5 JULY 1975, Page 23

New York letter

The Lehman controversy

Ruth Berenson

New York's Metropolitan Museum, famous the world over for the breadth and quality of its cbllecbons, has just opened a new addition. Called the Lehman Wing, it contains the treasures amassed by Phillip Lehman, a founder of the Wall Street firm of Lehman Brothers, and his son, Robert, and it has generated a controversy whose implications overreach the boundaries of art.

Robert Lehman, who died in 1969, made his gift to the Metropo-. litan contingent on the fulfilment of two conditions: not only was his collection to be housed in a new building to be named after himself, it was to be displayed in rooms exactly duplicating those in the Fast Side town house where it had been housed during his lifetime. Ordinarily, a museum of prestige, such as the Metropolitan, would have rejected such conditions out of hand: a new wing devoted to a single collection, even if, as in this case, it was paid for by the donor, would obviously throw out of alignment the systematic arrangement of its other holdings (which the Metropolitan, after long years and at great expense, has only recently accomplished); moreover, the 'period room' requirement, sanctifying for all time the taste, however cultivated, of a single individual was, to say the least, questionable. However, the Lehman collection was the last outstanding Old Master assemblage still in private hands, and every museum director in America had been paying court to Bobbie Lehman for years. Faced with the possibility that some other institution might win the prize, the Met, despite expert warnings, accepted the gift lock, stock and barrel. The debate as to its wisdom in so doing has only become more vociferous since the new wing opened.

The building, attached to the Metropolitan's rear, is mostly underground, a concession to those who felt that too much of Central Park, the only bit of extensive greenery on Manhattan Island, was being sacrificed to the museum's seemingly endless appetite for more space. (The end is not yet: Egypt's Temple of Dendur, salvaged from the Aswan Dam, is being rebuilt, and another new wing, to be devoted solely to primitive art, is under construction, while the American Wing, containing American decorative arts, is currently being enlarged.) The Lehman wing has a glass pyramidal dome that permits the drawings, shown on the lower level, and the nineteenth-century paintings above, to be seen in natural light. The 'period rooms,' however, are all artificially illuminated; they are also rather small (as are rooms in most New York town houses) and hence poorly suited to the crowds that customarily throng the Me tropolitan. The feeling of crowding is enhanced by the nature of their contents, for the Lehmans bought not only paintings and drawings but majolica, bronzes and lots of heavy Spanish and Italian furniture.

All this is displayed in rooms hung with velvet or brocade; it exudes an atmosphere of money.

Incongruously distracting are the carefully reconstructed staircases, roped-off and leading, of course, nowhere. Out-of-town visitors may well be puzzled by them, indeed by the entire decor, basically that favoured by Lehman Ore in 1905, when the original house was built; as the art critic Hilton Kramer noted: it is "a 1975 restoration of the • 1959 refurbishing of a 1905 original that was itself an example of pious historical eclecticism."

Not surprisingly, these settings have been ridiculed by the critics with near-unanimity — but every one is in agreement about the superb quality of the Lehman art. A few highlights: Ingre's portrait of the Princess de Broglie, resplendent in shiny blue satin and jewels; Rembrandt's portrait of the syphilitic Gerhard de Lairesse, at oncc repulsive and compassionate; Petrus Christus's still-life tour-de.

force, St Elegius Weighing Gold, in his role as patron saint of gold smiths; Giovanni de Paolo's haunt

ing Expulsion, with almost Michelangelesque God the Father point ing threateningly to the Coperni can earth where the two will be exiled (incongruously, the same artist's Paradise, from the same predella, hangs in the museum's upstairs galleries). Among the drawings are two Dtirers, a Leonardo, a Pollaiuolo, numerous Rembrandts, Tiepolos and more, down to Daumier and Van Gogh.

Masterpieces like these notwithstanding, it is unlikely that the controversy as to the Metropoli tan's wisdom in accepting the Lehman bequest will soon fade.

Those who think the museum is already too big wish that Robert Lehman has been content to make his own town house into a small museum modelled on the Frick Collection, a favourite haunt of New Yorkers and out-of-towners alike. Or, it is said, America as a whole would have been richer had Mr Lehman been forced to give his treasures to another musuem outside New York, perhaps one less richly endowed than the Metropo litan. More important, however, is the fear that in acceding to the Lehman conditions, the Metropoli tan has set a dangerous precedent. Other millionaires will now wish to immortalise themselves, as Robert Lehman succeeded in doing, at the expense of the public for whom,

after all, America's tax-exempt museums exist. Selfisness, unfortunately, is catching.

Ruth Berenson is art critic of the US magazine, National Review.