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The Morgan Library

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A week ago we were in New York to celebrate my mother’s 94th birthday. What to do after the festive lunch at La Grenouille and leaving my parents? Well, we were on 52nd, with the Morgan Library just 16 blocks down Madison. Why not stop by? We did.

Good decision.

I see that I wrote a post about the Morgan in October 2010, on the occasion of the post-restoration reopening of the historic 1906 building that Charles McKim designed to serve as J.P. Morgan’s office and library. Reviewing it, I see that Gail and I last visited almost exactly three years before, when we were back in New York for my father’s 90th birthday. The Renzo Piano addition to the library was still new. Joel had flown back to Boston the day we visited. Last week we all went.

What did we see? Well, first, of course, the restored 1906 building.

In 2010 the Morgan restored the interior of the 1906 library to its original grandeur. A new lighting system was installed to illuminate the extraordinary murals and decor of the four historic rooms. Intricate marble surfaces and applied ornamentation were cleaned, period furniture was reupholstered, and original fixtures—including three chandeliers removed decades ago—were restored and reinstalled. A late-nineteenth-century Persian rug (similar to the one originally there) was laid in the grand East Room. The ornate ceiling of the librarian’s office, or North Room, was cleaned, and visitors are able to enter the refurbished space—now a gallery—for the first time. New, beautifully crafted display cases throughout the 1906 library feature selections from the Morgan’s collection of great works of art and literature from the ancient world to modern times.

You can read more about the restoration here and here. I especially love the “intricately carved cylinder seals produced by Mesopotamian sculptors” in the North Room.

Next we headed to one of the temporary exhibitions, The Little Prince: A New York Story. The description:

Since its publication seventy years ago, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince has captivated millions of readers throughout the world. It may come as a surprise that this French tale of an interstellar traveler who comes to Earth in search of friendship and understanding was written and first published in New York City, during the two years the author spent here at the height of the Second World War.

As he prepared to leave the city to rejoin the war effort as a reconnaissance pilot, Saint-Exupéry appeared at his friend Silvia Hamilton’s door wearing his military uniform. “I’d like to give you something splendid,” he said, “but this is all I have.” He tossed a rumpled paper bag onto her entryway table. Inside were the manuscript and drawings for The Little Prince, which the Morgan acquired from her in 1968.

Focusing on the story’s American origins, this exhibition features twenty-five of the manuscript pages—replete with crossed-out words, cigarette burns, and coffee stains—and all forty-three of the earliest versions of drawings for the book. Also on view are rare printed editions from the Morgan’s collection as well as personal letters, photographs, and artifacts on loan from the Saint-Exupéry estate, private collections, and museums and libraries in France and the United States.

The Little Prince: A New York Story is the first exhibition to explore in depth the creative decisions Saint-Exupéry made as he crafted his beloved story that reminds us that what matters most can only be seen with the heart.

We would have gotten more out of the exhibition if we had ever read The Little Prince.

Across the hall was A Collective Invention: Photographs at Play. Wow! We were so fortunate to stumble in. It was a stunner.

A Collective Invention: Photographs at Play signals the debut of photography as a curatorial focus at the Morgan. With over eighty works from more than two dozen collections arranged into a surprising chain of visual associations, the exhibition explores the many ways of interpreting a photograph and pays tribute to the unique role played by the creative collector. Each photograph in the exhibition’s “collective invention” shares a visual or conceptual quality with the piece to its left, another with the one to its right. Embodying photography’s rich history and wide range of applications in science, art, propaganda, journalism, and self-promotion, A Collective Invention celebrates a medium that mirrors the energy and complexity of modern life.

The photographs were wonderful on their own, ranging in time from the mid-nineteenth century to today, in location around the world, and in subject as wide as you can imagine. Here a photo taken by Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) in 1858 of the Lidell girls, Alice on the right. There a photo of Lenny Bruce in court in 1962 with a tape recorder. And one of my favorites, an array of photographer baseball cards.

The visitor can enjoy the photos for their intrinsic merits or add to the pleasure by observing the thematic pairings, each photo indeed connected obviously or subtly to the one on its left and, in an entirely different way, to the one on its right.

The exhibition webpage has a slide show with selected photos. I urge you to look through it. Better yet, if you’re in New York by May 18, see the exhibition itself. See also Ken Johnson’s review in the NYT.

Here’s the idea: Look at a photograph, and zero in on one element. It can be obvious or incidental, formal or conceptual. Then find another photograph that contains something similar to what you spotted in the first image. Now identify something in the second photograph — again, important or trivial — and discover something like that in a third picture. Repeat ad infinitum.

[snip]

Following this herky-jerky, daisy-chain path through the whole show is not only amusing, but also has some philosophical payoffs. Most immediately, it unsettles customary habits of visual consumption. The labels prompt you to examine aspects and details of pictures that might otherwise pass unnoticed, fostering an alertness to both what you’re looking at and how you’re looking at it.

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Categories: Museums, Photography
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