Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Curator

Last week I wrote about the exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, “Man, Myth, and Sensual Pleasures: Jan Gossart’s Renaissance”. Though it takes many people to create an exhibition, those organized by committee often lose focus. Creating a good exhibition requires a good curator with a vision of what he or she wants to accomplish. The single mind behind the Gossart exhibition was Dr. Maryan Ainsworth.

I met Maryan when she was in the Paintings Conservation Department at the Metropolitan working with a new scientific technique called infrared reflectography. With an special camera a conservator could record the artist’s initial ideas represented by preparatory drawings lying beneath the layers of paint. Not all artists used under-drawings but it was a common practice in the Northern European Renaissance.

The investigation of a work of art where scientific data is needed is often performed in an independent lab and the results sent to the curator the same way a doctor might receive x-rays. It takes more than just a camera to make infrared reflectography of paintings useful. Meaningful comparisons can only be made after gathering many examples. Further it requires the skills of a trained art historian to put the new visual information into the perspective of the period and place. I was so impressed by Maryan because I quickly saw that she had the art historical background to create and use scientific data to come up with real insights. This dual expertise explains why Maryan made the unusual transition from the conservation side to the curatorial side, becoming a member of the Met’s European Paintings Department.

Her years of travel to national and foreign institutions pursuing reflectography research allowed her to know where many Northern Renaissance paintings were located and their quality. This knowledge allowed her to conceive and put together her exhibitions. Of course, she first looked at the collections in her own museum and in 1998 opened a blockbuster called “From Van Eyck to Bruegel - Early Netherlandish Painting in the Metropolitan Museum” I remember so many visitors going through the show saying things like: “That is wonderful! I have never seen that before”. Possibly not, Maryan might have found the work relegated to the Met’s storage and brought it out on view in order to better illustrate the Met's holdings.

An exhibition is not just a bunch of paintings A-Z, at least not a good one. Knowing what is out there is of paramount importance, but the editing decisions need to be made. It is just as important to know what to leave out as what to put in. You also have to able to show context, thereby adding a new dimension to our understanding of the artist, his place and time. Maryan has shown an ability to do this through her selections, installation, explanatory labels and catalogs. Besides holding more that one degree from both Oberlin and Yale, she has taught at Columbia and Barnard and thereby learned to express herself in a clear and concise manner.

The exhibition will come down within a few months but the catalog gives the show immortality. People can refer to it a generation or two later and not have lost all the work that was done to create the current exhibition. In the case of Gossart, Maryan used the opportunity to catalog all the known works by the artist and not just the ones which she was able to show at the Met. When you put together the 63 paintings and all the ancillary material that was brought in for comparison in the show itself you have an almost 500 page catalog printed on fine thick paper between hard covers.

I have not weighed the Gossart catalog but I can tell you lifting it up from the floor to my desk many times in the last couple of weeks I did not need to do any weight lifting at the gym! It reminded me of Philippe de Montebello’s remark about another exhibition catalog which he said two museum curators had worked on for 9 months and given birth to a 7-pound tome. Though there is no substitute for the beautiful book there is much to be said for a CD. Maybe one should be included with the catalogs.

One can go on for chapters about what it takes to pull together a good exhibition and the stories that make up the creation of these shows are incredible and often exciting. Here I just wanted to give the reader a taste of what it takes to be the curator for a world class exhibition.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Jan Gossart Known as Mabuse

The demise of the international traveling exhibition has long been heralded, but after 9-11-2001 it was said that they could definitely no longer occur. Yet, in 2010 you can find in almost every major city fabulous shows bringing together great works of art from all over. Works are brought together not just for the sake of the public, but also so that art historians can compare works that they have never seen together. This allows them to trace the development of the artist and distinguish between versions of the pictures, determining whether they are by the artist himself or a follower. Photographs are no substitute for the original as they only tell a small portion of the story.

Many of these exhibitions are worth traveling to see, but what luck when a great show is right in your own back yard where you can visit and revisit it. So it is with “Man, Myth and Sensual Pleasures: Jan Gossart’s Renaissance” an exhibition which opened recently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The exhibition brilliantly curated by Maryan Ainsworth will be on view until January 17, 2011 and then go on to the National Gallery in London.

The exhibition shows the development of Jan Gossart (Maubeuge 1478 - Antwerp? 1532) and demonstrates how he was a major force in bringing the Renaissance to Northern Europe. His visit to Rome in 1508-09 in the entourage of his patron Philip of Burgundy was a decisive influence on his work. We see this in a gallery showing classical antique sculpture along with Gossart’s related drawings. (Image with captions)

As mentioned in last week’s “Missive”, I believe that the visitor should walk through and look at an entire exhibition before singling out works to study further. What do you do, however, when there are so many wonderful works of art that draw you in? You will find that each time you go through the show another aspect of the story is revealed.

The loans here are amazing, and not just Gossarts. There are drawings and prints by Durer, a first class Jan van Eyck and Gerard David and many others. How was this all managed? Next week I will discuss the curatorial role and the curator that brought these works together.

Monographic exhibitions are the most difficult because the curator is always tempted to borrow and show as many works as possible by the artist. By neglecting the selection process the goal of the exhibition is often lost. I have gone to monographic exhibitions of artists I believed I loved, only to find that by the end I thought less of them.

In this case it is slightly easier since there are only 63 panel paintings known, and at the Met we can see 50 of them. The the show also has clearly delineated subject headings in each gallery, and within the category the works are juxtaposed to other works by the artist or related works by other artists. The labels are excellent and if you cannot figure out what the relationship between works is you need only read the label to make things clear.

While we have often been shown drawings and prints related to a painting, it is unusual to see related sculpture. Two of my favorite examples are sculptures by the German artist Conrad Meit (Worms 1475 - Antwerp, 1550/1). Gossart and Meit worked together in both the courts of Philip of Burgundy and Margaret of Austria. So there is no question that Meit’s sculpture was influential in the sculptural style of Gossart’s paintings. The juxtapositions are so compelling that the three examples that I had picked before even opening the catalog were already available in jpegs from the museum.

A stunning example is a small boxwood figure of Lucretia by Conrad Meit done between 1500 and 1515 and a painting of Venus and Cupid done by Gossart in 1521. Though the painting with its integral frame is twice as large as the sculpture, by setting them off in a case by themselves, the relationship between the similarly twisted fleshy torsos is made obvious.

The other telling comparison is a Conrad Meit marble Virgin and Child done between 1531 and 1534 that I had not seen before from the Brussels cathedral and a Gossart painting dating circa 1527 of roughly the same dimensions. Here it seems Meit was looking at Gossart’s work: note the texture of the hair and folds of the garments.

All that has been discovered about the artist and his time is covered in the catalog. But it is no substitute for going to see this exhibition that allows you to make visual discoveries for yourself.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Audio Guide: Pluses and Minuses

In the New York Times of October 1, 2010 I read Arthur Rothstein’s column entitled “From Picassos to Sarcophagi, Guided by Phone Apps”. It is the newest in the use of audio and video technology to enhance the visitor experience in the Museum. His point is that the technology is in its infancy and, at the moment, can be more distracting than illuminating.

I am for anything that brings the visitor to the museum but then I want the visitors to look for themselves and have their own perceptions and reactions. The museum experience should not be like that of the tourist who rushes from one sight to another just to tick it off in a travel guide, i.e. Eifel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, Louvre (Mona Lisa, Victory of Samothrace) etc.

Bring the audience in but don’t lead them around by the nose. The order and priorities of a museum visit should not be dictated. Visiting a museum is not like learning a language at school where you are made to learn the grammar first. It should be more like visiting a foreign country and wanting to learn more about the place and its people. At first you pick up a few phrases that may then lead to the study and mastery of the language.

Long before the audio guide existed, I was taught by my father that the first time you go to a museum or to an exhibition you should just walk around and become acquainted with what is there. In a large museum such as the Metropolitan you need to pick an area such as Greek and Roman or Medieval or American Wing or Old Master Paintings, because you can’t do it all at once. Then go through again more slowly to look more carefully at what interested you the first time round and read the labels. If you are still interested by all means take an audio guide. My complaint is that many still either tell you what is on the label or what you can see for yourself!

One audio guide that I really enjoyed accompanied the presentation at the Kimbell Art Museum of the exhibition “European Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia,” in 2000. Timothy Potts had just arrived as Director of the Kimbell from his previous post at the Australian museum. Since he had been in on the original organization of the loan exhibition he could comment on reasons for the selections and the amendments that had been made by the following administration. These inside stories make the art historical content more interesting and therefore more memorable.

Like Rothstein, I feel that the visual and audio aides can sometimes distance the viewer rather than bring him closer to the art. Art is intensely personal and I believe it should be first experienced at that level.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Two Dreamers....

…one with eyes lowered as if in prayer and the other looking to the stars. Who are these women? We will never know, for they are not commissioned portrait busts but rather idealized heads based on a sculptor’s study of a live model. Furthermore, they are not even in the traditional materials of “fine arts”, stone, or bronze. These two dreamers are made of red stoneware known as Böttgerware, and produced at the porcelain factory of Meissen somewhere between the late 1920’s and mid 1930’s. Their authors were sculptors who made their living creating models for ceramic production.

These sculptural studies are a world apart from the precious quality generally associated with porcelain figurines. But modelers for porcelain factories of the 18th century were often talented sculptors (Kaendler at Meissen, Bustelli at Nymphenburg foremost among them) who could shape the human figure to conform to the stylization of the Baroque and Rococo eras. Just so with these two heads, where the realistic study of models is transformed through the lens of the Art Deco style of the twenties and thirties.

We know little about the sculptors themselves. Professor Emile Paul Börner (1888-1970) studied in Florence and the Italian tradition of the depiction of the Virgin Mary is evident in the mystical tranquility he evokes in his female subject. Even less is known about Willi Münch-Khe (1885-1961), the author of the Balinese beauty, who worked as a modeler at several other German factories as well as at Meissen. He clearly shared in the fascination with the exotic that was current in the art deco and moderne periods.

They both realized the potential of the high-fired red-brown ceramic that had been overlooked in the centuries since it was developed by the alchemist Johann Friedrich Böttger (1682-1719) in his attempts to produce porcelain for the princely patrons of the Meissen factory. He was the first in Europe to discover the formula for true porcelain known from oriental imports and Meissen began production in 1710. But the early vessels of red stoneware, now dubbed Bottgerware, are among the most prized by collectors today.

The exceptionally hard medium allows for the most refined detail and the contrast of matte and highly polished surfaces (see the eyelashes on Borner’s piece, the glistening lips on Münche-Khe’s) Did the director of the factory encourage the two sculptors to explore the medium in large sculpture? Did the two sculptors challenge each other? I have been so intrigued by my two ladies, their relationship and their contrasting beauty. They are hors de categorie, surpassing the stigma of “minor arts” associated with the products of porcelain factories.

Will we ever know the circumstance of their creation?