Friday, October 5, 2012

The Met Museum—Bernini Maquettes and Medieval Industrial Design

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Model for the Lion on the Four Rivers Fountain, ca. 1649–50. Galleria dell’Accademia di San Luca, Rome
Photo by Zeno Colantoni, Rome
In the Met Museum's Robert Lehman Wing is a show that perhaps no other institution save possibly the Morgan could assemble: BerniniSculpting in Clay, through January 6. On view are 39 small maquettes and 30 charcoal drawings by Bernini (and a few colleagues), in preparation for his large scale sculptures and monuments. Because they're essentially sketches and on a small scale, they exude spontaneity and a liveliness that is lacking in the finished work. Unfinished, fired clay, they look as if they could've been sculpted yesterday.

Bernini (1598-1680) is one of the great sculptors in history, even if (or maybe because) he lived in the Baroque era, when excess ruled. Ample fabric yardage billows around each figure, and he had a particular knack with draping and enlivening fabric as it personified human movement or became an allegory for external forces such as weather, or political or religious turmoil. The maquettes' diminutive size (most are between 10-20" high) allows a small, close spotlight to exaggerate the shadows and creases that would appear on a much larger scale with the sun acting as the spotlight. He was also able to superbly express dense muscularity in both men and animals, particularly his Model for the Lion on the Four Rivers Fountain.

A number of drawings are on view, showing Bernini's deftness with chiaroscuro in two dimensions. The dynamic of a twisting torso is explored in variations; details of the human body are refined and simplified. Photographs of his completed sculptures and monuments are hung strategically behind the related maquettes, giving an immediate real-world context. It's a compact, thrilling exhibition that shows the Met at its best.

Shaffron of Henry II of France when Dauphin Steel, gold, brass
Franco-Italian, ca. 1490–1500 (redecorated 1539) Rogers Fund, 1904
Speaking of, the Arms and Armor Hall has been refreshed. It's one of my favorite galleries at the Met, a self-contained satellite, a display of medieval industrial design par excellence that encapsulates industrial skill, function, and protection, all while evoking superheroes, chivalry, and royal courts. (MoMA's exhibit including bulletproof wear is the contemporary equivalent.) 

A special exhibition, Bashford Dean and the Creation of the Arms and Armor Department (through September 2013) celebrates the centennial of the department, founded by the intrepid Dean. The main Arms and Armor Hall has been refurbished and freshened, and a superb and exotic horse-and-rider installation has given an exalted spot in the main museum entrance's Great Hall, hanging near a rather dour, mustard-hued Warhol Flowers painting—planets colliding at one of the world's great museums. 

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