Last year, the Metropolitan Museum of Art unveiled one of its most brilliant exhibits: a showcase of the painfully beautiful early photography of Alfred Stieglitz, his colleague Edward Steichen, and their disciple—and later, colleague—Paul Strand. Judging by the Met’s fall lineup—Stieglitz and his Artists: Matisse to O’Keeffe and Photographic Treasures from the Collection of Alfred Stieglitz—it must also have been one of the most lucrative. The photographs from last year’s exhibit—whose subjects, in their tragic optimism, have more of a relationship to the painting of the 19th century than the photography of the 20th—were nostalgic, raw, romantic, heartbreaking, and entirely emotional, which is why it’s a bit of a letdown to go to the new Met shows expecting the same thing.
Of course, if you really care about art, you shouldn’t go to one exhibit expecting the kind of emotional crisis you experienced in another. But, by the same token, each good exhibit should be something of a revelation, even if you know the work well. Stieglitz and his Artists is almost entire devoid of relevation. The show’s values are mostly curatorial (shocker!), and it seems to try to make the point that from the Romanticism of Stieglitz’s photography eventually blossomed the fully unromantic beauty of Modernism. The show culminates with the most radical departure from Stieglitz’s work: the art of his wife, Georgia O’Keeffe, whose vaginal flowers and skulls were the feministic result (as some see it) of her breaking away from her husband and embracing a more honest aesthetic. When they were together, Stieglitz devoted an entire series to visually dissecting her, photographing isolated parts of her naked body as a study, which seems today both worshipful and cold.
The contrast in this case is biographical. O’Keeffe’s liberated work closes out the exhibit, with an entire room dedicated to her. On the way to O’Keeffe are artists such as Marsden Hartley (whom Stieglitz photographed), Henri Matisse (whose pieces he collected), Pablo Picasso, John Marin, and Charles Demuth. It all makes sense, if only chronologically, but the idea of assembling the “collection of so-and-so” seems to be an excuse to dig up and place side-by-side works from the past that may or may not have anything in common besides time period and taste. One (rich) individual’s taste, that is.
All of this isn’t to say don’t go—the show, of course, has its high points, among them a full-sized “Portrait of a German Officer.”
The exhibit more in line with the tastes of Stieglitz-Steichen-Strand nostalgists is the sister exhibit in the cubbyhole room at the Met (tucked into a corner of the Rodin/Pre-Raphaelite room—good luck finding it!). Photographic Treasures is a more contemporary collection of early photographs, featuring bizarre and cinematic selections from photographers working in the same vein as Stieglitz. The prints have an instant continuity, and they are shockingly beautiful, from George Seeley‘s “The Pines Whisper” to the Art-Nouveau-ish “Summer” by Frank Eugene, to the Passion play-inspired work of F. Holland Day, the nudes of Clarence H. White, and even some cameo appearances by Steichen. After the cold curation of the larger exhibit, it’s something to warm the bloodstream, and the difference between the two seems to be no more or less than the difference between art patronage and creative study.
For those looking to get their heart broken by the only kind of beauty that can do that, skip the main course and go to the side exhibit. And honestly, what are you doing at the Met if you don’t want to get your heart broken?