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Perspectives From the Archives

Looking Back on a Year of The Met Film Archive

From the Vaults resurfaces selections the Museum’s extensive moving-image archive of over 1,500 film.

Mar 3, 2021

GIF of eighties version of Met logo, animated architecture zooming out to reveal computerized Met Fifth Avenue building

The Met's moving-image archive contains works dating back to the early 1900s, and includes behind-the-scenes vignettes of life around the Museum, artist profiles, animations, and educational shorts about specific art-making techniques such as weaving and ironworking. Nearly every week since January 2020, The Met has released a new film from our archive to celebrate the Museum’s 150th anniversary as part of our series From the Vaults.

We’re so grateful to all who have tuned in from home over the past year, and extend a warm welcome to everyone discovering these films for the first time. We hope they’ve surprised, delighted, and inspired you—or simply allowed you to see the past with a fresh perspective.

After presenting more than forty films, which received over four million views this past year, we wanted to take a moment to look back. The selection of twelve below provides a mix of audience favorites, such as “Metropolitan Cats” (1983) and “Behind the Scenes: The Working Side of the Museum” (1928), alongside staff picks on a variety of subjects, from Indonesian mythology to public art in New York City.

Our goal from the beginning was to bring the art of film beyond the Museum’s walls. Many of these films present different approaches to art and art history, and show how these, and the Museum itself, have evolved. Much like watching old home movies provides the opportunity to reflect on the past, surfacing these films has given the Museum a chance to reflect as well.

Starting in March 2021, the series will resume on a monthly basis and expand beyond film to include other audio-visual materials from our holdings, such as recordings of poetry readings held at the Museum and rarely seen lantern slides.

“Metropolitan Cats” (1983)

From ancient Chinese sculpture to the modern Broadway stage, cats have long been a source of inspiration for artists. This unusual film juxtaposes famous depictions of cats from the Museum's collection with their contemporary counterparts. Curators and staff muse on our feline friends' legendary stubbornness and implacable curiosity, their endless capacity for mischief, and ultimately how they have held our attention for millennia.

“Behind the Scenes: The Working Side of the Museum” (1928)

These magical vignettes provide a window into life around the Museum nearly one hundred years ago. Employees punch time clocks; janitors dust the galleries; conservators handle textiles and armor; curators puzzle over fragments of ancient statuary. It begins and ends with footage of workers entering and leaving the Museum, a moving homage to the first film ever made, Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory (1895).

“The Art of Indonesia: Tales from the Shadow World” (1990)

A captivating documentary about the rituals, myths, and traditions of Indonesia. Written and directed by Andrea Simon, this beautiful film incorporates Old Javanese poetry, sculpture, and music alongside performances by traditional artists and healers. Features exceptional footage of Borobudur, a Buddhist temple from the ninth century, and Prambanan, an important Hindu temple.

“La Belle Époque” (1983)

Travel back in time and revisit The Costume Institute’s 1982 exhibition La Belle Époque, organized by the legendary Diana Vreeland. This outrageous and slyly self-aware documentary takes you on a journey from the heights of decadence in fin-de-siècle Paris through the global pandemonium of World War I. A tale of haves and have-nots, of extraordinary opulence and violent class warfare, this film has it all—glamorous decay, gorgeous archival footage, outsized personalities, and compelling stories of the artists and intellectuals who mined their times to create enduring art and fashion.

“Art in Public Places” (1973)

“It seems funny to say it, but long before there was an ‘art world,’ there was art in the world.” So begins artist and writer Russell Connor’s meditative tour of public art in New York City. In this time of social distancing, virtually wander the streets and parks of early 1970s Manhattan, from Grand Army Plaza to Wall Street. Local artists feature alongside works by Pablo Picasso, Louise Nevelson, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Alexander Calder, Romare Bearden, and more.

“The Gorgon’s Head” (1925)

In this charming silent film, a drawing student’s daydream at The Met brings the ancient Greek myth of Perseus to life. Embark on a classic journey filled with strange encounters, from the mysterious old women who share a single eye to the enchanting nymphs of the western sea—and, of course, don't miss the dramatic showdown with Medusa.

“Dwellings: The Art of Charles Simmonds” (1974)

Since the 1970s, the artist Charles Simonds (b. 1945) has created dwellings for an imaginary civilization of “Little People.” Spread across more than thirty cities around the world, from Amsterdam to Minneapolis, these miniature environments can be found tucked away on street corners and window ledges. This short 1974 documentary by Rudy Burckhardt captures the artist at work in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

“The Fayum Portraits” (1982)

This enigmatic short film—featuring an original score by Meredith Monk—presents fifty Egyptian funerary portraits from the region of Fayum. Painted during Roman rule between 100 and 300 A.D., these striking, psychological works were executed in encaustic while their subjects were alive and later used to cover their faces after mummification. Narration includes excerpts from late Hellenistic texts including religious works and first-hand accounts from the dwellers of Fayum themselves, along with commentary from the art historian Richard Brilliant.

“The Sun and Richard Lippold” (1966)

The artist and musician Richard Lippold is perhaps best known in New York City for his spectacular “Orpheus and Apollo” (1962), a five-ton chandelier made of shimmering metal ribbons that once hung in the lobby of the New York Philharmonic. In 2014, after more than fifty years in the public eye, the intricate piece was dismantled for the building’s renovation and its fate remains in limbo. Leo Hurwitz’s hypnotic documentary pays tribute to Lippold’s sculpture Variation within a Sphere, Number 10: The Sun (1953–56), a rarely shown work commissioned by The Met. While part of it was once prominently displayed above the Museum’s grand staircase, the piece was controversial from the beginning. Some read the piece as an elegant ode to the cosmos; others declared it “an exploded piece of costume jewelry.”

“Cities of the Gods” (1970)

Shot on location in Mexico and Honduras, “Cities of the Gods” was made to accompany the groundbreaking exhibition Before Cortés: Sculpture of Middle America, which celebrated The Met’s centennial in 1970. The exhibition told the sweeping story of the fascinating civilizations that flourished in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean for centuries before European colonization, and brought many significant works never before seen outside their countries of origin to New York City. Fifty years later, scholarship on the Olmecs, Teotihuacan, the Maya, and the Aztecs (or Mexicas) has evolved. To reflect these shifts in understanding, the Museum will renovate the galleries that house The Met’s collection of ancient American art starting in July 2021.

“In the Street” (1948)

Filmed in East Harlem just after the end of World War II, “In the Street” is a dynamic, tender, and often humorous portrait of life in New York City: children dance and play in alleyways, shopkeepers sweep the sidewalks, onlookers watch from their windows. Directed by the renowned photographer Helen Levitt in collaboration with Janice Loeb and James Agee, and featuring a new musical score written and performed by Ben Model, this film presents the bustling theater of city life, where “every human is a poet, a masker, a warrior, a dancer.”

“The Art of Lotte Reiniger” (1970)

Lotte Reiniger is known today for her extraordinarily elaborate silhouette animations. Her 1926 feature, The Adventures of Prince Achmed, is the oldest surviving full-length animated film. This short documentary provides a fascinating look at Reiniger’s process, offering viewers the opportunity to watch a prolific and pioneering artist at work. Here, she works on two projects: her fantastical short animation, “Papageno” (1935), about the cheerful bird-catcher from Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute, along with a dazzling struggle between the Frog Prince and a covetous octopus.

Marquee: A retro animated logo for The Met's Office of Film and Television from 1989.

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