Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Passing of Walter Liedtke

The horrible news of the train crash on the Metro North railroad yesterday evening was tragic unto itself. This afternoon, however, the names of some of those who died were released and, like many others active in the art and museum world, I was startled and disturbed to discover that Walter Liedtke was among the deceased. Walter (as I and many others knew him) was a curator for 35 years at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and an internationally renowned specialist in Dutch and Flemish paintings by famous artists such Rembrandt, Rubens, and Vermeer. I had the privilege of meeting Walter a number of times during the 7+ years I worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I actually taught him (along with my colleagues) how to use PowerPoint for his art historical presentations, and he attended a few of my instructional sessions on digital imaging. Whenever he came into the Image Library, he would ask me about how my graduate work and dissertation was coming along and encouraged my pursuit of art history as a career. I doubt he would have remembered me outside of my former role at the Met; nevertheless, the news of his death has impacted me more than I expected.

When I think back over those years when I was in graduate school and working at the Met, Walter was one of the more significant curators who inspired me. His art historical scholarship was brilliant, easy to read but always insightful. His presentations were engaging. His exhibitions were thought-provoking in the most creative ways, even when they were at the simplest. He curated, for instance, the loan of a single painting from the Rijksmuseum, Vermeer's Milkmaid, and combined with it a selection of paintings, works on paper, and decorative arts from across the Met's collections, exploring not only Vermeer's genius with this painting but the hidden symbolism behind what ordinarily would be seen otherwise as merely a genre scene. (I blogged about the show at the time.) It opened my eyes to the notion that one could successfully launch an informative show that focused on a single work of art. Similarly, his exhibition of paintings by Frans Hals from the Met's collection was fascinating because he wasn't afraid to move outside his comfort zone of the 17th century and demonstrate how Hals's brushstroke influenced modernist artists such as Manet and Sargent in the 19th and 20th centuries. His work on Rembrandt was legendary, and his Vermeer and the Delft School was always championed as a masterful exhibition and catalogue, although regretfully I never saw the show. Beyond his brilliance and creativity, there was an incredible charm and wit to him that always made one smile. Indeed, I learned from his example as a person how one could balance the international accolades of recognition for scholarship with a down-to-earth persona that could put anyone at ease. The Met has a few video segments and features in which Walter appears, but I think this one video, "Living with Vermeer," does a lot to help viewers understand not only the curator as a scholar but the curator as a man, mirroring the quotidian existence one finds in the Dutch and Flemish paintings he admired and taught so many people how to enjoy. I urge you to watch the short video by clicking here.


Sarah said...

Nice tribute Roberto. Thanks.

teddygood said...

What a thoughtful and wonderful tribute. Ted Goodman