A quick but labored walk through the Met’s newest blockbuster exhibition, Jerusalem (1000-1400), made me wonder if I was ‘arted out,’ if I was going to museums out of habit or sense of duty and no longer able to truly enjoy myself. Yes, there were a few things that caught my eye, but for the most part it was a lot of pots and pans and books – the kind of things I would normally pass by quickly in a museum, if they were displayed at all.

As I moved further along, however, I realized that no one else seemed particularly enthralled. There were ladies struggling with their audioguides, couples following each other, people just sitting on the one available bench and, as usual, the crowd in the first gallery had thinned to sparse by the end. I started to feel less guilty and more critical, repeating internally my view of  last spring’s Pergamon. The common thread of the objects presented was that they were made in Jerusalem, or were sent to Jerusalem or could have been found in Jerusalem during the five centuries (despite the show’s name) starting around 1000 AD. The labels were dumbed down to the point that they weren’t reading. And the point, over and over, was not about art, but about the fact that all these people of all three (at least) religions got along famously. A beautiful necklace made by a Muslim craftsman could have been worn just as easily by a Jewish or Christian woman of fashion. Duh!

As ever, the Met has piled on object on object. Why focus on 50 pieces that we can digest when we can call in 150 (actually closer to 200 when you add the multiple-item entries). The most interesting part of the label to me was the name of the lending institution: pieces came from Qatar, the Louvre, Israel (lots), the British Library, the Cloisters and dozens of places I’ve never heard of. The catalogue, I’m sure, will be the definitive work on the subject forever. But quantity doesn’t equal quality – and we were never given clues as to what might constitute “quality” in this context.

By show’s end, I realized what I would have preferred: a more focused show on any one (or two?) areas of art, so that I could learn something about the form and form my opinions as to what was best, or at least what I liked best. Qurans and Bibles? Icons? Jewelry? Pots and pans?

As briefly noted, there were a few things that stopped me: a “chasse” given the Met by J.P. Morgan in which the saints’ heads were tiny raised globes of gold; a religious image with an angel looking out at me (also from the Met); and above all a suite of five capitals from Nazareth showing stories from saints’ lives. The style of carving was unlike anything I’d seen, almost like a New Yorker cartoonist’s. It was hard to believe how fresh the limestone was, until I read that the capitals had been buried in anticipation of Saladin’s arrival and not unearthed until early in the 20th century.

Leaving the special exhibition I sauntered through the galleries of European painting from 1900, give or take a decade. There was Picasso’s Woman in White, a masterpiece of his neoclassic period, my favorite. Then a relatively new gallery of Scandinavian/Austrian/Swiss modernism, made up of new acquisitions and loans: Hodler, Ensor, Munch, Otto Friedrich and a fascinating self-portrait by the hot artist of the moment, Vilhelm Hammershoi. A typical and beautiful Boudin from the Annenbergs reminded me how much I love Boudin. I found the Met’s new Caillebotte, but it’s a floral closeup – chrysanthemums – from my least favorite period. Then, my last stop, I happened upon Alfred Stevens’s “In the Studio,” which the label points out was an homage to Regnault’s “Salome,” which hangs nearby. I was flooded, first, with pride for the Stevens painting that our MIA Paintings Council trip bought in Germany and which has been hanging in Minneapolis ever since. Next, I was fascinated with the allusions in Stevens’s painting and its narrative content. Stevens doesn’t just paint a woman in the pose of the Salome: he shows an artist painting the woman. We see the model and the easel where the painting has been started. The model is in a similar pose, but her falling blouse is more transparent, adding a bit of sexiness. The painter, curiously, is the least significant figure in the composition, half-hidden behind the easel, reminding one of ‘Las Meninas’ – as does the van Eyck-like convex mirror on the back wall. And who is the largest figure in the foreground? A chaperone? Both models have a foot poised on an animal-skin rug: again, more formal and academic in the Regnault, looser in the Stevens. There are a myriad of details worth looking at, and the more I looked, the more I found. The bonus on top of it all came from my recent study of William Merritt Chase: his ‘Studio’ paintings are, at the very least, indirect quotations of this work by Stevens. I had seen it recently in the Chase catalogue; what fun to see it in person!

In short, in sum, I found my love of art returning as I walked through the paintings galleries. Maybe it was a matter of familiarity; maybe it was a preference for “art” over pieces of history. Or maybe it was the understanding I got from a concentrated display of similar things versus a hodgepodge. Whatever the cause, I left happy.