Like life

700 years of figural sculpture at The Met Breuer

In his presentation Messy History? held on the exhibition Like life – Sculpture, Color and the Body at The Met Breuer in New York, Thomas DeCosta Kaufmann quoted a long list of historical sources and documented facts, based on which it cannot be established with certainty what factors were considered by the Central European aristocratic courts and palaces in the 16th-17th centuries when selecting figurative sculptural works for the art cabinets of Ambras, Dresden and Prague, all regarded back then as artistic, scientific and collectors’ wonders. The tastes and market conditions ensuring the availability of artworks at the time are among the possible criteria.

The Met Breuer’s Like life – Sculpture, Color and the Body provides a cross-section of the figural sculpture of 700 years through 127 works displayed in seven thematic chapters which, similarly to the Renaissance aristocratic collections, does not follow a tradition, convention or chronology. Western art is the main focus of what appears to be a subjective selection of works, and although in places the arrangement might come across as anachronistic, a clear balance is created between eras, styles and genres.

The basic tenet of the exhibition concept is that since the Renaissance coloured, polychrome (religious and secular) sculptures have been a subject of debate that divided theoreticians, even though every period has outstanding painted figurative sculptures that defy the prevailing aesthetic and cultural expectations. ‘Excessively’ life-like depictions are far from the ideal of classical art but, in the same way, works made of perishable materials were probably associated far less with metaphysical connotations than with primal, instinctive emotions and content even in their day.

As the subtitle shows, walking through the spacious halls, visitors are guided through the debates that existed between the constantly changing depictions, colours, and modelling of material and the reception of the works by the audiences of the time. Although it was difficult to demonstrate temporal changes in the body-image receptions through analogous sculptures displayed physically far apart, the narrative or personal story of the works created a conceptual field strong enough to dissolve traditional theoretical dialogues.

Marcel Breuer’s famous building in New York, a monumental sculpture of a kind, has hosted the modern and contemporary collection of The Metropolitan Museum since 2016 under the name The Met Breuer. It had previously been the venue for the Whitney Museum, which then moved to West Manhattan, to Renzo Piano’s building. Breuer’s building on Madison Avenue was renovated for the 2016 opening in the spirit of the Bauhaus, with respect to the architect’s unique style, spaces and taste, and was made suitable for occasional thematic exhibitions showing contemporary positions and new aspects, and at times raising questions of institutional criticism.