Friday, September 5, 2008

Why Do You Go?

Last Friday I went and saw this exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum. Basically, the show displayed paintings by the Impressionist painters and also earlier paintings which had inspired the Impressionists. As an art historian, I love looking at things within a historical continuum and I enjoyed observing connections between the older paintings and the later Impressionist works. The Impressionist works weren't that outstanding or famous - instead, they were relatively obscure works by big-name Impressionists (i.e. Monet, Manet, Degas, Cassatt, etc.). I have to admit, though, I'm not a die-hard lover of Impressionist art. I like it a lot, but I don't love it. I was way more excited to see the older works of art (e.g. Velasquez, Fragonard, El Greco, Lorrain). This painting of "Young Girl Reading" (Fragonard, c. 1776) was one of my favorite works. The electric purpley-blue accent paint on her pillow and bow were absolutely stunning. I wish that my reproduction of the painting did the work better justice.

All in all, the exhibition was alright. I only had two problems with the show. First of all, there was a whole room dedicated to Cezanne. Art historically, I would argue that Cezanne was not an Impressionist. I think he was more concerned with geometric forms (really, he was a precursor to Cubism) than interested in the optical effects of color and light. And second, they displayed an absolutely HIDEOUS nude by Renoir. It was disproportionate and full of really awful color combinations (I think he was (unsuccessfully) trying his hand at Fauvism, since this work was rather late (1912)). Blech. And the irony is, this monstrous painting was in the center of a doorway, acting as the "draw" to pull people into that section of the gallery! I almost laughed out loud at the irony and kept looking around me, wondering if anyone else noticed how ugly this painting was. But no, there were the museum patrons, listening to their handheld audio tour devices and intently looking at the painting with blank stares.

My past instructor Mark Magleby would have been proud at my disgust for this work by Renoir. I looked in the museum gift shop to see if there was a postcard of this horrible painting, so I could send it to Mark as a joke. They didn't have one. At least the painting wasn't high enough in the exhibition hierarchy to make it to the gift shop. The curators must have anticipated that no one would want to buy a copy of that painting to take home. And for good reason.

Anyhow, after the exhibition I was chatting with a member of the museum staff. He mentioned that the show wasn't as much of a blockbuster as the museum anticipated. He posited that the show was too "theoretical" in nature, since it asks the visitor to analyze the paintings and find connections between paintings and their painting-predecessors. While I don't think that this was the failure of the show (in my opinion, there were not enough famous paintings - no water lilies, haystacks, Rouen cathedrals, ballerinas, or luncheons on the grass to bring in the crowds of people), I thought that this was an interesting observation.

Do people avoid museum exhibitions that are theoretical? Would people rather just go to look at exhibitions which display paintings in a chronological manner, such as the National Gallery in D.C.? Do people like reading informative text panels, or would they rather just see a "tombstone label" (containing only the title of the work, artist, and date?). When I took a curatorship seminar last year, these were some of the questions we discussed. Most of the students in the class decided that people prefer theoretical exhibitions, but like to make their own conclusions - therefore, visitors like having the theory presented in large text panels or overarching themes, but then they (postmodernly) prefer to make the individual connections between the works of art and the theory presented (having "tombstone labels" by the works of art so that people aren't force-fed what connections to make with the theory). However, all of the people in this class were aspiring art historians or curators. I'm sure that our opinion of what the general public wants is tainted and biased.

So, why do you go to a museum? Is it to get "cultured?" Are you trying to figure out "what the big deal is" with famous works of art? Do you like looking at art, or do you like to analyze at the same time? How much information do you like presented to you? Would you prefer theoretical or historical information? I'm interested in responses from all types of people - and I encourage comments from people who don't visit art museums on a regular basis.

*On a similar note, I think it would be fun to have a museum exhibition that bluntly explains the reasoning for hanging each painting on the wall. You could see text labels like, "This work is here because we are trying to keep on good terms with the estate of this deceased artist. The estate wouldn't lend us another painting if we didn't hang this one for at least six months out of the year" or "This isn't a very good painting, but it is by a relatively well-known artist, so we felt justified in hanging it" or "We needed a large painting to fill this wall. You can see that the painting isn't preserved very well (note X, Y, and Z), but we're hanging it here until a better preserved painting finishes getting re-framed." I don't know if a museum would want to have an exhibition which made its authoritative/institutional voice so transparent (and think of all of the political problems it could cause between artists, curators, etc.!) but I think it would be fun.