The Restorers at San Lorenzo Maggiore, Thomas Struth, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Naked Before the Camera and
Spies In the House of Art
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Disrobings, unveilings, and revealed intimacies both representational and institutional are the operative terms behind these two photography exhibitions at the Met (through Sep 9). A small but temporally extensive survey of photographic representations of nude figures, Naked Before the Camera balances expectable aspects of allure and lust—readily embodied by so many prints of nude females on beds—with the franker coolness of imagery derived from documentational or scientific endeavors. Thus displayed only meters apart are exemplars of research-intended, so it goes, prints of nude "primitives" in their natural environments, and 19th-century antecedents of contemporary pornography, including an early peep-show device in its decoratively clunky entirety.
A somewhat more striking juxtaposition might be the images of rampant skin disorders with, just above, a midwife’s-view glimpse of the genital trappings of hermaphroditism. Your brow might wrinkle up into question marks as your eyes try to make sense of things, but what is abundantly clear is that the advent of photography was of truly watershed importance for physicians and ethnographers—and that great discoveries could be best corroborated by full discoverings. By and large, though, Naked Before the Camera is sensuous and somber, at times coy and at times astonishingly blatant—and perhaps a bit more instructional than you might expect.
Rather than human figures, Spies in the House of Art denudes institutions—art museums, for instance, including the Met itself. At once a turning inward and outward, the exhibit is behind-the-scenes, investigatory, after hours. An eerily captivating film captures the Met’s collection nocturnally, shrouded in darkness, unveiling it for moments at a time with flashes of light. In an arresting print by Thomas Struth, restorers in Naples pause from their work at San Lorenzo Maggiore to pose for a portrait as dozens of paintings and altarpieces line a long wall at their side. Herein are the workers, and herein the works, and herein depicted is a collaborative quest to defy chemistry, light, time. This furtive peek also unfolds a more broadly significant historical pleat: this specific House of Art, in fact, is housed in a House of God.