siegel, the Met’s associate curator of photography, who has been studying Victorian photocollage for some time now, found an excellent way to show the entire 15 albums, cover included. She set three computers with an interactive program containing all the illustrated pages so visitors might flip through them by clicking. Note: This recreates the experience of flipping through the book, and sharing the book with someone beside you (there are two chairs per computer, and onlookers tend to gather round, point, and smile as one shuffles through the books).
Granted, “Playing with Pictures” is a somewhat unusual show for the Met to take on—the Bronzino exhibition that, until April 18, was somberly filling up the adjacent rooms was more up the Met's alley—but it is a nice and light one, proper for spring. Granted, the show isn’t about fine art exactly, and it does try to blur, in vain, the line on what fine art is. For instance, the show boasts that these Victorian ladies hatched the idea of synthetic cubism before Braque, Picasso, and the others did, and that they toyed with proportion in meaningful ways. Fine, but they did not do so for the same reasons the cubists did; their actions were not a self-conscious act of the same variety.
The second small show still open at the Met, until June 13, is also about books. It is called “The Art of Illumination: The Limbourg Brothers and the Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry” and shows unbound leaves of the Belles Heures, one of the the greatest illuminated manuscripts ever made, housed in the Met’s Cloisters. Unbound, the leaves are shown individually, sheaved in glass and shown upright, so the pages can be seen back and front. While the book was not made to be seen this way—and the book, unbound into leaves, cannot be seen in order—it is still a rare delight to be near these pages and to observe them under a light that is not fluorescent. Also, there are broad magnifying glasses for use in a bin right at the start of the show, to help you better see the manuscript. (Since they go fast, even during the museum’s slower hours, it is a good idea to bring your own glass.)
The Belles Heures is a great, if small, work because it is the only manuscript decorated with minitatures painted exclusively by the three Limbourg brothers. The brothers died circa 1416 as teenagers soon after completing this devotional book for Jean de France, Duc du Berry, the son, brother, and uncle of three kings of France who gave the Limbourg brothers, for the most part, carte blanche. Much in the manuscript, in fact, was experimental for the already masterful hands of the brothers: They would try out different poses, for instance, to better master the figure (whose skin was, simply, a mixture of white and vermillion pigment). In addition to illustrating many customary stories from the Bible, lives of the saints, prayers to the Virgin, and so forth, there are paintings of contemporary events, notably the Black Plague, with its attendant graves and rat-colored skeletons. Many details fill each lavish page: the upturned head of white-blonde Catherine about to be martyred, two prim fish in a quatrefoil, delicate frames of filigree bounding each miniature, seraphim saturated in vermillion against an equally saturated ultramarine sky, white scrolls rolling out of the dead men’s hands, sounding last messages to the living, and so on.
One more thing to not miss at the Met this spring—and which also leaves soon, May 23—are the 39 mourning figures, or pleurants, also in the Medieval rooms of the Met. They were carved in alabaster to dress the graves of Philip the Good and John the Fearless (the nephew of Jean de France) and his wife. The Mourners, made in-the-round in marble each sixteen inches high, are typically at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Dijon, but, because of renovation there, are presently in New York. In their usual context, the figures stand in frozen procession through arches, as if going through the arcade of a cloister. Unlike the rest of the shows mentioned here, these Mourners can be viewed online fairly well.
So while the queue to see the Picasso exhibition lengthens this spring and summer, make a dash to see these shows before they close. Picasso will be there, and surrounded at all hours with a sizeable audience of fans, until August 1.