Alienation versus destruction

From a photograph looking north toward The Cloisters, taken a month before it opened in May 1938

Timothy B Husband “Creating the Cloisters”:
The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, v. 70, no. 4 (Spring, 2013)

Published in 2013 to mark the 75th anniversary of The Cloisters in New York, “Creating the Cloisters” documents the origins, development during the 1920s and ’30s and eventual opening of this ‘landmark’ museum, its unveiling taking place the year before war ripped Europe apart for the second time in two decades. The Cloisters is the branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art “dedicated,” as it proclaims, “to the art, architecture, and gardens of medieval Europe.” Sited at the city’s highest point on the northern tip of Manhattan, the museum overlooks the Hudson River and the Palisades on the opposite bank, and is regarded as a pre-eminent jewel in New York’s crown. But a little over eighty years ago this site was largely a bare rock with a scatter of unrelated buildings.

Timothy Husband, curator in the Met’s Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters, is well placed to recount the genesis of this branch of the museum. He begins his account with two contrasting characters, John D Rockefeller Jr and sculptor George Grey Barnard. Barnard had been collecting works of art and items of architecture at the beginning of the century, eventually housing them in what was to become known as Barnard’s Cloisters on Washington Heights. As Husband explains, J Pierpont Morgan had largely created an appetite for Gothic and medieval art by loaning part of his art collection to the Met; when it went on show in early 1914 the public’s enthusiasm for the period’s treasures was further encouraged when Barnard’s collection opened later in the year at his Cloisters.

Initially, Rockefeller had no such enthusiasm for such ‘primitive’ works; but as time went on, Barnard’s attempts to persuade Rockefeller to buy and display his Gothic pieces in a new building — though long and protracted — bore fruit. Husband tracks the intricacy of this pas de deux with its offers and deals and gamesmanship. The outcome was that Rockefeller not only acquired these and other pieces but also commissioned a new building to incorporate both salvaged architecture and medieval artworks, all to be situated in a prepared landscape that was to be known as Fort Tryon Park. Medieval cloisters, windows and portals were sympathetically arranged in a complex of structures based on European — principally French and Spanish — models. Objets d’art, ranging from stained glass to tapestries, crucifixes and frescoes, were then to be displayed within those spaces; and quiet areas — gardens as well as cloisters — generously were incorporated to enhance the visitor experience.

Husband also documents the ups and downs of commissioning the structures, with architects Charles Collens and Joseph Breck bringing different strengths to the evolving museum buildings. Sadly Breck, who had contributed so much, died in 1933 on a trip to Europe, and so didn’t get to witness the triumphant opening in May 1938. The resulting edifice, as can be gauged by the wealth of photos and architects’ drawings displayed in this Bulletin, was a triumph of art and taste, sympathetically complementing the centuries-old pieces incorporated within the whole.

That so much of Europe’s heritage thus found its way safely across the Atlantic is miraculous, bearing in mind those careless stewards in France, Germany and Spain who didn’t overvalue their relics; that war and development could have wiped all trace of them from the face of the earth; and the possibility that a lesser collector might have kept them solely for private viewing or pure investment, locked away from the public eye. As for the ethics of such work changing hands, Husband doesn’t debate them — why should he in such a short work as this? — but of course there is a balance to be kept, hinging on  whether ‘alienation’ counts for more than possible destruction or disappearance. Whatever one’s thoughts are on the political and financial power of the moneyed elite, the world must surely be grateful for any philanthropic instincts they might possess, without which collections like The Cloisters would never exist.

The Cloisters museum in Fort Tryon Park, Manhattan, New York City, seen from the northeast 2013. Credit: Beyond My Ken (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

• I’m very grateful to Lizzie Ross for sending me a hard copy of this. You may also like to know that the out-of-print 48-page illustrated booklet is available as a pdf file from
http://resources.metmuseum.org/resources/metpublications/pdf/creating_the_cloisters.pdf

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16 thoughts on “Alienation versus destruction

  1. Thank you for this and for the link, I have downloaded the booklet and will have a read tonight, had a sneaky peek, the stained glass window is amazing.:) Yes we should be grateful for museums such as this one, at least we get to visit and see all the wonderful treasures. I have quite strong feelings about private collectors and investors, which I will not go into here, but I am sure you understand 🙂

    1. I do understand, Lynne! It’s interesting, though, how the world has largely evolved — from individuals having huge wealth and power (as in medieval Europe) with the ability to do as they liked with what they held and lowly individuals having no say in it all, to the notion of a public investment in a nation’s patrimony and heritage. Treasures are saved “for the nation”, museums, art galleries and great houses are open to all, either free or on payment of an affordable fee.

      And yet all of this public access would not be possible without patronage or corporate sponsorship or the will of an elected body. Even charitable bodies like the National Trust are superintended by ‘the great and the good’. In a sense they still control those ‘national treasures’ as they have always done. Is that a good or a bad thing?

      Yes, those German windows are amazing!

      1. Yes it is interesting when you think of it in that way. I think is a good thing, because as you have said, without them access would not be possible….and they do talk individuals into showing their treasures once and a while. It does make you wonder what other treasures there are, behind closed doors and also ones yet to be found 🙂

        1. Probably quite a lot more than we realise or even imagine: think for example of all those stolen central European artworks salted away during and after the last war which experts are still trying to trace or reclain!

          1. I know, thats what I was thinking about. I wonder if any of it is sold on the black market and no one ever hears of it, maybe one day it will all come to light….I hope so 🙂

    1. I envy you, Annabel, not just for having visited NYC but in particular for your visit to this site — and in spring too, with all its promise for the coming year. Not sure how I’d feel about visiting the US now in the light of recent political events.

    1. Glad to supply some background for you, Lory!

      I suspect they, the rich, often do so because of the tax breaks offered as much as for public relations and lasting fame — less out of pure altruism, I suspect. Whatever the motivation at least we do profit from it.

  2. I’m so glad to know you enjoyed reading about the Cloisters, Chris. Living so close to it, I sometimes feel it’s my private time machine to the Middle Ages. Special exhibits there have ranged from medieval playing cards and the Lewis Chessmen to a sound installation of Janet Cardiff’s Forty Part Motet. The issue of alienation comes to mind each time I walk around this museum — buildings somehow retain ties to the past that paintings quickly lose. I think it’s because paintings connect me to artists, whereas buildings connect me to places. At any rate, I hope you can make it to NYC (currently a sanctuary city) to view this museum.

    1. Thanks again for sending it, Lizzie! I had a quick skim through when you first sent it but recently decided it was well past time to give it my full attention!

      Such a lovely resource and, for you, a private time machine. It’s the same for us, living now in an 18C townhouse in a settlement developed in the Middle Ages, complete with medieval church and castle ruins dating back more than seven centuries. Oh, and a 2000+ year old hillfort and a Neolithic tomb within a short distance! But having such a gorgeous exhibition space on your doorstep, that’s marvellous — and I remember you saying about the Janet Cardiff motet and how magical it was.

      Alienation: I was using the term in the medieval legal sense of removing property from an owner claiming perpetual rights over it. (Presumably from Latin via Norman French ‘a-lien’, meaning something like ‘removing a connection’.) But, yes, I can see that portable objects are easier to ‘alienate’, though in this case the architectural items have also been ported away from their original position!

      NYC, like London, is so intrinsically multicultural and cosmopolitan that it has relatively little fear of aliens. And that’s despite 9/11 for you, and 7/7 and the latest London atrocity for citified Brits. Sadly though, there are enough extremists of all persuasions to make us fear for all humanity.

  3. I didn’t grow up with much money, but my mom made sure we took advantage of museums and musical events when she could. I can’t tell you how they opened up my little world to be able to see in person history and beauty. Those experiences enhanced my life. So, I guess I would say, I don’t mind if private people have (and yes, buy) what we might call the world’s riches as long as they can be viewed by anyone.

    When I visited The Cloisters, I was impressed by so many things that brought the past to life, like the Medieval herb garden with examples of what the herbs would have been used for. Another was the exhibit on reliquaries, which I have a macabre interest in (one memorable example was an ulna from a saint. The arm was made out of gold with a little door you could open to see the bone in its anatomical place)! Sadly, the Unicorn Tapestry was being loaned out 😦

    There is so much intrigue, power-playing and scandals in the world of art. It is both fascinating and a little scary. And then there is the whole morality of who has the rights to it, really? And that’s a whole other topic of conversation!

    1. I really applaud the 19C instincts that gave rise to ‘national’ galleries and museums (even if sometimes they were a little too stuffed with treasures plundered from other cultures). Before that those who — like you and me in later times — were were more on the ‘have-not’ end of the spectrum would have had to make their own culture with limited resources or beg for crumbs from the high table.

      Now of course, despite straitened times, we’re able to enjoy much that would have been the sole domain of the few. The opposite of the ‘democratic deficit’ I suppose!

      Reliquaries, now those can be weird, can’t they, especially when they take the shape of body parts! Myself, I favour the ones that look like shrines or bejewelled dolls’ houses. I particular like the Dark Age Celtic ones but the tradition did carry on through the Middle Ages.

      Shame you missed seeing the iconic Unicorn Tapestry — maybe another time? 🙂

      1. Yes, those golden-jeweled types are beautiful and mostly what I have seen in the past. I remember, after studying them in school, I first saw them in person in Chicago at the Art Institute. I was captivated! However, they also had a digit of St. John the Baptist that you could see through a glassed section of one of the shrine types and that clinched the deal for me. Gosh, I sound weird lol

        “Now of course, despite straitened times, we’re able to enjoy much that would have been the sole domain of the few. The opposite of the ‘democratic deficit’ I suppose!”

        And I am thankful!

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