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A Unique Summer Exhibition: Oberlin Works at the Met

If any of the summer season's exhibitions can be described as "under the radar," it's surely "Side by Side: Oberlin's Masterworks at the Met," which places loans of 19 paintings and one sculpture amid the Metropolitan Museum of Art's own masterworks. In a less blockbuster-oriented age, summer shows at the Met consisted of loans from private collections. As curator Claus Virch wrote about the 1967 Summer Loan Exhibition in the Met's Bulletin that season, it "takes its shape from what New Yorkers collect . . . mirrors the taste of our time and our place, and this taste favors the French school of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. . . ." Of course now Impressionist paintings are saved for in-season blockbusters. Moreover, museums are a bit more careful about loans from private collections whose potential for sale might be enhanced by such an exhibition, and saving personal Manhattan insurance expenses while the collectors are off in the Hamptons or Cap d'Antibes is also now considered unseemly. Mr. Virch wrote about the Met's late director, James Rorimer, who was "asked on what principle the exhibition was arranged. The only guiding line is always the desire to show the pictures to their best advantage. . . . After Labor Day, like children returning from camp, they go home again. For the next ten months only privileged guests will enjoy them." "Side by Side" is very different. The Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College has long served as much more than an excellent small public museum. It has been intimately involved with art history and academic programs at this choice Ohio college, and has also served to attract distinguished art historians for several generations; the great Dutch Baroque scholar and émigré from Nazi Germany, Wolfgang Stechow, was among those who burnished the college's image when he taught at Oberlin from 1940 to 1963. Since the museum is closed for renovations, these loans to the Met can provide scholars with new contexts for seeing the works, while also enhancing the Met's own collection displays. Because the loans are integrated with works in the Met, related works being shown together, it's a more challenging, but no less satisfying, kind of special exhibition. What better way to revisit the familiar European paintings galleries and check on how familiar these works really are? Can you spot the loans immediately, or will you need assistance—generously provided by the museum's brochure with its map? Probably the most spectacular of the Oberlin loans is "St. Sebastian Tended by Irene" (1625) by Hendrick ter Brugghen, shown near the Met's own ter Brugghen. This tour de force, reflecting the influence of Caravaggio's dramatic painting style of a generation earlier, shows us the saint in a kind of Christ-like Pietà with a powerful diagonal in which the right arm shoots upward, while Irene ever so gently tries to remove an arrow. The contrast of forces and emotions is accentuated by the intense light and shadow that propels the image at us. The great 16th-century oil on panel "Fountain of Life," by an unidentified Spanish painter, is shown near the Met's Van Eyck paintings, demonstrating the powerful impact of the great Netherlandish painter's influence; the Gothic architectural setting, with several levels of figures, sits against a sublimely toned blue night sky that might remind you of René Magritte, and this magnificent work easily holds its own with the Met's paintings. Although the loan paintings are generously spread around the Met's galleries, I found myself focusing on the visual issues they share among themselves. Thus "Dovedale by Moonlight" (1784-85), by Joseph Wright of Derby, has forceful diagonals and a seductive night sky, with relationships as well to "Viaduct at l'Estaque" (1882) by Cézanne—strongly suggesting that Oberlin curators and faculty must have had lots of opportunities for juxtaposing works for study, something that great public museums seldom do. True to the Met's old tradition of summer shows, the popular French painters are not neglected. The lovely early Parisian cityscape "Garden of the Princess, Louvre" (1867), by Monet, is paired with the Met's signature Monet, "Garden at Sainte-Adresse," from the same year. But this very judicious selection of loans demonstrates the breadth of Oberlin's holdings in 20th-century art as well. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner is represented by his "Self-Portrait as a Soldier" (1915)—a tough, if depressing, image of the artist in his studio around the time he was recruited for World War I; there is nothing of the insouciant brave soldier in the image of this man with a cigarette dangling from his lips, and with a missing right hand. The sole sculpture of this loan exhibition, Kirchner's "Standing Female Nude" (1919), exemplifies the artist's interest in African art, although it also evokes something about late medieval German sculpture. The New York School painters are represented by strong examples of work by Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb and Barnett Newman. The characteristic Newman "zip" painting, "Onement, 1949," is an exceptionally elegant composition in black and white. By showing Rothko and Gottlieb with paintings executed the same year, 1943, and also using the biomorphic and surrealist forms out of which they would eventually develop their signature works, the Met's curator, Maryan Ainsworth, and Oberlin curator Andria Derstine, along with the Allen's director, Stephanie Wiles, have cleverly chosen to assert that this is a collection very deserving of hanging alongside works at the Met. Mr. Freudenheim, a former art museum director, served as the assistant secretary for museums at the Smithsonian Institution.
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