Friday, February 2, 2018

Justice Served at the High Temple of Art: The Connoisseurship of Paul Magriel

Bronze statuette of a veiled and masked dancer from the Greek Hellenistic Period (3rd to 2nd Century B.C.) from the Met that enthralled Paul Magriel.

Of the millions who flock yearly to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, only a handful know what to look for, and how. It always drove Paul Magriel crazy. "The random business of people walking in, taking in 25 paintings, one after the other, it's just mind-boggling," the self-taught art connoisseur once fumed. "You have to separate your time, your consciousness and your visual sensibility and be so specific about what you're doing and how you're doing it that you get some benefits, otherwise it's such a waste. It's not only a waste – it's an abuse of the artist. You're not giving him justice."

To make sure justice is duly served at the high temple of art that is the Met, in 1982 Magriel began leading unofficial tours of its varied and rich collections. A regular visitor of the museum for more than five decades, he had been dismayed to see so many people shuffling through the Met as if it were a cultural shopping mall, plugged into their Acoustiguides, staring in a daze at dozens of pictures at a time, buzzing around the big exhibits heavily publicized by the museum, and ultimately ignoring the store of treasures in the Met's incomparable holdings of roughly three million objects. He started by taking friends, one or two at a time, on tours that concentrated on his own favorite objects, a range far-reaching in style, theme and material, but all chosen for having given him immense pleasure. After developing four 90 tours of about 25 objects each, word quickly spread.

Soon, Magriel's private tours began attracting other interested connoisseurs, among them William F. Buckley Jr., The New Yorker’s then dance critic Arlene Croce, the writer Susan Sontag and choreographer Paul Taylor. A repeat customer was Jason Epstein, the editorial director of Random House. Epstein took the tour three times before Magriel realized that he was researching an idea to turn Magriel's observations into a book.

That book ended up being A Connoisseur's Guide to the Met. First published in 1987, it lists Magriel and art historian John Spike as co-authors. Magriel selected the tours with some advice from Spike, who compiled the texts, based on Magriel's jottings and their own conversations. "If you go to the Met with this book in your hand, you will see what my purpose was," Magriel said in an interview that took place just months before his death in 1990 at the age of 84. “You can't walk into a museum and pass from a Picasso to a de Kooning and then to a Lichtenstein and then to a Monk and expect to know anything about them after you do. It's like listening to Vivaldi and Gershwin at the same time."

White-haired and stooped at the time, Magriel spoke confidently and animatedly while seating in the mid-afternoon splendor of his ground-floor New York apartment. The East Side rental had only two main rooms. But every inch screamed art. The walls in the living room were sienna brown and the ones in the tiny bedroom scarlet, colours which dramatically offset the paintings and sculptures which Magriel had been collecting throughout his lifetime. "My whole apartment," he said, "is geared to my particular range of pleasure."

As he was talking, Magriel gently turned the pages on a personal copy of A Connoisseur’s Guide to the Met to alight on an image – and there are 100 in the book to choose from – that would transport him back into the museum through his imagination. One showing a sophisticated piece of goldsmithing from ancient Ireland, a sleeve fastener dating back to the eighth century BC, particularly held his attention. "This would be the envy of any haute couturier on the Faubourg St. HonorĂ©," he said, before turning the pages again to locate the photograph depicting a 15th-century Flemish woman in quiet repose. Magriel commented on the poignancy of her tightly clasped hands, a natural and timeless gesture of grief, and then flicked forward to the page with a 14th-century Indian copper statue of Yasoda and Krishna. He let out an audible gasp as he allowed himself to be startled anew by the fortitude of the female form.

Magriel’s devotion to art was inspired by a show he attended at Smith College in 1922. The featured performer was screen legend Rudolph Valentino. "I was 16 and there were 2,000 girls and me," Magriel said with a twinkle in his eye. "He did a series of tangos and I got interested, but not in what he was doing, but in the whole general thing which in a word would be called the arts or culture." Soon after, he started dancing lessons – one of his teachers was Michel Fokine, the legendary choreographer who had worked for Diaghilev at Les Ballets Russes – and for a while performed professionally in New York City. He had not come from an artistic family.

He learned by doing and by being attentive to the nuances of creative expression. His father had operated a shoe store and his mother had been a housewife. "My parents sent me to school, but I wouldn't go,” he said. “I think I did a couple of years of high school. But I got interested in music and dance and just free-flowed from the age of about 14, looking at pictures, reading the books." He eventually took classes at Columbia, but found them a waste of time: "Important to me are the inquiries I make about phenomena that are unmatched.” And by this he principally meant the phenomenon of genius, the utter singularity of a George Balanchine, a Pablo Picasso, a Michelangelo, an Irving Berlin, a Rudolf Nureyev.

Paul Magriel, Librarian of the Dance Archives, in the Archives offices, n.d. [William S. Lieberman Papers, IV.2]

Magriel was drafted in 1942, and when asked what he could do for his country, he said all he knew was art. He was ordered to curate his first show, an exhibition called Art and the Soldier, for the U.S. government. It brought him attention. Returning to civilian life, he continued down a path of art coupled with art education. He worked first as a librarian at the American School of Ballet before going off to become the first curator of the dance archives at the Museum of Modern Art. That experience led him to edit several books on the subject, among them Chronicles of the American Dance and biographies of Vaslav Nijinsky, Anna Pavlova and Isadora Duncan.

Magriel was also a self-taught boxing historian and the curator of several important art collections – including 19th-century American still life and figure drawings, 20th-century American sculpture, art nouveau glass and Renaissance bronzes – that had been assembled and sold en masse to museums and private collectors. But his biggest achievement was inspiring others to look at art with the same degree of care as he did. This, in the end, was what made his life feel complete. With his book in hand, people can do one of his tours on their own, and see the Met and its works as he saw them, through a veil of love.

"It's a lovely feeling to be useful, you know, and giving someone else pleasure is a nice feeling, on all levels. Compensation like that is the most rewarding thing in the world, it's one of the elements of love,” said Magriel, smiling behind his moustache. “There's a sensitivity to the notion that human beings are human beings. Whatever behavior they suggest, just give them a little more kindness, a little more tenderness, or whatever it is the popular songs say, and then there's just a little more out there, overall."

Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic and style writer. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York, the Dance Gazette in London, and NUVO in Vancouver, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press) and AWOL: Tales for Travel-Inspired Minds (Vintage Books). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail for the last 32 years, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic, from 1985 until 2001, before transitioning to the Style section as its senior fashion reporter in Milan, Paris, New York and cities across Canada. Her other accomplishments at Canada's paper of record include stints as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime, a weekly lifestyle columnist covering the Toronto International Film Festival and celebrities, rock critic, business writer and cultural bureau chief in Montreal covering the arts in Quebec and Eastern Canada. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, she has also written for a wide range of international titles, including Marie Claire in London, Elle in New York and Vogue Australia. Recipient of the 2014 Nathan Cohen Award for Excellence in Theatre Criticism (Long Form Category), Canada's most important arts writing prize, she is presently at work on her next book, an examination of The Beatles and their style. In 2017, she joined Toronto’s York University as Editor of the award-winning York University Magazine.

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