Nostalgia is back in fashion at the Met

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 May, 2007, 12:00am

As perhaps befits the new Greek and Roman galleries that have just opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, nostalgia is in the air at New York's grandest museum. Not in the displays of the statues, massive architectural fragments, urns and jewels, nor even in the extra 6,000 objects that have just arrived out of storage. No, one senses it in, of all things, a recent creation: a modest little fountain.

Just after the reopening of the galleries to much fanfare late last month, visitors wandered among the statues of Hercules, Aphrodite and the Three Graces, and occasionally stopped by the fountain to look at the scattering of coins glinting in the water.

It used to be clear that the art of the ancients was the foundation of the Metropolitan Museum. On the left of the entrance lay the displays of Pharaonic Egypt; on the right lay the Greek and Roman galleries, with their evocation of a garden in a Roman villa.

Some time in the 1950s, however, the heart of those Greek and Roman displays was ripped from its home in an atrium created by architects McKim, Mead and White between 1912-26, and replaced with an undistinguished restaurant, along with a Moderne-styled Fountain of the Muses.

The fountain was later drained to provide more seating and over the years the surrounding displays became more and more illogical until, finally, 15 years ago, work began on redesigning the galleries entirely, under the leadership of Carlos Picon, the museum's curator of classical art.

Parts of this project have been finished for some time - the towering, light-filled hallway that is the Mary and Michael Jaharis Gallery, for example, opened in 1999 - but it wasn't until recently that the final work was completed. New rooms have opened adjoining the Jaharis Gallery, and at the culmination of that arcade are the two stories of the Leon Levy and Shelby White Court, the centrepiece of the new design.

Displays of classical art have suffered from different approaches over the years, from being pale and bloodless scholarly tableau to being jazzed up postmodern pastiches of the past. But the Met has found a middle way, and although there's drama in its displays, there's also restraint. Rather than restore the old garden, its precincts are merely evoked, with a dark patterned marble floor providing a foil to the white sculptures.

Light now pours down from a glass skylight onto about 20 Roman sculptures dating from the first century BC to the second century AD. And a rather modern, popular democracy of the gods exists, with heroes such as Dionysus mixing with muses and satyrs and relief portraits of ordinary mortals.

But if it's necessary to be reminded once again that the art of this era is the pinnacle of the culture that museums such as the Met aspired to at their foundation, there's a column from the Temple of Artemis at Sardis, a truncated hunk of Ionic column from about 300BC, sitting in the Jaharis Gallery that is itself supported by slender Ionic columns.

The Met wants to do more than please the populace with its new galleries. It also wants to lay on treasures for scholars, and to that end the offices that used to lie above the atrium have been cleared to make way for new Greek and Roman study galleries as well as displays of smaller examples of Etruscan art. And should the laymen feel overwhelmed by all this, the next gallery has another of the Met's greatest treasures: a chariot with scenes from the life of Achilles, built in the sixth century BC.

There are astonishing prizes dotted throughout these spaces: a vast sandaled foot, the remnant of some gargantuan public monument; the Marble Garland Sarcophagus, from AD 200-225, that was the first object offered to and accepted by the museum and into which visitors once deposited contributions; and a room with an original Roman wall painting of a rainbow-coloured city scene.

So much of the Met's collection is of such flawless quality, the detail on the sculptures still so vivid, that one hesitates to believe that some of the relics are all so old. And yet, visible at the back of that painted room, are metal window frames bent by the sheer force of the explosion from Vesuvius that buried them and preserved those paintings.

Here, history is telescoped, and the end of the classical era seems almost to have occurred just before the beginning of our own. The Met can't be asked to achieve much more.