Iconic artwork: a curating failure?

By | February 15, 2016

…At least such was my recent experience at the exhibition of “The Greats” at the Art Gallery of NSW.

The exhibition presented around 70 works from the museums of Scotland, including drawings and paintings by the great art masters between 15th and 20th centuries. Da Vinci, Botticelli, Titian, Rafael, Rembrandt, Monet, Cezanne, Creuze, Watteau, Sargent! These are iconic names. Amazing paintings. Most of these artists are familiar to the general public, and you don’t need an art history expert to explain what is so special about them. But does that mean that galleries don’t need to put the effort into engaging the viewers with the work of these artists?

Unfortunately, I am seeing this too often. It seems that curatorial practice is nowadays limited to contemporary art exhibitions, and that the classic artworks are expected to curate themselves. Sure, we don’t need someone explaining to us that Rembrandt is an iconic name. But does that mean that we are silly enough to assume everyone knows everything about his life and work? Or even that his (or another artist’s) work does not need to be placed in the context of history, setting and artistic development at the time? Da Vinci and Monet have made it into the popular culture of the 20th and 21st centuries – but it’s absurd to think that the general knowledge of the depth of these artists is fed by that popular culture.

Personally when I visit an exhibition, I expect an experience. This could be a transportation into the world of the artist, or an attempt to acknowledge (if not re-create) the historical context of the works or the collection. Anything, really, that moves the audience away from clinical observation of individual paintings. My recent experience of David Bowie exhibition at AMC in Melbourne was exactly that: an insight into the artist and the man, while showcasing his work in context of the human being. Relatable? Absolutely! Similarly, at the exhibition of the Hermitage Masterpieces at NGV, I felt like I walked into the Hermitage museum itself. The deco was not excessive, but enough to suggest a Saint Petersburg experience with wall partitions painted like the outside of the Winter Palace (aka Hermitage museum) itself. To add to that, the exhibition clearly focused on the artworks collected by Catherine the Great, and the visitors had the opportunity to learn not only about the artwork, but about its Russian context and its value as seen by a very powerful empress. Chances are everyone walked out with a sense of a full experience of the whole exhibition, not just its artworks.

Undoubtedly “The Greats” presented some amazing and rare works to the public, providing a truly unique experience to see these works. The exhibition surely went through a rigorous amount of preparation, collaboration and many many months of work to make this possible, and I am grateful to have been able to see these artworks. (I did take a plane trip to see the exhibition!) I just wished it was actually curated, for a better connection and experience for the audiences. And I am not talking about a guided tour. I am talking about doing more than placing the art work in halls by centuries. That is a common practice in museums/galleries with permanent collections. When an international exhibition of artworks of this calibre is shown in just one city, I feel it demands adequate curatorial involvement. It is amazing to see these paintings ‘in flesh’, so come close to the detail of Rembrandt’s brushwork, Dou’s unconceivable detail, and Botticelli’s surreal combination of colour. (That is why the exhibition was full up until its last days!) This was, however, an experience of looking at a ‘live’ art book.

So why the difference? Contemporary art is often presented as an experience – performance art, installation art, digital art… Often curating is necessary in order to absorb this experience and not be completely fumbled by it. As a result, much effort goes into the presentation of such exhibitions. But it seems to me that older art is missing out. Put the artworks on the walls and let them speak for themselves! Isn’t ‘old’ art the foundation for the new? So why is it so often overlooked?

Naturally there is that eternal drive for the new. Every artist tries to break new grounds, create something fresh, to stand out from the crowd. Hey, in his time, Rembrandt was also breaking new ground: with innovative brushwork and a dramatic interplay with his viewers. Then as art moved on, he lost his popularity and went bankrupt – all because he wanted to stick to his methods while other artists and patrons were looking for that ‘something new’! But I feel that in the search for ‘something new’ we can lose our links to foundation, necessary for establishing the value of the new art we are craving. After all, what shall we compare it to? And how will we recognise its sense of innovation if there is no recognition of earlier works or the continuity between the older and the newer?

There ARE art museums that curate their artwork. The Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam boasts a fully curated permanent collection. Maybe it is an easier task with a gallery dedicated to a single artist, but this museum houses iconic works by a genius artist – an old innovator. It also displays art work by contemporary artists that respond to aspects of Van Gogh’s life or art – themed, organised and incorporated into the museum’s own collection to provide that magic thing: experience!

As a lover of classic arts, I make a point of visiting galleries whatever city I find myself in. And I can say, it is very rare to find classic works (and by ‘classic’ I mean older, non-contemporary art) actually curated to provide an experience for the viewer. After a while, the art becomes a blur – much like smelling lots of perfume bottles in a store! We get a sensory overload, and forget the experience quickly – since there was none, really. Is it too much to ask, not to expect the older artworks to ‘defend themselves’? Just because the names are iconic, galleries should not expect their visitors to be readily familiar. How about providing an experience of the art? That would be something special – particularly when it comes to international exhibitions of rarely seen works.

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