Three Museum Exhibitions Explore Status and Its Discontents

Does great art necessarily challenge the power symbols of its time? Or is it sometimes enough, for artistic accomplishment, to depict wealth and majesty with the right level of elegance? Three new offerings from Manhattan’s preeminent museums engage these questions by displaying status symbols from different eras. While an assured offering from the Met delves into the workings of one of the great Renaissance dynasties, exhibitions at the Neue Galerie and MoMA suggest different ways of reading the modernist era as an interrogation of powerful, prestigious exteriors.

Views of The Medici: Portraits and Politics at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Photo by Patrick Kennedy)

The Medici: Portraits and Politics, 1512-1570 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through October 11

Devoted to the aristocratic family that shaped Florentine art and politics in the 15th and 16th centuries, this showcase reveals the Medici as they wished to be seen. The focus is the rise of Cosimo I de’ Medici; his image, crafted in bronze by Benvenuto Cellini, ushers visitors into this magisterial display. After working through some of the relatively restrained portraiture of the Florentine republic—a period bookended by the Medici eras of Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449-1492) and of Cosimo himself—the exhibition segues into room upon room of opulence and classicism. Cosimo is eminently recognizable: round face, receding hairline, heavy-lidded yet energetic eyes. He appears now as a Roman conqueror, now as Orpheus, now as himself—different aspects of who he is but not necessarily conflicting ones. The intrigues, the exiles, the assassinations that were part of how Renaissance politics operated are largely left out of the pictures, and a more subversive thesis about portraiture would be best left to the Alice Neel retrospective across the hall.

Views of The Medici: Portraits and Politics at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Photo by Patrick Kennedy)

In truth, a postmodern view of the Medici and their machinations may be beyond the powers of any museum. This is material for canny political historians or at least the Met’s web site, requiring a level of probing narrative that no showcase could really sustain. Some of that material is devilishly good: the bad blood between Cosimo and Michelangelo, for instance, culminated in a lavish Florence-based funeral for Michelangelo—a Medici power play that the right novelist or dramatist could work into a tour de force of irony. Still, the cogency of Renaissance luminaries such as Titian and Raphael is present in canvas after canvas, and the literary achievements of Dante and Vasari (author of Lives of the Poets, and painter of this display’s memorable Six Tuscan Poets) give the show an animating intelligence. Whatever dubious statecraft is in the background, The Medici: Portraits and Politics is a reminder that art does not need to grow dull or turn toxic in the service of authority. For a portraitist of real acumen, power doesn’t corrupt.

Egon Schiele, Stein on the Danube, 1913 (Courtesy of the Neue Gallerie)

Austrian Masterworks at the Neue Galerie through September 5

The Neue Galerie—after a closure that lasted through mid June of this year—is welcoming its visitors back with an exhibition at once charming and subtle, and in those ways perfectly expressive of the Galerie’s sensibility. This museum has never aspired to be a Met in miniature in the manner of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore or, arguably, the Frick Collection a brisk walk away. Instead, it routinely delivers one or two floors of resplendent German, Russian, or Norwegian modernism. With Austrian Masterworks, the Neue Galerie brings together gold-infused canvases from Gustav Klimt and numinous cityscapes from Egon Schiele, along with samples of avant-garde furniture and tableware. Individually, the pieces here reward contemplation and counter-intuition—the task of finding depth in a showman like Klimt, or versatility in a brooder like Schiele.

Gustav Klimt, Park at Kammer Castle, 1909 (Courtesy of the Neue Gallerie)

Though a welcome exhibition, this is not a revelatory one. In fact, Austrian Masterworks invites you to amble among its visual riches; the nearby decorative arts showcase Wiener Werkstätte: Fashion and Accessories has the same opulent style and easy ambience. It is possible—indeed, easy—to wish that the Galerie had re-opened with a bolder gesture—a blowout like Berlin Metropolis or Degenerate Art, or a complex flourish like Munch and Expressionism, to name but a few of the most spectacular from its past. Perhaps, though, it is best to simply enjoy the return, however mild, of an institution like no other. 

Automania at the Museum of Modern Art through January 2

MoMA’s variegated survey of cars as forms of art, sources of pleasure, and symbols of disruption takes its title not from an automobile but from a cartoon about automobiles. That lively animated short, Automania 2000, envisions a dystopian future—expanses of oversized and permanently gridlocked cars as the new American neighborhoods, with corporations airdropping in food, coffee, and tobacco. Lively? Somehow, the 1963 film works past its dissonances of tone and content with simple and sprightly visuals, operating more as a caricature of midcentury consumerism than as a genuinely dire warning about the future. Yet its tone is not the dominant tone of Automania, a show that calls out for attention in so many ways—classic cars in the MoMA sculpture garden, a Picasso sculpture, a Warhol silkscreen—that it barely has a tone at all.

The organizers of Automania have, wisely, sidestepped possible debate about whether cars can be considered art or at least have artistic properties. MoMA’s 1953 exhibition Ten Automobiles began to settle this question in favor of the cars as art stance. A look at the assured dynamism of the Jaguar E-Type in this exhibition is a reminder that car design possesses its own grace, and a look at the found objects elsewhere in MoMA is a reminder that, if chairs and coat racks can grace a museum, a formula-one racer can be in MoMA too.

Instead, the trouble is that the exhibition sprawls—not just across the museum’s entryway and upper galleries, but over sensibilities and possibilities. While Picasso has almost no reason (beyond using a toy car in that sculpture of his) to be here, Warhol could be the starting point for a long, challenging, refreshing journey into Pop Art’s engagement with the automobile. James Rosenquist’s huge, gaudy paintings and John Chamberlain’s crushed car sculptures would, after all, do much to address the underserved part of Automania’s argument—the dark side of automotive technology as a vehicle of pollution, sprawl, and empty posturing. For now, it is possible to marvel in certain of the vehicles on display—a mirror-like Airstream trailer, a worldly Renault, a blocky yet inviting Cistilia 202 GT—to feel a certain romance of the road in their exquisite forms but know that there is something beyond these surfaces.

Top photo: Views of The Medici: Portraits and Politics at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Photo by Patrick Kennedy)