May 25, 2006

Renzo Piano and the Morgan Library

With much fanfare, the newly rennovated Morgan Library & Museum re-opened on April 29th. It had been closed to the public for 3 years while the Directors orchestrated a major re-design of the reception area and exhibition galleries. The star of the show is Renzo Piano, the Italian architect probably best known in New York for the new New York Times building presently under construction but with a world-wide reputation as a master of contemporary museum design.

One enters the Morgan on Madison Avenue, through a marble and glass atrium with a stand of bamboo visible on the far end. It is light and airy, but there is no clear direction for the museum visit. After the ticket counter, one has 3 choices where to begin: the original mansion featuring Mr. Morgan's sumptuous study and library, the petite "Clare Eddy Thaw Gallery" showcasing the superb medieval collection, or the new exhibition spaces intended for temporary shows. Also located in the new entrance is a café (20 minute wait for a table for 2 for lunch) and downstairs is an auditorium and education center.

The opening exhibition is entitled "Masterworks of the Morgan" and features 300 of the finest examples of drawings, prints, books and manuscripts from the Morgan's outstanding collection. Strongest in the Old Master era, the Morgan's selection of drawings and prints represents the best of the best. The gallery of drawings features works by Leonardo, Raphael, Tiepolo, Canaletto, Rembrandt and Rubens. A pen and ink drawing by Hendrick Goltzius (Dutch 1558-1617) "Young Man Holding a Skull and a Tulip", 1614, so closely resembles an engraving one has to look twice, and carefully, before realizing that it is indeed a drawing. The collection continues with works by Gainsborough, Turner, Constable and William Blake (1757-1827) whose "When the Morning Stars Sang Together", 1804, from the Book of Job, is as fresh today in both color and subject as it was 200 years ago. More modern examples include drawings by Van Gogh, Degas, Cézanne and Egon Schiele's exquisite "Portrait of the Artist's Wife, Seated, Holding Her Right Leg", a crayon and gouache from 1917.

The visitor then moves into the gallery devoted to Illuminated Manuscripts and Books. Being as Mr. Morgan was a true bibliophile, this collection is superb. With outstanding examples of printed works from Bibles to livres d'artistes, one can see the biggest single private collection of 15th Century Milanese Tarot cards, Volume 1 (on display from the complete set of 20) of Edward Curtis' photojournal "The North American Indian", 1907-1930, and the original "Frankenstein" manuscript by Mary Shelley, all in one room!

Moving upstairs one enters the Engelhard Gallery which currently features an exhibition of original music and literary manuscripts. The most stunning object is an original score by Mozart, composed in 1782, and given to Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria for his birthday in 1865, in a presentation case of silver and velvet worthy of its recipient. Also interesting are original drawings for the Babar children's books, notes and drawings by Alexander Calder and a hand written manuscript by Jane Austin.

The "new" Morgan is indeed splendid and well worth a visit, however, in all honesty, I was under-whelmed by the much touted Piano addition. Basically no more exciting than a hotel lobby, it remains the original collection assembled by Mr. Pierpont Morgan that astonishes the observer with its quality, connoisseurship and intellectual stimulation.

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