Visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art was one of the few pleasures of Covid.
It’s unlikely anyone will have a similar chance in the future to stand alone in Gallery 825, which boasts seven Van Goghs on a single wall.
I saw the Alice Neel show and another on Dutch Masters. It felt unreal to be in a hall of paintings by Rembrandt and Vermeer without even a guard.
Covid forced the Met to close 202 days last year, slashing attendance to 1.2 million visitors, down from 6.5 million in 2019.
One of the notable changes the Met has made in recent years is the addition of labels that provide historical context and facts about the work.
It’s a major departure from simply providing a title, date and the name of the artist.
Also gone is the ostentatious language. Artist Isabel Kim parodied that vernacular when she created a computer program to generate random faux descriptions:
“This work is a fantastical, environmental machete consisting of drab, cluttered office which is reminiscent of the subject-object hierarchy being destabilized.”
For the most part, the new labels stick to facts, jamming in trivia about the artists, the historical era or the collectors. The details make it memorable.
You walk away with mini-history lessons and a greater appreciation of the art and artists. Practically every label has some extraordinary tidbit. Some I noted during my last visit:
-Gaugin acquired two Van Gogh sunflower paintings and hung them over the bed in his Paris apartment. He sold them to finance his trip to the South Seas.
-Sargent’s portrait of Madame X was ridiculed when it was shown at the Salon of 1884 so the artist kept it for thirty years until he sold it to the Met.
-Sorolla’s portrait of his wife Clotilde was acquired by the Met in 1909 after a legendary show of his work at the Hispanic Society in New York City.
-Renoir married the model he featured in his painting By the Seashore.
-Ilia Efimovich Repin painted a Russian author who committed suicide by throwing himself down a staircase four years after painting was completed.
-Filippino Lippi’s Madonna & Child was painted for the Florentine banker Filippo Strozzi who insisted he use ultramarine blue because it was expensive and would illustrate his wealth.
Some labels are more evocative than others. And the change is not without controversy.
There are critics who argue art “should speak for itself.”
Others say the labels are problematic for what they leave out. For example, there is no mention that Picasso, Gauguin and Balthus preyed on young girls. In a 2012 exhibit the Met was criticized for failing to point out Gertrude Stein’s Nazi sympathies
The Met has obviously gone to great effort to update the labels in the collection. A design firm named Think Design was hired to map out a project that required editing software, templates, a database and printing system to attach them to the wall.
Not every museum agrees it is a good idea. The Frick recently unveiled a temporary show on Madison Avenue and made a point that the art has no descriptive texts.
That may be more “pure,” but I doubt its the future.
People generally want to know more, not less.
I left Gallery 825 at the Met recently having learned that Van Gogh painted twenty self portraits during the two years he spent in Paris because he couldn’t afford a model.
It’s the kind of detail that changes how you feel about the painting. It sticks with you.
It is also the kind of experience that encourages you to come back.