It is my theory that when the economy is down museums turn to their own collections to put together shows. This is actually a very good thing for the museum-going public as there are often treasures tucked in the bowels of museum storage or hanging in obscure galleries that one would never have the opportunity to see if curators were not forced to look in their own storerooms rather than secure loans from outside sources.
This is certainly the case now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art where, for the first time ever, they are displaying a major portion of the Alfred Stieglitz Collection bequeathed after the artist's death in 1946. This is a two-part exhibition underscoring the remarkable achievements of Stieglitz as both a photographer in his own right and as an arbiter of Modern Art.
"The Metropolitan Museum has opened its sacred halls to photography" wrote Alfred Stieglitz to a friend in December 1928, boasting "My photographs have performed the miracle." This was not merely braggadocio - it was Stieglitz's gift of 22 photographs that opened the sealed doors of this illustrious institution to the concept of photography as a legitimate art form on a par with traditional painting, drawing and sculpture. To honor this legacy, the Met is showing "Photographic Treasures from the Collection of Alfred Stieglitz" - a selection of superb vintage photos by Edward Steichen, Frank Eugene (see his portrait of Stieglitz, right) Clarence White, Gertrude Käsebier as well as gorgeous prints by Stieglitz himself.
While photography was invented in the 1820s, it was not until the early 20th Century when Alfred Stieglitz, equipped with a hand-held Graflex camera and therefore unencumbered by a heavy tripod, began to explore the medium as an art form rather than for purely documentary purposes. His concept of "Photo Secession" that promoted "Picturesque" photography generated a number of followers and the resulting body of work - the work that Stieglitz himself promoted in his galleries (The Little Galleries, 291, and, An American Place) - eventually formed the nucleus of the Metropolitan's magnificent collection of photography. It is a very special treat to view the forty eight works now on display - a testament to Stieglitz's acumen and a veritable "who's who" of early photographers.
But Alfred Stieglitz was a multi-dimensional person and photography was only one facet of his vision. Two years after closing "The Little Galleries" and opening "291" as a showcase for the Photo Secessionists, he expanded his exhibition manifesto to include figurative drawings and prints by European artists. Seeking to shock the Puritanical Americans, Stieglitz exhibited works by Toulouse-Lautrec, Rodin and Rops and later the Masters of Modernity Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Francis Picabia and the Futurist Gino Severini.
With The Armory Show of 1913 and the introduction of Marcel Duchamp's scandalous "Nude Descending a Staircase" the shock value of Stieglitz's European imports wore off and 291 was faced with stiff competition. Stieglitz responded by refining his mission and turned his focus exclusively on American Modernists.
It was a very clever move. Stieglitz became the champion of American artists John Marin, Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, Charles Demuth and most famously, the artist who would also become his wife, Georgia O'Keeffe. All were true Modernist painters - the likes of which had not been seen on this side of the Atlantic and might never have reached their levels of achievement without the tireless devotion of Alfred Stieglitz. And while his galleries were never financial success', his collection of art, many pieces having been gifts in lieu of repayment of loans to his artists, was astonishing.
In fact, when Stieglitz died of a stroke, his personal art collection numbered over 850 works plus 3000 prints of his own photographs and 580 prints by other photographers. It took three years for his widow to sort and organize his Estate and eventually make significant gifts to major institutions including George Eastman House, The National Gallery of Art, Museum of Modern Art, Art Institute of Chicago, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Fisk University, Library of Congress and, of course, the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Alfred Stieglitz believed in American art and he believed in the ability of American artists to stand on a par with their European counterparts in the field of Modernism. His collection, which we have the privilege of enjoying until January 2, 2012, is a testament to this unique perspective and exceptional foresight.
P.S. For anyone who has ever been curious about just exactly how they make that fabulous Christmas Tree - here's a quick behind-the-scenes preview...