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Images that Become History

It is my hope that museums will continue the trend that many are following of creating more and more detailed and extensive Web sites based on their special exhibits. I don't care if they wait to put pictures on the Internet until after the show has ended, so that everyone has had a chance to pay some money to show up in person. The fact is that I cannot actually go to the Met, the Albertina, the Musée Maillol, the Hermitage nearly as often as I like (except in my dreams where I figure as the jetsetting culture czar appointed by the President). So please, Mr. Curator or Ms. Curator, put it all on the Internet, and I will blog about it.

Two exhibitions at the Met have caught my eye, making me think that Manhattan is one of my favorite places to visit in the fall. The first opens next Tuesday (Treasures of a Lost Art: Italian Manuscript Painting of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, through February 1, 2004). You can read a, sadly, imageless preview of the show by Souren Melikian (Middle Ages' Surreal Treasures, September 27) in the International Herald Tribune. As a musicologist, one of my areas of specialization is Gregorian chant, so I spend a lot of time looking at pictures of medieval manuscripts and, when I get the chance, the real thing. You know a text, musical or literary, is precious when someone took the time and expense to copy it by hand. The decoration, not just the glorious illuminated pictures that are part of this show but the everyday doodling and figuration that fills such codices, never fails to thrill me. I'll let you know more of what I can learn about this show.

Henri Matisse, La Danse with Nasturtiums II, 1912, Metropolitan Museum of ArtThe other exhibit at the Met that has come to my attention is The Dawn of Photography: French Daguerreotypes, 1839–1855, which will close on January 4, 2004. An article (Ingres's Nude May Be Lost, but Her Afterimage Lingers, by Vicki Goldberg, September 21) in the New York Times has an image of the daguerrotype of a nude portrait by Ingres, apparently of his wife, what strikes me as an intensely personal painting, which has been lost for 150 years. Some readers may recall my post about the nude in realist painting as a form of pornography (see post on July 28, A Whole New Perspective on Realism), to which historical trend this painting seems to be related. It is also interesting as a document of an artist's work life. The painting was photographed on an easel, behind which one can make out Ingres's portrait of Madame Moitessier (from 1851, now here in the National Gallery). This reminds me of a favorite painting by Matisse, "La Danse" with Nasturtiums (from 1912, now owned by the Pushkin Museum of Fine Art in Moscow). A second version of this painting, which shows one of Matisse's canvases leaning up against the wall of his studio, from (where else?) the Met, is shown here. Although self-reference is not unusual in Matisse's paintings and has been used by artists from many historical periods, the photograph as the only evidence of a lost painting fascinates me. This is all the more poignant in the face of the apparent decline and fall of the entire medium of film photography, seen in the impending changes at Kodak (see Kodak to Stress Digital Business and Cut Dividend by Claudia H. Deutsch, New York Times, September 26). No less shocking is the phasing out of the slide projector, noted by Robert Fallon at Artblog (see post on September 20, Slide Divide).