The Metropolitan Museum of Art here has scored impressively once again with its current "The Manchu Dragon: Costumes of China, the Ch'ing Dynasty." It has also assembled two other exhibitions of more than usual interest: "Hans Hofmann: The Renate Series," and, "19th Century French Drawings From the Lehman Collection."
The first of these, to put it simply, is a blockbuster. Entering this dazzling display of costumes and other artifacts from the imperial courts of the Ch'ing dynasty (1644-1911) is like entering a world as foreign to ours as the moon. And yet this world is so human in its implications and its ideals that we can easily reach across the geographical and cultural distances separating us and identify with the men and women who peopled these opulent imperial courts.
For one thing, a very real attempt was made by Diana Vreeland (in association with Jean Mailey), who selected and organized the exhibit, and Jeffrey Daly, who designed it, to give us some idea of what aristocratic life at the Manchu courts was like. In addition to the many magnificent court costumes, articles of clothing, jewelry, furniture, porcelains, screens, hangings, ancestor portraits, Buddhist and Lamaist temple vestments, theatrical outfits, etc., on display, we also find an enclosed miniature pool, a large warrior grouping, a sumptuous court bed, strategically placed stuffed peacocks, dancers in costumes, the Imperial Throne (a very ordinary-looking chair) -- even a tiny, handmade cricket to go with a cricket container.
All this in a highly theatrical atmosphere with dramatic lighting and an appropriately exotic scent.
I loved it. It's not only an exhibition, it's an event. Everything about it , from the concept of the show to the tiniest embroidery on an emperor's robe of state, is impressive, exquisite, and magical.
I recommend it for its fascinating glimpse into the glittering veneer Manchu power and tradition managed to lay over the day-to-day realities of a great nation. Hans Hofmann
If the Manchu exhibition takes us out of this world, the paintings of Hans Hofmann in the museum's 20th Century Galleries will definitely return us to it, for the issues he raises in these paintings are very much of our world.
Displayed in one room, and organized to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his birth, the "Renate Series" consists of nine large and colorful paintings Hofmann dedicated to his wife in 1965, a year before his death. They are, in many ways, the summation of his mature work, and reflect many of the issues of abstract expressionism, of which he was a founding member.
In fact, Hofmann was probably that movement's most vocal spokesman. His talents and importance as a teacher gave him a forum and an opportunity to significantly influence the generation after his. And in deed, judging from the list of his students and the praise they have heaped upon him as a teacher and as a stimulator of their talents, Hofmann must be regarded as one of the two or three most important American teachers of art of this century. The fact that many of his students deviated sharply from his kind of art speaks particularly well for his ability to bring out each individual's unique identity as an artist.
I wish he had been as great a painter. Walking among these paintings, which I remember as veritable explosions of light and energy -- and most particularly of hope -- when they first appeared, I felt that their time had definitely come and gone. They look dated, tired, and a bit shopworn, and left me with the feeling that the passion and the lust for life that had originally animated them had fizzled out; that they were like fireworks that had zoomed into the sky, sparked nobly, but didn't explode.
I truly regret having to write this, for a new Hofmann painting, glimpsed in a gallery or museum in the late 1950s or early '60s, was enough to set me up for days.
But those were different times -- close as they are to us -- with different dreams and goals. For all his historical importance, Hans Hofmann, I'm afraid, wasn't quite the painter that most of his first-generation abstract expressionist contemporaries were. It saddens me to say it, but there it is. French drawings
On the other hand, the exhibition of 19th-century French drawings on view in the museum's Lehman Collection is a gem of a show and includes some of the loveliest drawings to be seen anywhere by Ingres, Delacroix, Daumier, Degas, Seurat, Toulouse-Lautrec, Corot, etc.
Of particular quality and interest are Redon's magnificent charcoal drawing "Pegasus and Bellerophon," Renoir's "Portrait of Mme. Severine," Lautrec's "Le Pas Espagnol," Ingres's "Portrait of Dr. Francois Melier," and all of Henri-Edmond Cross's sparklingly alive watercolor studies.
It is an exhibition that should not be missed.