In Silicon Valley, the natural order of time is reverse chronological: what matters most is what is newest, and can be constantly refreshed by swiping downward. Why, because the present’s so great? Two decades into a profoundly unpromising century — and amid a pandemic whose social and epidemiological fallout strongly echoes plagues from centuries past — I take ever more comfort in the art of earlier times. These days, I’ve been cleansing my Instagram timeline with Flemish painting, Mexican antiquities, Korean ceramics, and all sorts of beauty that has withstood the toughest critic of all. Even on my own account (@jasonfarago) I have a soft rule: no art after 1945.
Older art, architecture and design have gained a greater foothold on Instagram lately, though they are as afflicted as any other specialism by cribbed stock photography and vapid influencer promotion. (A pet hate of mine: high-contrast glamour shots of empty Baroque libraries, reliably showered with heart-eyed emojis by Insta-addicts who don’t read.) Still, within the rushing image stream are historians, curators, dealers and lay obsessives, unearthing forgotten treasures or reassessing celebrated ones; many are pretty good photographers themselves. Here, then, are five prime antidotes to digital presentism; my fellow Times critics will offer more favorites each week.
In the ancient city of Ravenna, Italy, near the Adriatic, are eight basilicas and baptisteries, dating from the fifth and sixth centuries, whose austere exteriors belie the lavish stonework within. Ravenna’s Catholic diocese maintains this twinkling account, which lets you get up close to the finest mosaics in Western Europe: on the walls of the Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, where angels in pleated togas frame a Madonna and Child made of uncountable purple and white gems, or the intricate roof of the Mausoleo di Galla Placidia, with its rainbow-colored Grecian meanders and star-spangled vault of gold and sapphire blue. Unlike the tourist-trap location shots that some heritage sites post, these mosaics actually gain something from being seen on Instagram, where the overwhelming masterpieces can be broken down and appreciated for their constituent parts.
One of the better running gags of Instagram: The more than 1,000 grins and grimaces that fill this grid would put any selfie addict to shame, but each facial expression comes from a bust of marble, plaster or terra cotta. A private dealer in Paris manages this consistent account, sometimes posting 19th-century busts for sale, more often pointing out lookers in public collections: a finely worked Bernini at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam; funerary monuments in a Milan cemetery or a tender Antinous, twink boyfriend of the emperor Hadrian, in Rome’s steampunk Centrale Montemartini. It’s a clever, even addictive digital translation of an earlier form of self-promotion and self-preservation.
Go east! The archaeologist Hakan Goncu oversees this omnium gatherum from the ancient heritage sites of Turkey, less trafficked but not less important than their counterparts in Italy and Greece. Masterpieces of preclassical and Hellenistic art, like the many-breasted statue of Artemis that once stood in the Temple of Ephesus, share space with handsome views of Anatolian ruins, such as the cliffside necropolises of Myra, where the dead enjoy an eternity of panoramic views. It’s enjoyable on its own as a vicarious travelogue, but this account’s real value is its cosmopolitan understanding of art two millenniums ago, when ideas and images shuttled back and forth across the Aegean.
Even before the Great Lockdown, much of the coolest activity at New York’s largest museum was behind closed doors. Now, the Met’s conservators are showing off ongoing beauty treatments in their skylit duplex studio: before-and-after shots of a zhuzhed-up late Rembrandt, a rainbow cross-section of a Picasso with 14 layers of paint, and an underlying portrait design by Memling revealed through the new technique of macro X-ray fluorescence scanning. Nifty as the science is, I still get a kick out of the in-progress shots: an unframed Tintoretto or David hanging out on an easel, as if their authors were just out for a coffee.
Two months of sheltering in place will teach you the virtue of good interiors — and some of Europe’s plushest appear on the grid of this Dutch old masters dealer, who counterbalances Instagram’s bias for minimalism with a design philosophy he slugs with the hashtag #moreismore. On travels to Amsterdam, Dresden and the English and Irish countrysides, he invites us into stately homes and private residences, whose stuffed salons and dining rooms teeter just on the edge of chaos. (Extra-long captions, with full descriptions of architraves and étagères, make these more rewarding than most design inspiration accounts.) Mr. Broch may be a scholar-dealer, but like any self-respecting influencer he also knows that your best ad campaign is your own life; behold his 18th-century canal house in Gouda, the Netherlands, stuffed to bursting with antique portraits and porcelain, and start scouring the auction houses.