Over the past half century, it has become a Christmas tradition for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to decorate a tree and stage a nativity scene with the Loretta Hines Howard collection of Neapolitan Baroque crèche figures – a collection of realistic painted terracotta sculptures, six to 20 inches high, by 18th-century artists including Giuseppe Sammartino and his pupils Salvatore di Franco, Giuseppe Gori and Angelo Viva, that now numbers more than 200.
In reality, these angels, cherubs, wise men, shepherds and animals no doubt inspire awe and radiate festive cheer. But on the page, pictured close up and in rich, high-contrast colour by the Magnum photographer Elliott Erwitt, their glossily lifeless forms are somehow eerie and uncanny; the effect is something like the pop artist James Rosenquist's paintings of dolls wrapped in cellophane. And if not uncanny, then perhaps they are simply kitsch in the extreme.
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