The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Masterpiece Paintings

Image of The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Masterpiece Paintings
Release Date: 
September 12, 2016
Publisher/Imprint: 
Skira Rizzoli
Pages: 
544
Reviewed by: 

“The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Masterpiece Paintings is a book ready for heirloom status. From prehistory to contemporary art, the book provides an encyclopedic array of art, from the famous to the anonymous. The wealth contained therein—visual and textual—is priceless.”

Founded in 1870 and boasting an encyclopedic collection, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is an institution that is larger than life. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Masterpiece Paintings by Kathryn Calley Galitz represents a larger than life coffee table book showcasing “500 works, 5,000 years.” Galitz works at the Met as “both an educator and a curator for major international exhibitions.” With this background for educating the public, she has provided a magnificent selection of 500 works spanning from pre-history to 2014. Her curatorial acumen has produced a book combining visual excitement and radical showmanship.

As Galitz states in the introduction, she had to contend with two major questions when putting together the book. These questions are: “What is a painting?” and “What is a masterpiece?” Neither pose an easy answer. Anything exhibited in the Met immediately receives the burdens of institutional prestige and legitimacy. What gets shown? Who gets left out? And depending on the whims of the public, a work may be seen as a timeless classic or as pornographic trash. With terrorist groups engaging in cultural vandalism and politicians threatening to cut off funding to museums, the Met carries the additional weight of global cultural repository.

Amid these conflicts and controversies, Galitz answers these two important questions. For the first, “What is a painting?” “I have chosen in this book to define as broadly as possible in order to challenge the limited notion of a painting as a flat, two-dimensional object.” For the masterpiece question, “it is indeed a loaded term. . . . We each have our own idea of what constitutes greatness, just as, over time, the canon of acknowledge masterpieces has been subject to the vagaries of taste—both scholarly and popular.” She goes on, “In the texts that accompany each work, I have endeavored to express, albeit in brief, its significance as a work of art—what makes it a ‘masterpiece’—and to focus on its painterly aspects, even though some of the works may also invite ethnographic or archaeological readings.”

The Met: Masterpiece Paintings is divided into four major time periods. Before 1450, 1450–1750, 1750–1900, and After 1900. Galitz uses these divisions of time to do something simultaneously radical and elementary: She puts the paintings in chronological order without privileging any specific geographical location.

In this case, the book does something the museum can’t. When turning the pages there are instances where “Western” and “Eastern” art sit side by side. It reveals the arbitrary and nakedly Eurocentric design schemas used by art museums. Galitz’s editorial reconfiguration de-otherizes non-Western art works. Pluralistic and egalitarian, The Met: Masterpiece Paintings offers a visual encyclopedia to world art with a positive philosophy underlying its arrangement.

At the end of each section Galitz pens explanatory texts for each art work. An epic undertaking, she provides enlightening commentary from the work’s historical background to the specific painterly technique used.

The first work, “Storage Jar with Mountain Goats,” stretches the concept of “painting.” From Central Iran c. 3800–3700 CE, it is “a remarkable and rare example of prehistoric painting.” (NB: The book uses the reckoning devices of B.C. and A.D.) In another representative instance, one page has “Allegory of the Catholic Faith,” by Johannes Vermeer. On the opposite page, “Beauty of the Kanbun Era,” from an unknown artist of the Edo period (1615–1868). These juxtapositions, at first jarring, tease out uncanny parallels and contrasts. “Allegory” and “Beauty” both seem different and random, but they soon reveal similar studies in the female form.

This oversize coffee table book, itself heavy to lift and cumbersome to lug around, is a monument to the book-making craft. The oversize pages allow for effortless poring over details. The revolution in digital color make The Met: Masterpiece Paintings a pleasure simply to look at. The explanatory text further enhances the enjoyment.

While there will undoubtedly be discussions and arguments about representation, Galitz succeeded in her task. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Masterpiece Paintings is a book ready for heirloom status. From prehistory to contemporary art, the book provides an encyclopedic array of art, from the famous to the anonymous. The wealth contained therein—visual and textual—is priceless.