18th Century Butts, Moving Statues And Other 'Metropolitan Stories'

Oct 16, 2019
Originally published on October 16, 2019 9:03 pm

Every year, millions of people visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It holds thousands of years of art history: Egyptian temples, Renaissance sculptures, iconic 20th century paintings.

Admittedly, it's a little much.

"For the public this is one of those great and magnificent spaces that can be hugely intimidating," says Christine Coulson, standing in the museum's great hall. "But for me this feels like home."

Coulson worked at the Met for 25 years, often writing speeches or lectures for the museum's director to deliver. Now, she is writing in her own voice — and sometimes, in the voice of the artworks themselves.

Her debut novel, Metropolitan Stories, goes behind the scenes at the museum. It's a series of loosely connected stories about the people and objects that fill the galleries.

She gave NPR a tour of what she calls her "second home," featuring some of the objects that made their way into the book.

The armchair

An 18th century armchair made for Louise-Élisabeth, the Duchess of Parma, is the inspiration for one of the intersecting tales in Metropolitan Stories.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

For example, the second chapter is told from the perspective of an 18th century French chair — a fauteuil made for European royalty.

"To me it looks different than the others," Coulson says. "It's got pink, saturated pink velvet and gilded trimming and wildly curvaceous legs. ... It just has some juice, this chair! But the thing about this chair that's different from every other chair in this room is that this chair has its original upholstery. And so that's incredibly rare. That fabric is the fabric that was dented when an 18th century butt sat in it."

The chair, of course, hasn't been used as a chair for over 200 years. ("And no one will ever sit in that chair again," Coulson says. "They're not allowed to!") Coulson imagines that it must long to be sat upon by someone, anyone — even a toddler escaping past the barriers and heading toward its velvet lining.

"Come on little guy! I thought from behind the gallery ropes. You can make it!

"The boy's plump hands extended forward, propelled by his thick, tumbling waddle, his shoes clomping on the gallery floor. I felt like I was hanging from a cliff waiting for him to grip my arm and save me. Then a breeze of moist heat floated past as his mother grabbed him at the very last second — just before he reached me."

"I do wonder: This chair lived a certain life," Coulson says. "And then: Do we kill it a little bit when we put it into this exquisite retirement home?"

In the garden

So yes, Metropolitan Stories does have a certain surrealist bent to it.

This sculpture of Adam, made by Tullio Lombardo in the late 15th century, fell and broke into several pieces when its pedestal collapsed in 2002. It has since been completely restored.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Coulson shows us a sculpture of Adam, of biblical fame. He's holding an apple, a fig leaf covering his private parts.

"One of the great tragedies of my time at the Metropolitan Museum was in 2002, when this sculpture fell off its pedestal and was smashed into thousands of pieces," she says. "You would never know that now. ... He has been conserved over a period of 11 years and he is back to his original grace.

"But I have to admit — in that moment in 2002, after we were getting over the trauma of losing a work of art — my other thought was: What did it feel like when the sculpture was in the air? ... This is a sculpture that's been standing in place for 500 years, and so there's this moment of airborne release before it hits the ground. But what did that moment feel like for this thing that by definition is never supposed to move?"

The question raised in the book: After five centuries, what would prompt Adam to seek the freedom of movement?

"It's not Eve, no," Coulson says.

How to visit a museum

Metropolitan Stories is a relatively slim book, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art enormous. So there's some curation here with the works and places featured in the novel.

"I write about the objects that I love and that speak to me and that do really provide kind of a comfort to me — and have always been part of my walking through the museum," Coulson says. "These are the places where I stop."

Coulson admits it's an idiosyncratic collection of items.

"I don't think any of these objects are on anyone's greatest hits list," she says. "But maybe now they will be."

In any event, Coulson encourages any visitor to the Met — or any overwhelming museum — to prize quality, or at least a specific personal experience, over quantity.

"I think the best advice I can give anyone in any museum is to simply walk around until a particular work of art stops you in your tracks," she says. "And then once that happens, just wait. Just spend time with it.

"And I'm talking about 15 minutes. It's a tremendous amount of time to spend with a work of art. Most people spend about 30 seconds looking at something. Look at every corner, every edge. Ask yourself why the artist made the choices that they did. And that's when your imagination will take flight; that's when the magic really happens. And then, walk out of the museum."

In other words: Don't feel guilty about not seeing it all.

"It's so satisfying to have that one rich encounter with an object that that'll sustain you," Coulson says. "There's no reason to 'conquer' these places, and I feel like that's what people are usually trying to do. I say, relax and enjoy yourself. And then leave! The most important thing is to not stay so long — because it's exhausting!"

Jolie Myers edited this story for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Every year, millions of people visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. And frankly, the place can be a little overwhelming. It holds thousands of years of art history, from Egyptian temples to Renaissance sculptures. And the journey often begins here in the crowded and cavernous Great Hall.

CHRISTINE COULSON: For the public, this is one of those great and magnificent spaces that can be hugely intimidating. But for me, this feels like home.

SHAPIRO: Christine Coulson worked at the Met for 25 years. She was a writer for the museum, so she told the story of the Met in speeches and lectures that she wrote for the museum director to deliver. Now she's writing in her own voice, and sometimes in the voice of the artworks themselves. Her debut novel is "Metropolitan Stories." It takes the reader behind the scenes at the museum with a series of loosely connected stories about the people and objects that fill its galleries.

I recently caught up with her at the Met for a tour of what she calls her second home, featuring some of the objects in the book that she has come to know and love, starting with an 18th century chair that sits in a crowded room full of ornate French furniture.

This is not the first vignette in the book, but it's close to it.

COULSON: It's the second chapter. So the chapter is written in the voice of this chair.

SHAPIRO: How did you choose the particular chair (laughter) in whose voice you wrote to launch this narrative?

COULSON: To me, it looks different than the others. It's got pink - saturated pink velvet and gilded trimming and wildly curvaceous legs.

SHAPIRO: Your description is giving it so much personality - wildly curvaceous.

COULSON: It just has some juice - this chair. But the thing about this chair that's different than every other chair in this room is that this chair has its original upholstery, and so that's incredibly rare. That fabric is the fabric that was dented when an 18th century butt sat in it.

SHAPIRO: And the imaginative leap that you make in this chapter that I love is that the chair longs to be sat on again.

COULSON: I do wonder. I mean, this chair lived a certain life. And then do we kill it a little bit when we put it into this exquisite retirement home? And then...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) This is the first time the Metropolitan Museum has ever been referred to as a retirement home.

COULSON: No one will ever sit in that chair again. They're not allowed to.

SHAPIRO: So you imagine a sticky-fingered toddler making a break for it and almost...

COULSON: And the chair's thinking, come on. You can make it.

SHAPIRO: Will you read a little bit from this chapter?

COULSON: (Reading) The boy's plump hands extended forward, propelled by his thick, tumbling waddle, his shoes clomping on the gallery floor. I felt like I was hanging from a cliff, waiting for him to grip my arm and save me. Then a breeze of moist heat floated past as his mother grabbed him at the very last second, just before he reached me. That was 1978. I still dream about it. I imagine the boy climbing up onto my seat, his pleasant folds and warm springy pudge nestled between my arms, a small puddle of drool soaking into my velvet, the life of it racing through to my frame.

SHAPIRO: For a curator, that would be horror. But for the chair, that's, like, the dream.

(LAUGHTER)

COULSON: I don't know how you get drool out of silk, but...

SHAPIRO: Where would you like to show us next?

COULSON: Let's go visit Adam.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

SHAPIRO: So now we're heading into Italy.

COULSON: Now we're heading into the Italian Renaissance. This is a sculpture of Adam, from Adam and Eve.

SHAPIRO: Holding an apple with a fig leaf over his private parts.

COULSON: One of the great tragedies of my time at the Metropolitan Museum was in 2002 when this sculpture fell off its pedestal and was smashed into thousands of pieces. You would never know that now.

SHAPIRO: You would never know. You don't - I don't even see a seam - not a crack.

COULSON: He has been conserved over a period of 11 years, and he is back to his original grace. But I have to admit at that moment in 2002 after we were getting over the trauma of losing a work of art, my other thought was, what did it feel like when the sculpture was in the air? So back...

SHAPIRO: You mean what did it feel like for the sculpture? How did it feel for Adam?

COULSON: This is a sculpture that's been standing in place for 500 years. And so there's this moment of kind of airborne release before it hits the ground. But what did that moment feel like for this thing that, by definition, is never supposed to move?

SHAPIRO: And the question you raise in the book is, what would motivate this Adam, after centuries, to actually make the leap? And it's not Eve.

COULSON: It's not Eve, no.

SHAPIRO: This is a slim book. It's under 300 pages. And this is an enormous museum. How did you choose what to include?

COULSON: I write about the objects that I love and that speak to me and that do really provide a kind of comfort to me and have always been a part of my walking through this museum. These are the places where I stop.

SHAPIRO: It is not a greatest hits list. It is not a, if you go to the Met, these are the 10 things you must see.

COULSON: Oh, not at all. I mean, it's not - I don't think any of these objects are on anyone's greatest hits list. But maybe now they will be.

SHAPIRO: People listening to this conversation or people reading your book may not have a chance to visit the Met, but they may well at some point walk into a museum with more pieces than they will ever be able to fully digest. What advice do you have for somebody walking into a place that can feel overwhelming to find the kind of meaning that you've been able to find in these collections?

COULSON: I think the best advice I can give anyone in any museum is to simply walk around until a particular work of art stops you in your tracks. And then once that happens, just wait. Just spend time with it. And I'm talking about 15 minutes. It's a tremendous amount of time to spend looking at a work of art. Most people spend about 30 seconds looking at something. Look at every corner, every edge. Ask yourself why the artist made the choices that they did, and that's when your imagination will take flight. That's when the magic really happens. And then walk out of the museum.

SHAPIRO: And if you don't make it to the other galleries, you don't feel like you failed. You don't feel guilty.

COULSON: No, it's so satisfying to have that one rich encounter with an object. That'll sustain you. There's no reason to conquer these places, and I feel like that's what people are usually trying to do. I say relax and enjoy yourself, and then leave. The most important thing is to not stay so long because it's exhausting.

SHAPIRO: Christine Coulson is the author of "Metropolitan Stories."

Thank you so much for showing us your second home here at the Met.

COULSON: My great pleasure. Hope to see everyone in the galleries.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.