Greeks Bearing Gifts

Ancient Greece has been acknowledged – for centuries – as the foundation of Western culture. The Greeks, said Goethe, “dreamt the dream of life best.” Not surprisingly, the early planners of the Metropolitan Museum of Art intended to give Greece a preeminent place in their encyclopedic institution. Upon entering the museum, visitors would come upon two great architectural wings, with the majesty of Egypt to their right and the glory of Greece to their left. The rest of the collection would then seem to flow outward from these ancient springs. In the years before World War I, the architectural firm McKim, Mead and White designed the Greek wing with a soaring, barrel-vaulted gallery at its center, and in 1926, the museum opened a large atrium for Roman art just beyond this gallery. These grandly conceived spaces, together with the smaller ancillary rooms, constituted an extraordinary museum of classical art. After World War II, however, something happened that in retrospect seems utterly bizarre. Ancient Greece – from whence issued much of the best and brightest in Western culture – became the road to … lunch.

The soaring Beaux-Arts gallery was transformed into a undistinguished corridor leading to a noisy museum restaurant, which supplanted the former Roman atrium. Along the edges of the corridor, pieces of classical sculpture were haphazardly displayed; they looked like patients in an overcrowded hospital hallway. Much of the collection was removed from view. The remainder was dispersed to small rooms and displayed with an air of dusty pedantry. (Pots, and more pots.) And yet all the while, the Department of Greek and Roman Art at the Met continued to collect widely and well. It was no exaggeration to say that the finest museum of Greek and Roman art in the Western Hemisphere lay buried at the Met. An oversight, to put it mildly. For the past decade, the Met has been working diligently to recover this museum, conserving the work and planning a return to the original McKim, Mead and White design. This week, a major part of the restoration – the new galleries for archaic and classical Greek art – opens to the public. It looks terrific.

With the daylight streaming down from high above, the long, barrel-vaulted gallery becomes one of those secular cathedrals (like Grand Central or the old Penn Station) that can bring an air of uplifting boundlessness to a cramped city. The room looks better than it ever did, for the Met has faced the walls with the warm French Euville limestone that the McKim, Mead and White design specified – but that could not be used in the original construction because of the outbreak of World War I. Flanking the main room are a series of smaller galleries that chart the progression of Greek art from prehistoric times to the fourth century B.C. All told, about 1,200 works, including bronzes, marbles, painted vases, terra-cottas, and an array of jewelry, coins, and works in glass, are on display. The Met’s curators – notably Carlos A. Picón, the department head – have done a superb job not only in carrying out the restoration but also in presenting the art.

It is worth noting why their galleries work so well, since many museums still arrange works of art in a ham-handed way. To begin with, the galleries are suffused with natural light. Art almost always looks better in daylight. And so do the people looking at art. Your senses become better attuned to art when the light is fresh; you are less subject to museum fatigue. Daylight can damage certain forms of art, of course, but even the artificially illuminated rooms in a museum should, ideally, never be far from daylight. Most of the Greek galleries on the western side of the installation do not have windows, but you are only steps away from the vaulted gallery. The flow of the space, in turn, complements the light. In the great hall, which is very open, you can admire larger pieces of art – and also relax for a moment from the concentrated looking demanded in the smaller galleries to either side. The curators have not overcrowded the spaces in an effort to dot every art-historical i. As a result, each individual work can breathe, and there is no compromise in the quality of the objects on display. Different media are brought together; there never seem to be too many pots in a row. The curators even allow themselves a measure of whimsy. In one case, they present a pair of eyes plucked from an ancient statue. (These floating eyes would have delighted Magritte.) In another, they highlight the humor of the Greeks, showing a vase that looks like a pregnant birdman patting his tummy – probably inspired by Aristophanes’ The Birds. To put it simply, the installation emphasizes the pleasure to be found in Greek art. The history lesson is there, but you are never led by the nose.

The emphasis on pleasure is a serious matter. A space like this – both sensual and orderly – mirrors the rich paradoxes of Greek culture. Today, it seems especially important to remember the robust and sensual side of the Greeks, who are too often confined to words like rationaland naturalistic.Many people mistakenly find the visual art bloodless, reserved, or coldly forbidding. (All that unyielding marble.) Originally, Greek statues were brightly painted, and though that paint is today mostly lost, the stone itself sings in a well-lit environment. The reds and blacks of the pots are gleaming and lush; the colors in the jewelry and the glasswork are vital. Dionysus, too, plays an important part in the installation. Many of the works celebrate the Greek love of wine and revelry. And some are delightfully lewd. This exhibition contains more erections – art historians enjoy using the word ithyphallic – than a SoHo exhibit about cross-dressing S&M fetishists. Perhaps a U.S. senator will want to complain.

In the next phase of the reinstallation, which should be finished in three or four years, the department will take back the Roman atrium – the restaurant is moving – and add a few more small galleries in which to show the rest of the classical collection. There will also be a space for temporary exhibitions. This should prompt the curators to put together the kind of small, imaginative shows, drawn largely from the museum’s own collections, that are a sign of curatorial vitality. According to Philippe de Montebello, the director of the Met, the city now has a new museum. He’s right. An important new museum.

Greeks Bearing Gifts