The enormous excitement that greeted the Rembrandt self-portrait from Kenwood House, recently on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, has left me feeling a little sheepish, because my reaction was so much less enthusiastic than that of many people I know. In this extraordinarily famous painting, the artist stands before us in the clear light of day, his palette in his left hand, his face rumpled and pale, his small dark eyes uneasy. There is no presumption of personal attractiveness, only the blunt assertion of a man’s presence.
There she was for the whole world to see and hear: a young woman sobbing uncontrollably, completely vulnerable, screaming at her interlocutor on a cell phone, broadcasting the most intimate particulars of her private life on a crowded street in Greenwich Village on a bright Friday afternoon.
The decorative arts have always been art history's attractive orphans. While many people have a great affection for certain textiles or ceramics, the scholarly world embraces such objects only fitfully, as if they were really somebody else's responsibility. And much of the attention that is given to the decorative arts—in the shelter magazines, in the auction catalogues, and in specialized studies of rococo hardware or medieval ceramic tiles—has an edge about it, a feverishness that can suggest overcompensation and even overkill.
The acclaimed "Aztec Empire" exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum was going to close in just over a week so my husband and I met a friend uptown to see it. For me, the word "Aztec" immediately brings to mind two distinct impressions: elegant, "primitive," proto-modernist objects; and terrifying ritual human sacrifice, most notoriously, ripping the beating heart out of the chest of a still-living victim.