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Art: The Grand Acquisitor

4 minute read
Robert Hughes

In 1903 J. Pierpont Morgan sat for the most succinct photograph of big money ever taken: Alfred Steichen’s portrait of the financial titan glaring at the intrusive lens, an old, suspicious bull walrus, one hand gripping the chair arm as though about to reduce its mahogany to flinders, highlights glittering sharply on his eyeballs. He looks like a boiler on the verge of explosion. If Morgan had never felt the impulse to collect, this photograph would still have given him a place in the history of art. But it would have been a footnote compared to the one he occupies. Morgan was one of the greatest collectors in American history.

From the middle 1850s when, as a schoolboy in Switzerland and an undergraduate at Göttingen University, he began picking up fragments of stained glass from ruined churches, buying works of art was his obsession. Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts, rare drawings, incunabula (literally, things from the cradle, or books printed before 1501), bookbindings, historical documents and letters—these poured into his vaults, sucked from Europe as by a vacuum cleaner by the limitless power of his funds. After 1906 the collection was housed in the Morgan Library, a Manhattan palazzo designed by McKim, Mead & White that is itself a masterpiece of American Renaissance Revival architecture. After Morgan died in 1913, the buying went on under the direction of Belle da Costa Greene, a woman from Virginia of brisk wit and considerable presence, who expanded and refined the collection for four decades. The library became a public institution in 1924, and this spring it has mounted an exhibition, “Great Acquisitions of 50 Years: 1924-1974,” to celebrate its golden anniversary.

The adjective great, debased in American museum parlance by the relentless way in which curators are apt to apply it to their latest snuffbox, does apply here. The reason is quite simple:

there is no collection in America, and few in Europe, which can match that of the Morgan Library in its designated fields. The present show is, of course, no more than the tip of the Morgan iceberg, roughly 50 examples each from the four categories in which the library excels: autographs, early printed books and particularly illuminated manuscripts and old master drawings.

No Intrusion. In the show are illuminated manuscripts from the 8th century to about 1510. A German chronicle about events from the creation of the world to the death of Charlemagne includes an illustration of a giant Nimrod directing the construction of the Tower of Babel. Even in the compass of a page, Nimrod stands huge and commanding beside the rising tower. In the magnificent Book of Hours painted for Catherine of Cleves about 1440, there is a wildly imaginative image of the Mouth of Hell—three gaping bestial jaws flanked by towers, with sinners and demons scrambling about.

As with manuscripts, so with drawings. The Morgan’s collection was recently fortified by a bequest from one of the greatest collectors of Italian drawings, Janos Scholz. What the library now offers is of almost unparalleled rarity, beginning with a black chalk study of devils—spiky, nervous and of an almost hallucinatory vigor—by the 15th century Artist Luca Signorelli, proceeding through works by Pontormo, Filippino Lippi, Dürer, Fragonard, Bruegel and Blake.

The Morgan continues its role as a storehouse of irreplaceable objects and documents without which our sense of the nobler efforts of visual and literary culture in the past would be drastically blunted. At a time when the role of museums is subject to so many pressures to become teaching institutions or committed to social involvement, this view is sturdily conservative. It means, in the classic sense, preserving everything worth preserving.

The library’s conservatism is reflected in its staffing. The present director, Charles Ryskamp, 55, is only the fourth person to hold the office since the library began. Where Morgan policy epitomizes itself is in the public style which Ryskamp has helped crystallize: devoid of flash and spectacle, sober in its installations, hewing always to the toughest standards of scholarship and historical inquiry, never allowing institutional narcissism to intrude between the audience and the work. One hopes for another 50 years of the same.

Robert Hughes

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