The Art History Newsletter
Massimiliano Gioni is busy. Besides serving as associate director of the New Museum, he has in recent months discoursed on Alighiero Boetti at MoMA; juried the Victor Pinchuk Foundation’s Future Generation Artist Prize; published catalog essays on Pier Paolo Calzolari and Victor Man; worked as creative director of the Fondazione Trussardi in Milan; and co-founded the gallery Family Business. Did I mention he’s also putting together the 2013 Venice Biennale?
Gioni is the Biennale’s youngest director in 110 years, and speculation on his plans runs rampant, although few will prognosticate publicly. Nonetheless I managed to strike up a lively conversation with Legier Biederman, a curator herself and an historian of annuals, biennials, triennials, quadrennials and art-world festivalism generally. She noted first the vogue for oversized shows that feature record numbers of artists and exhibition venues. “Just the sprawling nature of the biennial can be both a point of attraction as well as contention,” says Biederman. A participant in this maximalist trend, Gioni can be expected to put together one of the most Brobdignagian Biennales yet.
Biederman notes next that Gioni will naturally be judged against the past Biennale directors—Harald Szeeman, David Birnbaum (himself the youngest director of his time), Robert Storr, Bice Curiger, Rosa Martinez, Maria de Corral, Francesco Bonami, et al. Will he play it safe, favoring the A-list art stars to whom he now has more access than ever? Or will try to upend the hierarchy? “In many ways, that’s kind of always been an attraction in the contemporary art world, the contention between inside and outside and where that line is and when one crosses it,” says Biederman.
Or will Gioni split the difference? It’s tempting for a curator to include some, but not too many emerging artists, to rely, as Legier puts it, “on the inclusion of the standard artists, for the legitimacy. There is this kind of monstrosity on the biennial circuit as it exists today. There are the individual biennials, that are tied to the specific locations and the specific histories, that have informed the biennial, but then there is this larger global art market that defines in many ways what Caroline Jones calls ‘biennial culture’. There’s always this push and pull between these two realms, of being cutting edge but still maintaining their identities as global biennials that established what contemporary art is today.”
Even the biggest risk-takers often follow well-worn paths in Venice. Biederman does expect Gioni to be adventurous in his selection of new media, but would be surprised if he broke out of the usual geographic proportions. The last Biennale, curated by Bice Curiger in 2011, was a typically Western-centric one, with 68 out of 82 artists born in the West. The largest nationality represented was American, with 14 artists; the next largest was Italian. Biederman suspects the major biennials will continue to be slow to internationalize. “The recent inclusion of non-Western artists began not too long ago. The Venice [Biennale], being the oldest and divided by national pavilions as well as prizes, has a longer history to break, [unlike say] the Havana Biennial, which focuses strategically on ‘non-Western artists’ or artists from the Caribbean or Latin America [or] Central America,” she says. Internationalizing efforts are routinely beaten to a pulp. Witness Storr’s “African Pavilion,” or Okwui Enwezor’s “Documenta 11.” Enwezor’s show, though praised for its novel structure and diverse media, was accused of didacticism and inauthenticity (many of his non-Western artists resided in Western countries). As reported in an interview with Enwezor in Nka, it was called “cumbersome”, “humorless” and “the least arty Documenta yet.”
With Gioni, there’s even less reason than usual to expect a truly international roster. Gioni’s shows, despite their maximalism and unpredictability, typically lack major geographical diversity. His 2009 ‘Younger than Jesus’ show, for instance—which declared its intention to feature the best artists around the globe under the age of thirty-three—drew more than half its artists from the West. A third were American. Artists from Africa and South America made up 5% each. Gioni resists the idea of consciously correcting such imbalances. When The New York Times asked him how he chose artists for another show, he said, “I don’t ask to see their passports.”
My editor and I requested an interview with Gioni for this article, which I originally intended to be a more general overview of his current activities. Gioni originally assented (through a representative). However, when he stipulated he must be allowed to “review the transcript and make necessary edits prior to posting,” and we declined to agree, our emails stopped being returned. Refusing subjects a sneak-peek is standard journalistic practice. But you can’t blame a Venice Biennale director for not playing by the rules, now can you?
Adam Budak, Melissa Ho, and Mika Yoshitake have been hired by the Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Budak will be the new curator of contemporary art after serving at the Kunsthaus Graz am Landesmuseum Joanneum in Graz, Austria. Ho, an art historian from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and Yoshitake, a programmer from the West Coast, will both serve as assistant curators. Kriston Capps at The Washington City Paper writes:
The hires are welcome—and long overdue. Associate curator Kristen Hileman left the Hirshhorn in 2009 to head up the contemporary art department at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Her departure left a huge void in the D.C. gallery scene, where she was greatly loved for her enthusiastic participation in juries, panels, and artist talks. Few other curators from Federal City—the National Portrait Gallery’s Anne Goodyear being one of them—show the same spirit of volunteerism in D.C. I’ll put the question to Budak, Ho, and Yoshitake now—can any of y’all fill Hileman’s shoes?
The Tate Modern has appointed Dr. Achim Borchardt-Hume as head of exhibitions. Borchardt-Hume is currently the chief curator at the Whitechapel Gallery and was previously curator of modern and contemporary art at the Tate Modern, director of the Barbican Art Gallery, and exhibition organizer at the Serpentine Gallery.
Deborah Cullen has been appointed the director and chief curator of the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University. Cullen director of curatorial programs at El Museo del Barrio. The Gallery will move in 2016 from Columbia’s Morningside Heights campus to the Lenfest Center for the Arts at the Manhattanville campus.
Sonya Rhie Quintanilla has been named the new curator of Indian and Southeast Asian Art at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Quintanilla was previously curator of Asian art at the San Diego Museum of Art and will succeed Stan Czuma who retired after 33 years in 2005.
Barbara Buhler Lynes has resigned from her position as curator of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum and director of the Museum’s Research Center. Lynes is a foremost scholar in the life and art of Georgia O’Keeffe, publishing many books and essays related to her work. Prior to her tenure at the museum, Lynes was a Professor of Art History at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, Montgomery College, Dartmouth College, and Vanderbilt University.
Carol Robbins has retired after 47 years from the Dallas Museum of Art. During her nearly 50 years at the museum, Robbins has served as Curator of Textiles, Curator of New World and Pacific Cultures and in 2006 was appointed the Ellen and Harry S. Parker III Curator of the Arts of the Americas and the Pacific.
Art Historian Daniel H. Weiss and current president of Lafayette College, has been selected as president of Haverford College starting July 2013.
Margi Conrads has been named the Deputy Director of Art and Research at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art. Conrads is currently the Samuel Sosland Senior Curator of American Art at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo. Conrads received her doctorate from the City University of New York Graduate Center and is the editor and primary author of the catalogue of the museum’s American painting collection.
The Contemporary Art Museum of St. Louis, MI has named Lisa Melandri as the director. Melandri graduated with a degree in art history from Harvard University and previously served as artistic director for the Galleries at Moore College of Art and Design of Philadelphia and deputy director for exhibitions and programs at the Santa Monica Museum of Art in California.
English art critic, scholar and painter, John Golding has died at 82. Formerly a faculty member of the Courtauld Institute of Art, Golding is possibly best known for his influential book, “Cubism: A History and an Analysis 1907-1914″ first published in 1959. Though he was a leading scholar in Cubism, he was quoted in 1994 in The Guardian as saying:
I continue to enjoy looking at Cubist pictures as much as I ever did. But I have come increasingly to realize that I do not really understand them, and I am not sure that anyone else does either.
Paola Morsiani, currently curator of contemporary art at the Cleveland Museum of Art, has been named director of the Neuberger Museum of Art of Purchase College. Morsiani was born in Venice, Italy and received her Laurea in art history and criticism from the University of Padua in Italy before continuing on for a MA in Arts Administration from New York University.
From Despina Stratigakos at the University at Buffalo:
Justine Price, associate professor of art history at Canisius College, died unexpectedly of natural causes on October 24, 2011 in Buffalo, New York. She recently had been tenured and named director of the college’s art history program. Price’s knowledge and love of art were limitless, and her professional accomplishments extended beyond academia to the worlds of publishing and museums.
Beginning her art history studies at Bryn Mawr College (B.A.’92), Price earned a Ph.D. at the University of Texas at Austin in 2007. Her dissertation, supervised by Richard Shiff, was titled, “Abstraction, Expression, Kitsch: American Painting in a Critical Context, 1936-1951.” Her work on American artists was published in edited volumes and catalogues. New scholarly directions focused on contemporary Polish photography, including recent collaborations with the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw and a 2009 exhibition of Polish contemporary photography at Canisius College.
Before joining the faculty at Canisius College in 2005, Price had been engaged in curatorial and publishing pursuits. From 2001 to 2008, Price was a tireless researcher for the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation in New York, contributing to the catalogue raisonné under the direction of Jack Cowart, director of the Foundation. She also contributed to an exhibition on Roy Lichtenstein’s American Indian Paintings, and worked as an editor and director of photography for Bill Smith Studio in New York.
Price’s death at such an early stage in her career is an incalculable loss. A much beloved teacher at Canisius College, Price supervised dozens of undergraduate theses and internships. Students flocked to her classes and her reputation as a teacher led many on the college’s ice hockey team, the Golden Griffins, to enroll in her courses. She, in turn, found time to attend their games as one of their most devoted fans. At her memorial service at Canisius College, one of the team’s members remarked that since Price had not known much about hockey and the hockey team had not known much about art, “it proved to be a good relationship.” In the summer of 2011, Price led a group of Canisius students on a service mission to an orphanage in Zmiaca, Poland, where she made many new friends among the children.
Price leaves behind her mother, father, stepmother and younger sister as well as friends around the world who were nourished by her vitality, humor, and warmth. She also leaves a legacy and a challenge: a life well lived, in service to the things and people we love.
Now at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, Matisse. Paires et séries is a small jewel box of an exhibition, studded with fifty-four paintings, thirty-four drawings, and five collages. Rich, intelligent, and uncluttered, it is that rare understated blockbuster that encourages close looking and deep thinking about the creative process. I left it inspired to view my world as openly as Henri Matisse did his.
Matisse. Paires et séries eschews dense texts in favor of subtle installation techniques to activate the works’ mysteries. The walls provide just a short chronology, two quotations from the artist, and three explanatory panels, with no interpretation of individual works. The works seduce the eye, while their careful juxtaposition encourages thought. The viewer is invited to participate in the task Matisse set for himself early on—to merge sensation and cognition. “What I am after, above all, is expression. … Composition is the art of arranging in a decorative manner the diverse elements at the painter’s command to express his feelings,” Matisse wrote in his 1908 “Notes of a Painter” (Translation Jack Flam, Matisse on Art, 1973).
In the first rooms, paintings treating the same subject are hung in two and threes. The paintings’ labels, which indicate studio locations and months or seasons, suggest that Matisse worked on these groups simultaneously or in rapid succession. The variety within themes is striking and instructive. The busy detail in both facture and narrative of the gray Pont Saint-Michel, Paris, Effect of Snow (c. 1900, Stiftung Sammlung E.G. Bührle, Zurich) seems downright Impressionistic compared to the roughly scumbled azure and turquoise sky that dissipates to gessoed canvas in the right edge of Pont Saint-Michel (c. 1900, Centre Pompidou, Paris) or the geometric planes of vivid color in Pont Saint-Michel (c. 1901, Santa Barbara Museum of Art). Clearly, something more than a simple recording of the changing seasons is at play here.
Matisse’s paintings, particularly their colors, lose much in reproduction. Seeing both versions of Le Luxe (1907; version I: Centre Pompidou, Paris; version II: Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen) illustrates his power to use color to express divergent visions of the same composition, as do the two versions of Nasturtiums with the Painting “Dance” (1912; version I: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; version II: Pushkin Museum, Moscow). Other pairings demonstrate how deeply Matisse engaged the issue of pictorial depth. The Cubist-inspired geometry and insistent flatness of Goldfish and Palette (1914, Museum of Modern Art, New York) complicates the seemingly comfortable perspective of Interior with a Goldfish Bowl (1914, Centre Pompidou, Paris), and vice versa. Witness the way Matisse scratched away paint with a wood brush-handle in the New York picture, revealing a literal and illusionistic depth in its multiple layers.
Many of these paintings were never exhibited as pendants, but as Matisse. Paires et séries unfolds, it provides evidence that at least by the end of his career, Matisse wanted to reveal his creative process. The exhibition next turns to drawings that Matisse expressly created in series and published in the 1943 book Dessins: Thèmes et Variations. It reproduced seventeen series—eleven of women, six of still lifes—that Matisse made in the Hotel Régina in Nice during 1941 and 1942. The drawings are complete works of art in their own right, lyrical meditations on a theme. In series F, Matisse depicts a reclining woman from multiple angles across ten drawings, alternately zooming in and pulling back, even depicting her twice in one drawing. From the spare lines of the initial charcoal drawing, the artist adds detail in his arabesque-like pen and ink variations, before returning to an economical but energetic line in the final pencil drawings.
Matisse. Paires et séries presents the original drawings from series F, H, and M. They benefit greatly from their display on the gallery walls, uninterrupted by the act of turning the page or the need to rotate the large folio as the drawings’ orientations change. (A photograph reproduced in mural scale in the exhibition tellingly shows the original drawings tacked in neat rows and columns filling the walls of Matisse’s studio-apartment.) Seen here, the drawings seem much closer to the non-linear experience that Matisse must have had as he was creating them. The result suggests an artist constantly moving around his motif, responding to it differently, and changing his mind about how he sees and feels it. These suites of drawings read as poetic explorations of the world in all of its variations rather than strict progressions toward an ideal.
In the 1930s, Matisse began employing photographers to document the unfolding of his paintings. In December 1945 at the Galerie Maeght in Paris, in addition to drawings and sculptures, Matisse exhibited six paintings, each surrounded by framed photographs of the various ‘states’. It seems certain that Matisse wanted to grant his audience a glimpse of his artistic process.
Matisse. Paires et séries reunites four of the Galerie Maeght paintings and reproduces the documentary photographs in a format that I found frustrating at first. Postcard-sized and displayed in a glass-topped table, they are difficult to see when the gallery is crowded. Worse, only two of the completed canvases are exhibited in the same gallery as the photographs. Yet the close looking borne of this situation ultimately led to discovery. Forced to rely on my memory to make comparisons, I examined the preparatory photographs carefully, marveling at the variety they divulged. The fourteen photographs chronicling Matisse’s process of painting The Romanian Blouse (Centre Pompidou, Paris), from 11 December 1939 to 23 April 1940, show a fascinating trajectory. It began as a representational, floridly detailed portrait in contours, until Matisse added and subtracted detail en route to the elegantly spare final version. When I finally looked at the completed canvas in the subsequent gallery, the experience was intense. It looked less like a static resolution than a pulsing, almost living entity. I could no longer see the earlier layers (although in other canvases, pentimenti do exist), but my memories of them indelibly infused its current incarnation. The constant balancing act Matisse waged between sensation, cognition, and expression—between seeing, thinking, and feeling—was palpable. The artist’s desire to “reach that state of condensation of sensations which makes a painting,” suddenly made thrilling sense.
Matisse. Paires et séries concludes with a series of gouache cut-outs, Blue Nude I-IV (1952, version I: Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel; versions II and III: Centre Pompidou, Paris; version IV, Musée Matisse, Nice). No label need tell you that the “fourth” version was made first: the flurry of partially erased charcoal lines on its support, as well as the many fragments of cut and layered paper composing the figure, betray a complex distillation of a motif, which is then subtly adapted in the other three variations. This final moment in the exhibition is both visually and intellectually powerful. It suggests that for Matisse, artmaking was not just teleology, a series of steps toward a beautiful picture, but also a deeply personal coming to terms with a world in flux. In his words, “I am unable to distinguish between the feeling I have about life and my way of translating it.” By inviting us to look carefully at Matisse’s art, and to reflect on the personal quest it conveys, Matisse. Paires et séries gently encourages us to open our eyes and minds to new perspectives on our own experience.
Matisse. Paires et séries is on view at the Centre Pompidou in Paris through June 18, 2012. It will travel to Copenhagen’s Statens Museum for Kunst (July 14-October 28, 2012) and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (December 2, 2012-March 17, 2013). A richly illustrated, 288-page French-language catalogue accompanies the exhibition in Paris. Edited by exhibition curator Cécile Debray, it includes short essays by scholars including Yve-Alain Bois, Éric de Chassey, Anne Coron, John Elderfield, Jack Flam, and Rémi Labrusse, as well as two conservation notes, on Le Luxe I and II and Nasturtiums with the Painting “Dance” I and II. An official iPad application devoted to the exhibition is also available for download.
Expect long lines and crowds. I recommend buying and printing tickets online in advance, and the evening viewing hours—it’s open until 10:50 p.m. Thursday to Monday. What better time to emerge from this exhibition than on a weekend night, when after-images of Matisse’s bright canvases will illuminate your dark walk home?
So much to write, so little time. Tempted as I am to relate the story of the 13-year-old who corrected a Metropolitan Museum map, I want to talk today about the new Slate podcast Lexicon Valley, which took an unexpected, fascinating dip into art history last week with its 8th episode, “When Nouns Grew Genitals.” Languages that assign genders to nouns, Lexicon Valley notes, often assign them arbitrarily. But is it possible, they ask, that even in those cases the assignments influence the way we think of those words?
To wit, “Does the grammatical gender of nouns in an artist’s native language enable us to predict how those artists will personify things in their art?” co-host Mike Vuolo asks psychologist Lera Boroditsky:
Boroditsky [and Edward Segel] identified works by Italian, French, German and Spanish artists, all grammatically gendered languages, from around 1200 AD up to today. Artworks that depicted a personification of an abstract entity, things like justice, time, fame, peace, truth. Their sample size was about 800 [drawn from ARTstor] and they found that 78% of the time the gender in the artwork matched the grammatical gender of the word being personified in the artist’s native language. In other words, if in your native language death is feminine you’re far more likely to personify death as a woman.
Book Review: Bouvet, Vincent and Gérard Durozoi. Paris Between the Wars 1919-1939: Art, Life and Culture. Trans. Ruth Sharman. New York: Vendome Press. Print. 2010.
Art is neither created nor viewed in a vacuum. It is this notion perhaps that helped to inspire Vincent Bouvet and Gérard Durozoi in the organization of their recent book Paris Between the Wars 1919-1939: Art, Life and Culture. Bouvet and Durozoi’s effectively chosen subtitle prepares the reader to view the arts of the period in a set of wider contexts. With chapters discussing daily life in Paris, the history and experiences of this city, and the influential position held by the decorative arts, the authors subtly and effectively reframe their view of artistic life in this often-studied time and place. Tellingly, painting and sculpture are addressed together in the fifth chapter of the book, preceded by the chapters described above as well as “The World of Fashion.” With following chapters that discuss photography, film, advertising, literature, and music, readers are left with a strong understating of the cross-pollination endemic of artistic production in 1920s and 1930s Paris.
Nonetheless there are moments when the purpose of this inclusiveness is not entirely clear. Bouvet’s chapter “The City of Light” provides an overview of major infrastructure and civic development projects undertaken in Paris in the years after World War I. Each of these projects is treated briefly, as one might expect given the scope this book. Unfortunately what they meant for the development of the arts in Paris remains unclear. For example, Bouvet’s analysis of public transport in Paris discusses new motorways, the availability of air travel, and the development of Paris’ tram system. How did this mobility affect the production, display, or sale of art? Did it serve as a subject for art, or alter the consciousness of artists, or their sense of modernity? Certainly this new public mobility had effects on the lives of artists. Here, as in other areas, Bouvet and Durozoi have suggested areas of potential influence on the arts that may be further explored in more focused studies.
The second guiding principle of the book is to include an abundance of relevant, high quality images. Far from making the study into a picture-book, the images reproduced throughout the text serve to frame, inform, and illustrate the text quite effectively. For example, two color photographs of the 1925 Exposition des Arts Décoratifs et Industriel Modernes are displayed on pages 106 and 107. The photograph on page 106 shows the Porte d’Orsay entrance to the Exposition on what appears to be a quiet day. A few blurry figures stand near the entrance, while the sharply angled lighting and scattered leaves suggest early autumn. The entrance gate is overshadowed by a large decorative panel that is about 60 feet tall and decorated in a Cubist style. The image in this panel is composed of six figures arranged vertically, each representing one of the modes of art on display in the Exposition. The impressive scale of this entrance helps to underscore the powerful role that the 1925 Exposition has played in the development of both decorative and fine arts. Printed on page 107 is a color photograph showing two of the department store pavilions from the Exposition. The distinctively Art Deco architecture and signage is familiarized by the green of the grass, blue tones in the sky, and sharp red fence demarcating space in the left background. That color photographs of high descriptive value survive at all from the 1925 Expo is remarkable. In the context of Bouvet’s chapter on the decorative arts, they help to bring the artistic experience described by the author closer to reality.
One of the great joys of studying history is the thrill of imagining living and operating in a different time and place. Though not often discussed by historians, this imaginary process is a great reward of deep archival and scholarly research. In the hands of Bouvet and Durozoi the reader’s imaginary experience is quite strong, supported by the numerous and descriptive images, and the ambiance of the everyday. Rich in quality images, thoughtfully organized, and lucidly written, Bouvet and Durozoi’s addition to the vast literature on Les Années folles is directed primarily at readers who are fairly new to its subject. Nonetheless I suspect that those who have studied the arts of the period will benefit from this text, and find its carefully selected images and broad overview of the experience of artistic Paris in the 1920s and 1930s rewarding.
The term “snapshot” predates the invention of photography. From 1808, the term has meant “a quick or hurried shot taken without deliberate aim, esp. one at a rising bird or quickly moving animal.” It is strange to think that this hunting term for a spontaneous and haphazard reaction would ever be associated with the Nabis – those “prophets” of Modernism gathered around Maurice Denis’ assertion that a picture is essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order. Nevertheless this is the evidence presented by “Snapshot: Painters and Photography, Bonnard to Vuillard” currently on view at the Phillips Collection; the exhibition provides yet another opportunity to consider the technological mediation of perception and the fraught relationship between painting and photography.
Rooted in the discovery of thousands of snapshots in Edouard Vuillard’s family archive, the exhibition shows Pierre Bonnard, Maurice Denis, Henri Rivière Félix Vallotton as well as Dutch painter George Hendrik Breitner and Belgian Henri Evenepoel to have been swept up in the craze for handheld cameras that seized the United States and Europe after the invention of the Kodak by George Eastman in 1888. By pairing over 200 of these photographs with 70 paintings, prints and drawings, “Snapshot” forces us to see the work of these artists through their respective engagements with photography.
Though visually exhausting, the sheer number of photos in the show conveys the explosion of images brought by the Kodak, and makes palpable the atmosphere of technological novelty. Aimed at cultivating a mass amateur market, Kodak cameras became a phenomenon in the 1890s by making everyday life a subject for photography. Marketed with the slogan “you press the button, we do the rest”, the Kodak freed consumers of the need for technical or aesthetic aptitude. Within reach of the middle-class consumer, the box cameras came loaded with a 100-exposure roll, and could be sent to a processing facility where the negatives were developed, the camera reloaded and mailed back to the owner. Indeed these devices seemed designed to prevent deliberate composition: held at the waist, the operator could only approximate the frame and focus through a distant viewfinder. As Clément Chéroux argues in the catalogue, the Nabis were not among the amateurs of the fin de siècle who formed photo-clubs and considered photography a hobby. Rather, these were photo-dilettantes who engaged in visual notetaking of daily life and social gatherings, comparable to today’s Facebook mobile uploads.
This artlessness would seem to place the snapshot at an almost inconceivable distance from the virtuosic manipulation of pigment and surface texture that, giving rise to indeterminate spatial and psychological scenarios, creates an almost synaesthetic effect in the paintings of Bonnard and Vuillard. However by highlighting the snapshot’s contingencies of space, cropping, shadow and depth of field, as well as the intimate subject matter brought into view, we are given the sense that around century’s end photography had permeated these painters’ visual awareness in subtle and elusive ways. For instance Nude in an Interior (c. 1935) is a shimmering image of Marthe at her bath that displays Bonnard’s anguishing ability to emanate light from within his paintings. It bears a resemblance to the photograph of Marthe in a similar pose and setting hanging next to it, and we think that we have arrived at the source. However the snapshot, Marthe in the Bathtub, Vernouillet, was taken in 1910, and predates the painting by twenty-five years. In the case of Bonnard, who lost interest in photography in 1916, the snapshot seems to have been a brief preoccupation with questionable authority over the chromatic and spatial investigations that he sustained into the middle of the last century.
Relationships between painted and photographic images are conjured and troubled throughout the exhibition. Vuillard’s Child Playing: Annette in Front of a Wooden Chair (1900) is emblematic of his signature conflation of the subject’s absorptive experience with a patterned interior. Its relation to the strikingly similar snapshot hanging next to it of a boy sitting in a room draped with correspondingly decorative arabesques seems clear, but the photograph was taken by Evenopoel – the Belgian who was included in the exhibition because of his thematic and stylistic convergence with the Nabis.
The final room presents the highlight of the exhibition: a suite of paintings by Vuillard paired with snapshots from the cache discovered in his family archive. Even here, the relationship between his camerawork and painted interiors is mostly a matter of conjecture. In a series of lively snapshots Misia Natanson – wife of Revue blanche editor Thalée Natanson– mugs for and returns Vuillard’s plainly infatuated gaze. However, in the corresponding painting, In Front of the Tapestry: Misia and Thalée Natanson, Rue St. Florentin (1899), her face is obscured and turned away from view. Thalée’s hand likewise covers his face, and the two figures merge into a muted decorative scheme that belies the emotionally fraught scenario. The famous Interior with Mother and Sister of the Artist (1893) creates a spatial and psychological claustrophobia that is echoed in the surrounding snapshots of Vuillard’s family apartment, yet the painting predates Vuillard’s engagement with photography by two years. Can it be argued that photography affected Vuillard’s painting before he owned a camera?
The Nabis are often associated with a hermetic retreat from the disruptions of modern life into an aesthetics of bourgeois interiority. Recently, T.J. Clark has held up this aestheticism as an alternative to the 20th century’s legacy of avant-garde negation. By conjuring “a sense of what the aesthetic existence keeps at bay”, Clark writes “Bonnard’s art, in its privacy and privation, internalizes the disaster of the twentieth century in a way that all forms of ‘modern’ fellow-travelling – even the noblest and most well-meaning – to my mind fail to do. Retreat and dream, in other words, are a necessary moment of the art of the last hundred years.” However the comparison that “Snapshot” solicits with the circulation of images in present-day forms of social media suggests that, beginning with the Kodak, this aestheticist retreat was becoming less and less possible, and that one could not return to a form of painting that was unaware of photography. The snapshot, as Douglas Nickel writes, changed “the way people regarded their own histories…the way lives were lived became entangled in the way lives were represented. A modern society of the spectacle was taking shape.”
Could these artists have been aware of the historical implications of this vast expansion of image production at the end of the 19th century? The tension in “Snapshot” between handmade and mechanical images gives a sense that the stakes for art were becoming clear. Though they thrilled to the snapshot in life, the ambivalence of the Nabis’ painted response anticipates Walter Benjamin’s judgment of 1931: “the amateur who returns home with great piles of artistic shots is in fact no more appealing a figure than the hunter who comes back with quantities of game that is useless to anyone but the merchant. And the day does indeed seem to be at hand when there will be more illustrated magazines than game merchants. So much for the snapshot.”
Walter Denny, senior consultant to the Met’s new Islamic galleries, was my first art history professor at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. His intro class had two hundred students. Arriving the first day, I noted students clustered around the podium. Through them I could see a robust man with white hair and a bright purple laptop – the first hint of his animate persona. Although I don’t remember Denny’s first words to the class, I recall his ability to capture attention and respect. He said, “People often tell me I’m intimidating, but once they get to know me, they find that I’m really quite sweet.” I later checked ratemyprofessor.com and found a certain amount of “Works you like a mule” and “BEWARE.” Others complimented his teaching, personality and infectious passion. “Walter is really a throwback to the old-fashioned scholar,” one report notes astutely. Although my impression of Professor Denny has changed over the years, one thing was made very clear on that first day: This man doesn’t mess around, or stop for breath. As the note-taking began, he warned us, “Drop your pencil and you’ll miss one hundred years.” Still, he manages to leaven the lecturing with tales of his most recent misfortunes. “The vending machine ate my quarters!” “I walked into a glass wall!”
When I walk into Denny’s office to interview him for this article, I no longer have concerns about tests or papers. As he finishes off his chocolate milk, I pull up a chair, excited to learn where he came from, how he chose Islamic art, and his impressions of working at the Met. Denny grew up in small-town Iowa where he developed interests in physics, math and music. At fifteen, his father got a Fulbright to teach physics at Robert College in Istanbul, where Denny fell in love with architecture, one building in particular: the Mosque of Rustem Pasha. He found it in a French guidebook, given to him by a friend’s mother. “‘It’s very beautiful,’ she said. ‘You might want to take a look.’” Eight years later, Denny wrote his thesis at Harvard on this very mosque, whose “decoration came at a crucial moment in Ottoman Turkish art in the 16th century.” Forty-three years later, this fall, he’s doing an exhibition at the Textile Museum in Washington on this same period in which Turkish art changed suddenly.
Although Denny is quick to note, “I wanted to be a teacher since I was two,” he has always divided his time between academia and museum-work. He’s worked for the Harvard Art Museums, the Smith College Museum of Art and, for the last five years, the Met.
Every good art historian has to know something about museums because that’s where the art is. They used to ask the bank robber, Willie Sutton, why he robbed banks and he said ‘because that’s where the money is stupid!’ And it’s true…There’s a group of art historians today that believe that theory is their province and that they shouldn’t have to deal with things and quite frankly that’s an attitude that has come into graduate schools and it’s just as wrong as wrong can be.
Denny travels from Amherst, Massachusetts, to New York every week. His involvement with the Met began nearly five years ago, when a colleague asked Denny if he had a student interested in working on the museum’s Ottoman Turkish art. Denny decided that he himself was interested. He was especially excited to research a particular carpet that had been deemed fake by four art historians and warehoused. He smiles, telling me “It’s one of the greatest carpets they’ve got and in another couple of months it’ll be on display.” (He’ll be giving a lecture on it this week at the museum.) Denny has also worked on the Met’s website, photos, educational materials, tour-guide training and audio guides.
For the new Islamic galleries, he “worked with conservators, designers, helped to write the labels, wall texts and provided photographs.” He’s proud of the galleries’ architecture, which serves to contextualize Islamic art, he feels. The courtyard was made by Moroccan craftsmen and the Damascus room is “a room right out of a palace in the 18th century.” Generally, it seems that “people really love [these areas].” Although some critics believe museums shouldn’t present architectural reconstructions, Denny defends them. “The museum really told [the craftsmen] what we wanted. That is, we had art historians and professionals do all the planning and then the craftsmen executed it according to what we wanted.” Denny said that “the biggest surprise [he] had was how smoothly things went. There were so many people working on this, so many people on the team and they were so diverse. It was a very nice surprise.”
Denny’s appointment at the Met was originally planned to end with the opening of the galleries, but he was asked to stay, to help rotate the collections. Preserving the objects requires replacing silks every three months, wool every six months, and so on. The museum’s Islamic collection consists of 12,000 works, ten percent on view at a time. Accordingly, the tours, audio, and wall text must also change. So it seems that Denny will stay for years to come, studying the art of his fascination.
I asked Denny if the events of September 11, 2001 changed the museum’s plans for the galleries. As he explains,
They went right ahead with their plans and pretty much what we have there today is what they intended to have all along…I think people are more interested than they would have been, but the Met’s mission is pretty clear. The museum is careful not to have a political agenda and I think it works. These questions were all asked by reporters and Philippe de Montebello, who of course was there when I wasn’t, stated very clearly and unequivocally that this has been in our plans all along. This is not a response to political events. The museum is simply doing what the museum does.
Denny says he hopes the galleries will help to accurately inform people about Islam. He says that the department’s “new mantra is ‘from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean,’” meaning that Islamic art is not monolithic and exists in many different cultures – “Arabs, Turks, Persians, Indians, all kinds of ethnic groups, all kinds of languages.” He notes that there is secular Islamic art, not just religious, and that despite popular belief there are many human and animal figures. Most importantly, however, is the understanding we gain of the people, who as Denny explains “are just like us. Some of them are fun loving, some of them aren’t, they like to laugh, they like to have a good meal and a good time and even lift a good glass, which they’re not supposed to do. And the art helps to show this.” The galleries have been well received. In their first four months 360,000 visited, an extraordinary number for such a small section.
Still thinking about his year abroad at age fifteen, he tells me toward the end of the interview, “What really astounded me at the beginning was not how different Istanbul was from Grinnell, Iowa, because it certainly was different, but once I got to know people, how very similar they were.”
Critic Hilton Kramer died this past week at the age of 84. The New York Times writes:
A resolute high Modernist, he was out of sympathy with many of the aesthetic waves that came after the great achievements of the New York School, notably Pop (“a very great disaster”), Conceptual art (“scrapbook art”) and postmodernism (“modernism with a sneer, a giggle, modernism without any animating faith in the nobility and pertinence of its cultural mandate”).
Alejandro Zaera-Polo has been selected as the dean of Princeton University’s School of Architecture. Zaera-Polo has been a visiting lecturer in architecture at Princeton since 2008. On top of his work at Princeton, Zaera-Polo is also the Berlage Chair at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands and the Norman R. Foster Visiting Professorship of Architectural Design at Yale University. Alejandro Zaera-Polo will succeed Stan Allen, the dean since 2002, who will return to full-time teaching and architectural design.
Joel Smith has been appointed the first curator of photography at the Morgan Library & Museum. Smith has been working at Princeton University Art Museum since 2005 and was named Peter C. Bunnell Curator of Photography there in 2011.
Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, Toronto, Canada has named Gaëtane Verna as director. Verna was previously director and chief curator at the Musée d’art de Joliette in Lanadaudière, Québec.
Sotheby’s has appointed Ryoichi Hirano as International Senior Specialist for Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art and Deputy Managing Director, Sotheby’s Japan. Hirano is the former head of the art gallery Hirano Kotoken and gallery director of the Yayoi Gallery in Tokyo.
CAA has announced the sessions for the 2013 conference. The three I’m most looking forward to:
Art and “The War on Terror”: Ten Years On
August Jordan Davis, Winchester School of Art, A.J.Davis@soton.ac.uk
March 2013 marks the tenth anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (collectively identified by the Bush administration’s rubric of “the war on terror”) featured in myriad ways (both explicitly and tacitly) within contemporary art production, exhibitions, and criticism of the 2000s. This session offers a forum for a timely review of this decade of art and war (and their interpenetration). The session consists of a roundtable of artists, art historians, and critics, including Martha Rosler, Jonathan Har- ris, and Nicholas Mirzoeff, followed by papers. Papers might address the art and activism of Artists Against the War; pertinent curato- rial projects of this period (e.g., the Whitney Biennial of 2006: Day for Night); the work of “embedded” artists; popular culture’s role in shaping narratives of the wars (e.g., films including World Trade Center, Lions for Lambs, Rendition, Stop-Loss); or consider what the legacy of this recent past might mean for art today.
The “New Connoisseurship”: A Conversation among Scholars, Curators, and Conservators
Gail Feigenbaum, Getty Research Institute; and Perry Chapman, University of Delaware
A conversation on the past, present, and future of the “new connoisseurship” brings together leading figures from the academy, mu- seum, and laboratory to consider what matters about the material objects we study. The aim is to go beyond stocktaking to recuperating and repositioning the material object as subject for art-historical research. What lessons can we learn from the ever “new” and serially “scientific” connoisseurship, from Morelli’s forensics to Berenson’s reliance on photographic evidence, to today’s “technical art history”? Given the fate of the Rembrandt Research Project, as well as what scholarship has revealed about artistic practice in the workshop, can or should we aspire to establish a corpus of “authentic” or “autograph” works, or is this a chimera, the wrong question to ask? At this moment can we look squarely and constructively at connoisseurship, a word that has come to be spoken with disdain by so many schol- ars, redolent of an outmoded practice? “Close looking,” so fetishized and admired and freighted a concept, neither accounts for what is below the visible surface, nor recognizes the interventions and transformations of appearance of that surface resulting from the vicissi- tudes of time and restoration. What can be gained from research and rethinking the historical record as it becomes increasingly available in conservation archives? How can we ask better questions and benefit from our varied categories of knowledge going forward? What can or should art historians do to take advantage of—and to train a generation of “new connoisseurs” conversant in—new developments in conservation and technical studies?
The Changing Complexion of Theory
Ian Verstegen, Moore College of Art and Design, Philadelphia, email@example.com
This panel is devoted to registering the fundamentally chang- ing nature of contemporary theory. For many years, theory was influenced by post-structuralism, and the theories of Derrida, Lacan, and Foucault were largely language-based and devoted to forms of nominalism. More recently, with the sociological determinist approach of Pierre Bourdieu, the materialism of Slavoj Zizek, the realism of Jacques Deleuze (at least as imputed by Manuel de Landa), and Alain Badiou has disrupted this status quo. Today, we are more likely to take for granted the relevance of biology and the natural sciences, while the return of Marx has been more serious than countenanced by Derrida or Foucault. This panel not only seeks to trace the influence of such newer ideas but also raise the very question of theory in the humanities. Papers are sought that go beyond the exegesis of
recent theorists and discuss the relation of theory and the func- tion of relativism and objectivism in the academy.