Have you ever wondered how a great exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is put together? Old Greenwich resident Maryan Ainsworth can tell the tale. She's the curator of European Paintings in the Met's European Paintings Department and she recently had a blockbuster of a show that closed earlier this year, before it moved on to London's National Gallery.
Ainsworth's exhibit, "Man, Myth, and Sensual Pleasures: Jan Gossart's Renaissance," featured 140 works by this Flemish master. The exhibit received high praise from art critics as Ainsworth had used her considerable technical skills incorporating reflectography, X-radiography, pigment analysis and microscope examination, as well as her scholarly research to help bring a new understanding and appreciation of the artist's works and influence.
To learn more about Ainsworth's expertise and just how she put together the Goassart exhibit, Greenwich Citizen asked her a few questions.
How did you develop your interest in the technical study of paintings?
I got interested in the interdisciplinary study of paintings when I first worked at the Metropolitan 32 years ago in the Painting Conservation department on a three-year scientific study of Rembrandt paintings. I was learning about autoradiography and going out to the Brookhaven Laboratory to investigate Rembrandt paintings. I became the chief investigator of the scientific study. I was then invited to be the art historian in that department in charge of infrared reflectography of the early Netherlandish paintings. I am so grateful I came to the Museum in the way I did -- it's not a straight line to a curatorial position. But having a scientific point of view enhances your connoisseurship skills.
What drew you to this period of art, of 16th century painters?
I am fascinated by these artists -- even in the 15th century -- of how they painted what they saw in the real world -- their observation of nature, how, suddenly, with the use of oil paint they were recreating on a piece of wood the world they saw around them. It was a kind of early realism. It was so revolutionary at the time, a change from the medieval tradition. I wanted to know how they achieved it.
What is the biggest challenge of putting on an art exhibit?
Getting the works you need to tell the story. There comes a point when you must evaluate whether you can get all the pieces needed to do this -- in the Gossart show I could not get four important paintings as they could not travel for reasons of condition. We didn't think it would be a problem -- we decided that we could put color pictures of these works next to paintings with explanatory labels that referred to them.
How do you go about gathering the paintings?
We try to build on the strengths in American collections -- paintings, drawings and prints. We had 140 works in the show, of which many came from outside the country. I had to travel to all of the museums to make the requests. Some museums won't lend works painted on oak panels because they are so fragile in terms of packing and transport.
How many were there on your team putting the show together?
There were three of us curators in house. I did the paintings and the other two researched and wrote about the drawings and prints. Six people contributed to the writing of the catalogue, including myself. There are approximately 50 people coming from the design department, the installers and those from the legal department and elsewhere who are involved. Installing the show usually takes a couple of weeks.
What do you enjoy most in the whole process of putting on an exhibit?
I enjoy all of it, but I enjoy the research the most. The research takes two-thirds of the time. I like to start with a clean slate, as if you knew nothing of the artist, even though you had read everything about him. It's like a real detective game. It's your chance to make a complicated story understandable, not only to scholars but to those who know nothing about the artist, to make it lively, to make people interested.
Do you often wonder how the artist would like how you exhibited him or her?
I think about having seances all the time with the artist as to how he would like the show. With Gossart I think there are several important aspects developed in this show he'd be happy about- for example, the relationship of sculpture to painting. What was especially fun was to show what Gossart saw when he went to Rome, at a time when there were important discoveries of sculpture being made.