The Met, Unexpectedly

Summer is always a great time to visit The Metropolitan Museum of Art and catch up on the shows you didn’t have time for in the spring. This season, the museum is featuring a number of exhibits that underscore one of The Met’s more unusual strengths, its ability to surprise.

Take, for instance, “British Silver: The Wealth of a Nation” (through Jan. 20). (After you see the silver and gilt silver treasures, you’ll want to take ’em.) This is a small show in a gallery leading to the Lehman Wing that is known for its small shows of decorative European arts. But like so many of its predecessors, “British Silver” – about the heyday of silver and gold work in England (16th-18th century) – packs a wallop. Not only are the pieces exquisitely crafted but the narratives behind the workmanship are fascinating. Again, you might be tempted to walk through or by it. Don’t.

Similarly, “Bellini, Titian, and Lotto” (through Sept. 3) is a small show. Yet everything in it is choice as the exhibit features rare loans from the Accademia Carrara, a jewel of a museum in Bergamo, just northeast of Milan.  The richness of the colors, the brilliantly understated use of gold to capture halos and the threading of garments, the dazzling savoring of perspective, then still a relatively new phenomenon:  All of this makes the exhibit a treat. But pay special attention to the artists’ gift for storytelling. In Lorenzo Lotto’s “The Stoning of Saint Stephen” (1513-16), the martyr remains an oasis of Christian serenity and classical plasticity, praying to his Heavenly Father (in the form of a daisy-like sun) as hatred, violence and cruel indifference surround him. This is a masterwork of character and drama.

Large shows impress as well. You would expect an exhibit called “Dürer and Beyond: Central European Drawings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1400-1700” (through Sept. 3) to be masterful in its use of line and shading, its unsparing depiction of human nature. But this show contains revelatory works that grab and hold you. Has there ever been a “Saint Catherine” (circa 1530) quite like the one by Lucas Cranach the Elder and workshop – so demure, so poignant in her youthfulness and calm in the face of the wheel of torture that lies in wait in the backdrop?

Hans Baldung offers us an extraordinarily sensual “Ecstatic Christ” (1510-11), who reaches with one hand toward his genitals as he twists away from the viewer as if glimpsing something we cannot see. (The work seems somewhat shocking until you realize that depictions of Jesus emphasizing his sexuality – and thus, his humanity – were commonplace in the Renaissance, as per the scholarship of Leo Steinberg and the exhibit’s handsome catalog.)

In any event, such works invite you to stop and consider, and isn’t that what you want to do in the long, hot summer?

For more, check out metmuseum.org and WAG’s July issue, “Going for the Gold.”

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