Sunday, October 24, 2010

New Mengs at the Met

If you've been dissed for two centuries, is there any hope for your reputation?

In a quiet move, the Metropolitan Museum has hung, unannounced and unsung, a new acquisition, a late self-portrait by Anton Raphael Mengs dated 1776.   It's catty-corner to another Mengs, his portrait of the archaeologist/art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann.

The self-portrait's a stunner.  The figure has an imposing presence, enhanced by the simple, broad areas of color; his smallish eyes and steady gaze give him great individuality; and the harsh light that emphasizes the bumps on his forehead -- they could so easily have been left out -- imply a kind of courageous stance of artist against the world.

Mengs (1728-79) was perhaps the most famous artist of his time.  He provided the pictorial example, and Winckelmann the theoretical underpinnings, for the radical turn to Neo-Classicism.  The revolution started with them, in Rome, and then spread throughout Europe.

But who has heard of Mengs now?  Judging from this beautiful new acquisition, it may be time to take another look.