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Category: Exhibitions

Josefa de Óbidos: Delectable Details

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Josefa de Ayala, Still life with sweets, flowers and cheese in a basket, signed and dated

Josefa de Ayala, Still life with sweets, flowers and cheese in a basket, signed and dated “Josepha em Obidos 1676”, oil on canvas, Casa-Museu Anselmo Braamcamp Freire, Santarém (detail)

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Josefa de Ayala, Still life with sweets and pottery, signed and dated

Josefa de Ayala, Still life with sweets and pottery, signed and dated “Josepha em Obidos 1676”, oil on canvas, Casa-Museu Anselmo Braamcamp Freire, Santarém (detail)

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Three weeks ago, I had the chance to see the Josefa de Óbidos exhibition at the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga. It was exactly the kind of exhibition that I hoped to see this museum organize: subtitled “The Invention of the Portuguese Baroque”, it showcases the unique and extraordinary case of a female professional painter, that managed to surpass the narrow local confines of the province she worked in and build a very successful career, with important official commissions for churches, as well as a remarkable series of still life painting. Signing proudly her paintings with her name and the town she lived in (Óbidos), Josefa de Ayala took over the workshop where she had worked alongside her father, the Seville-trained painter Baltazar Gomes Figueira, and continued producing the still lifes that became a kind of brand.

Baltazar Gomes Figueira or Josefa de Ayala, Still life with cakes, c. 1660-1670, oil on canvas, Museu de Évora (detail)

Baltazar Gomes Figueira or Josefa de Ayala, Still life with cakes, c. 1660-1670, oil on canvas, Museu de Évora (detail)

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Baltazar Gomes Figueira - Josefa de Ayala, The month of June, c. 1668, oil on canvas, Private collection

Baltazar Gomes Figueira – Josefa de Ayala, The month of June, c. 1668, oil on canvas, Private collection (detail)

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Curated by the tireless team of the MNAA, headed by the brilliant Joaquim Oliveira Caetano, the exhibition is beautifully and comprehensively hung, with rooms organized thematically that allow the visitor to fully appreciate the production of Josefa, the joint production of still life painting by her and her father (one of the most enlightening sections), as well as the production of the workshop. In many cases, the hanging invites the stylistic comparisons that normally help art historians clear attributions, but some paintings are remarkably similar, and we probably shall never be able to distinguish their authors. The exhibition also profits immensely from the juxtaposition of similarly themed paintings from public museums and private collections, revealing how popular Josefa is, and has been, with collectors.

Josefa de Ayala, Still life with watermelon and pears, c. 1670, oil on canvas, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon

Josefa de Ayala, Still life with watermelon and pears, c. 1670, oil on canvas, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon (detail)

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Josefa de Ayala, Still life with watermelon and grapes, c. 1670, oil on canvas, Private collection

Josefa de Ayala, Still life with watermelon and grapes, c. 1670, oil on canvas, Private collection (detail)

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I have only one mild criticism, since I would have preferred to see the two sections, on Spanish seventeenth-century still life painting, and the Portuguese decorative arts, integrated with the rest of the exhibition, as opposed to being artificially separated. This does not facilitate the otherwise convincing points about the similarities between Spanish and Portuguese still life, and the importance of the decorative arts in the Portuguese context – certainly more important than the traditionally defined as “fine arts”. The hanging of the Francisco de Zurbarán paintings that adorn the exhibition, on the other hand, was far more successful in underlying the points of contact and the stylistic affinities between the two painters.

Josefa de Ayala, Pentecost, c. 1660-1670, oil on canvas, Museu Nacional Machado de Castro, Coimbra (detail)

Josefa de Ayala, Pentecost, c. 1660-1670, oil on canvas, Museu Nacional Machado de Castro, Coimbra (detail)

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Francisco de Zurbarán, Jesus of the thorn, oil on canvas, Museo de Bellas Artes de Sevilla (detail)

Francisco de Zurbarán, Jesus of the thorn, oil on canvas, Museo de Bellas Artes de Sevilla (detail)

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Imagine, then, my surprise when, midway through this hugely satisfying exhibition, I came across its real revelation: Manuel de Sousa, or Frei Cipriano da Cruz, as he is more widely known, the Benedictine monk and sculptor, part of whose artistic activity coincides with that of Josefa’s. While Josefa’s attractions are rather obvious, Baroque wooden, painted sculpture is neither the most popular art form, nor exactly well known – outside the realm of specialists, or perhaps even believers who know works in small, provincial churches that the greater public ignores. Cipriano’s works though are unqualified masterpieces and they deserve wider acclaim. Their level of quality is simply astounding – albeit difficult to transmit through standard reproductions.

Frei Cipriano da Cruz (sculptor), Luís de Oliveira (painter gilder), St. Catherine of Alexandria, 1691-1692, polychromed chestnut wood, gilded and upholstered, Museu de Arte Sacra da Universidade de Coimbra (detail)

Frei Cipriano da Cruz (sculptor), Luís de Oliveira (painter gilder), St. Catherine of Alexandria, 1691-1692, polychromed chestnut wood, gilded and upholstered, Museu de Arte Sacra da Universidade de Coimbra (detail)

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Frei Cipriano da Cruz (sculptor), Pascoal de Sousa (painter), St. Gregory the Great, 1685-1692, polychromed wood, gilded and upholstered, Capela do Cemitério de São Paio de Gramaços (detail)

Frei Cipriano da Cruz (sculptor), Pascoal de Sousa (painter), St. Gregory the Great, 1685-1692, polychromed wood, gilded and upholstered, Capela do Cemitério de São Paio de Gramaços (detail)

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.The lavish attention to texture and surface detail, the craftsmanship, and meticulous execution of intricate floral patterns should be considered as typical of the period’s sculpture, that eschews the canonical material of Italian sculpture (marble), and should be appreciated within an entirely different tradition, Iberian as well as Portuguese. It is time to let the world know.

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(photos © Foteini Vlachou)

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A andorinha: Some thoughts on the appointment of Penelope Curtis as the new director of the Gulbenkian Museum

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In Portuguese, as in Greek, the popular saying “uma andorinha não faz a primavera” refers to the necessity of additional evidence before reaching any definitive conclusions. I half-dreamed the title of this post, while thinking about the recent appointment of Penelope Curtis as the new director of the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon. I was excited that an international scholar, with a considerable scholarly and academic background, will be helming what is probably my favorite museum (the Iznik ceramics! among many, many other things). The announcement was nevertheless marred by reports focusing on the criticism she has received as director of the Tate Britain, making her transition to Portugal seem like a barely disguised downgrading (for her). This negative focus is even reflected in the way that the Gulbenkian Museum is referred to in the British press. I was incredulous, at best, when I saw it referred to as a “small gallery” in The Telegraph‘s article of two days ago. At worst, I was offended by the ignorance and the condescending tone of the writer.

Let me go ahead and say that I am not especially familiar with Curtis’s record as a curator and director and that I am not personally acquainted with her. Yet, strangely, I felt the need to speak up against these reviews that have widely circulated, even though Curtis looks like someone perfectly capable of waging her own battles. Criticism has focused on two major issues: her management of the Tate (yes, attendance dropped, but large parts of the museum were closed for refurbishment during a considerable period of time), and the exhibitions organized under her responsibility.

I have not seen any of these recent exhibitions that were reviled by the British press. I have only visited the new installation of the Tate Britain permanent collection (last May), but I would not readily agree that it was a resounding success. While it was refreshing to see showcased paintings such as Johan Zoffany’s Colonel Mordaunt’s Cock Match, the overall chronological display felt neither novel nor particularly illuminating. Furthermore, a surprising number of paintings are behind glass, making viewing, let alone taking pictures, almost an impossibility, particularly for the ones hung at the highest tiers. Other reasons are too personal to matter here (I shall never understand the fondness for Turner that makes the dedication of what seems like an interminable series of rooms dedicated to him a necessity). What’s more, opinions such as the one expressed by Richard Dorment, who positively reviewed the installation, remain highly suspect to me: “Though you can find all the information and interpretation you need about the pictures elsewhere, the galleries are about the pictures not their context” (my emphasis). This is an old-fashioned, even conservative view of an art museum, where aesthetic contemplation of works should be uppermost. No, thank you, I’ll take context any day of the week.

The occasional vitriol notwithstanding, the reviews directed against exhibitions such as Sculpture Victorious (running till May 25), are in and of themselves quite fascinating. First, because they demonstrate the vitality of art criticism in Great Britain. Imagine an art critic in Portugal demanding the head of a director of a national museum on a silver platter. Hell, imagine a bad review of a major exhibition published in one of the big news outlets, such as Público or Diário de Notícias. You can’t – because there aren’t any. Criticism in this country is tantamount to personal insult, so we politely refrain from it.

Thomas Longmore and John Hénk Elephant 1889, © Thomas Goode & Co. Ltd., London, from the Sculpture Victorious exhibition, Tate Britain, 2015

Thomas Longmore and John Hénk, Elephant, 1889, © Thomas Goode & Co. Ltd., London

The other notable thing about these reviews is their manifest bias. A bias regarding what art is and what it should do, and how museums that own it should display it. Of all the reviews that I read, the positive ones (such as this excellent one by Tristram Hunt) were not written by art critics and this is revealing of a trend. What is historically pertinent, educational or enlightening apparently failed to appeal to the art critics, who invariably complained about the poor quality of the art displayed and the incoherence of the objects selected.

What shines through in several of the reviewers’ comments is the sheer uncomfortableness of being confronted with their imperial past, ironically embodied in the splendidly kitsch earthenware elephant that adorns the exhibition. As Laura Cumming put it, not entirely condemning, yet perceptibly bothered by it, “Sculpture Victorious is essentially a show of official art, a gathering of imperial propaganda from salt cellars to electroplated monarchs. Like so many of the objects themselves, it is a history lesson in figurative form, not about the pleasures of looking so much as learning”.

The criticisms then do not simply target an exhibition (or the person who authorized it), but a way of doing art history. When Jonathan Jones writes about the upcoming Barbara Hepworth exhibition (co-curated by Curtis, who is an expert on twentieth-century sculpture) that Hepworth and Henry Moore, both “provincial” artists, are not “in the premier league”, he reveals a view of art and art history that is as comprehensive as it is antiquated. His is a hierarchically divided world between first-and-second rate artists, where recent debates concerning centers and peripheries, cultural transfers and the nature of the avant-garde and multiple modernities are virtually non-existent. One can exhibit, even be partial to “second rate artists”, but god forbid that they get the same amount of scholarly attention canonical artists do.

So, will Penelope Curtis spark similar debates in Portugal? Will she inaugurate an era of intellectually stimulating exhibitions that will be more than a loose accumulation of beautiful things to look at, as so many recent ones have been? Is a swallow enough to herald spring? It remains to be seen. But it’s definitely a start.

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The Happy Eclectic: Amadeo de Souza-Cardoso (1887-1918)

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Canção popular - a Russa e o Figaro, 1916, oil on canvas, 80 x 60 cm, Centro de Arte Moderna - Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon (photo © Foteini Vlachou)

Canção popular – a Russa e o Figaro, 1916, oil on canvas, 80 x 60 cm, Centro de Arte Moderna – Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon (photo © Foteini Vlachou)

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Windows and Hatches, c. 1915, oil on canvas, 40.5 x 33.2 cm, Centro de Arte Moderna - Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon (photo © Foteini Vlachou)

Windows and Hatches, c. 1915, oil on canvas, 40.5 x 33.2 cm, Centro de Arte Moderna – Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon (photo © Foteini Vlachou)

Greyhounds, 1911, oil canvas, 100 x 73 cm, Centro de Arte Moderna - Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon (photo © Foteini Vlachou)

Greyhounds, 1911, oil on canvas, 100 x 73 cm, Centro de Arte Moderna – Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon (photo © Foteini Vlachou)

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The Sloop, 1914-1915, oil canvas, 60.5 x 80 cm, Centro de Arte Moderna - Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon (photo © Foteini Vlachou)

The Sloop, 1914-1915, oil on canvas, 60.5 x 80 cm, Centro de Arte Moderna – Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon (photo © Foteini Vlachou)

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The Life of Instruments, c. 1916, oil on canvas, 70 x 50 cm, Centro de Arte Moderna - Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon (photo © Foteini Vlachou)

The Life of Instruments, c. 1916, oil on canvas, 70 x 50 cm, Centro de Arte Moderna – Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon (photo © Foteini Vlachou)

[Exhibition Sob o Signo de Amadeo: Um Século de Arte, 26 July 2013 – 19 January 2014, Centro de Arte Moderna-Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon]

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Un jardin des délices: Joana Vasconcelos in the Palácio Nacional da Ajuda (Lisbon 2013)

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Joana Vasconcelos, Jardim do Éden [Garden of Eden], 2007 (photo © Foteini Vlachou)

Joana Vasconcelos, Jardim do Éden [Garden of Eden], detail, 2007 (photo © Foteini Vlachou)

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The exhibition of Joana Vasconcelos in the Palácio Nacional da Ajuda (Lisbon, March 23rd to August 25th) represents a happy encounter between space and the artworks presented in it. The installation is excellent overall, playful, insinuating and subversive. The viewer crosses the (un)familiar rooms of the former Royal Palace, discovering Vasconcelos’ work of the last decade in a variety of settings, sometimes highlighting the content and function of each room, others imposing themselves on their surroundings, creating new associations. Jardim do Éden was a surprising introduction to this world, situated almost at the beginning of the exhibition. The visitor is immersed in darkness, where the plastic flowers flicker with light, accompanied by motor noise. The work is supposed to stress the artificiality of this simulation of nature, but the feeling was almost the reverse: treading carefully between the flowers, a sense of wonder, almost of child-like joy came upon me. It also felt like some kind of rite of passage, the visitor “baptized” and then emerging anew, ready to take in the rest of the show.

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Joana Vasconcelos, Vitrail, detail, 2012, wool and cotton tapestry (photo © Foteini Vlachou)

Joana Vasconcelos, Vitrail, detail, 2012, wool and cotton tapestry (photo © Foteini Vlachou)

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This tapestry, produced in collaboration with the Manufactura de Tapeçarias de Portalegre, much brighter than the picture allows for, was splendid. Working with local manufactures and revitalizing regional decorative traditions is a persistent strand in Vasconcelos’ art, and one of the most important. It reminded me of how much I liked the Grayson Perry tapestry exhibition The Vanity of Small Differences last year in London, and how my fascination had to do as much with the medium as it did with the subject matter. Here, Vasconcelos avoids narrative elements, and weaves colors and patterns in a way reminiscent of her embroidery works.

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Joana Vasconcelos, Full Steam Ahead (Green #1), 2013 (photo © Foteini Vlachou)

Joana Vasconcelos, Full Steam Ahead (Green #1), 2013 (photo © Foteini Vlachou)

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Full Steam Ahead was another striking piece. At first look, it resembled a spaceship, something out of a sci-fi film. Upon closer inspection, the intricate structure revealed itself, but the movement and sound were still mesmerizing. Although there are things about her work that are conceptually perplexing (War Games is an example) or even seem superficial at times (the installation with the ties comes to mind), her re-imagining of domestic appliances and utensils is nothing short of inspiring. Vasconcelos reveals herself as a true heir of the modernist avant-garde, creating art by removing objects from their context and assigning them new functions.

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Joana Vasconcelos, Alorna, 2013 (photo © Foteini Vlachou)

Joana Vasconcelos, Alorna, 2013 (photo © Foteini Vlachou)

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Joana Vasconcelos, Formentera, 2011 (photo © Foteini Vlachou)

Joana Vasconcelos, Formentera, 2011 (photo © Foteini Vlachou)

Another group of works, the Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro faience animals, painted with ceramic glaze and covered with handmade cotton crochet, afforded a variety of impressions. Perfectly blending with their surroundings, even enhancing their decorative setting, the works had the added advantage of combining one of the most – and justly – celebrated Portuguese decorative traditions  (the Caldas da Rainha ceramics, revitalized by Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro at the end of the nineteenth century) with an occupation traditionally associated with women (even with notions of femininity): knitting. Interestingly enough, Rafael’s sister, Maria Augusta Bordalo Pinheiro, a flower painter, distinguished herself in the production of lace (rendas de Peniche), for which she was much admired. This admittedly subjective association (the works are not covered with lace after all) deepened the works’ meaning for me. The central place of the feminine in Joana Vasconcelos’ artistic universe was re-asserted here with subtle force, at the same time that it seemed to insinuate itself into the decorative, the domestic, the interior.

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Joana Vasconcelos, Carmen, 2001 (photo © Foteini Vlachou)

Joana Vasconcelos, Carmen, 2001 (photo © Foteini Vlachou)

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On the other hand, it’s quite difficult to capture the exuberant joy displayed in Carmen. Maria Callas’ inimitable rendition of L’amour est un oiseau rebelle musically dressed the piece, very fittingly. A young man next to me was unable to contain this feeling of joy as he was singing along in French. The light structure (made of iron, velvet and decorated by plastic earrings) seemed literally to soar in the open space above the staircase, transporting the viewer to the second floor.

Some of the artist’s most well-known pieces, such as the superb Marilyn (2011), Red Independent Heart (2005) and The Bride (2001-2005) in all its dazzling glory, were situated on the second floor. I had the chance of seeing Marilyn at Vasconcelos’ atelier two years ago and was utterly taken by it. The impressive high-heeled shoes made of pots and their lids were a brilliant commentary on the contrasting roles of the female: domestic and public, welded together by the mundane, the everyday, the utilitarian. Placing them in the Throne Room of the Palace, gives them pride of place in the context of the present exhibition, and rightly so, since they constitute a mature statement of the dominant preoccupations in Vasconcelos’ work.

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Joana Vasconcelos, Red Independent Heart, 2005 (photo © Foteini Vlachou)

Joana Vasconcelos, Red Independent Heart, 2005 (photo © Foteini Vlachou)

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For me though, Red Independent Heart was the most poignant of this group of works. Accompanied by Amalia Rodrigues singing Estranha Forma de Vida (also Maldição and Gaivota), the slowly rotating sculpture made of translucent plastic cutlery and painted iron, seemed forlorn, yet resilient. The brightness of the bleeding color belied the pain concealed in this most emotive and personal of Vasconcelos’ artworks. Revolving around its core, the heart seemed to assert its independence, severing ties to the outside world.

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Vasconcelos is an artist that stubbornly weaves the local, the regional and the national into contemporary art for a globalized world and market. This contradiction is one of the most fascinating aspects of her work. The other is the way that Portuguese decorative arts and traditions may serve as a commentary on modern authorship. Vasconcelos is the quintessential artist as defined by a historical process initiated with the Renaissance, a process that tore asunder the roles of artist and craftsman. She does not execute. She conceives. She draws. Ironically, by doing so, she manages to bring decorative arts back into the discourse of “high” art (a discourse that excluded craftsmen), undermining the very notion of the artist under which her work is produced.

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Visiting museums and visual memories

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A couple of weeks ago, I visited the two part exhibition Corps et Ombres: Caravage et le caravagisme européen (June 23 –  October 14 2012). The Musée des Augustins in Toulouse hosted the northern followers Caravaggio, and the Musée Fabre in Montpellier the painter himself, as well as his Italian, Spanish and French followers (I will not dwell here on the problems of the label “caravaggism” or “Caravaggesque”).

I was pleasantly surprised to find that the Musée des Augustins allowed photographs of the paintings on display, a rather rare policy when it comes to temporary exhibitions. I took a series of photos, mostly of luscious details of painterly mastery, although I already knew many of the paintings and had various digital photos  of them at home. I should perhaps state here that I had a specialist interest in visiting the exhibition and that I purchased the scholarly catalogue that provided excellent reproductions of all the paintings included in the exhibition.

Dirck van Baburen, The Crowning of Thorns, ca. 1621-22, oil on canvas, 130 x 171 cm, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City (detail, © photo of the author)

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Why take pictures then? I find that personal photographs enhance the experience of one’s visit to a museum. They function not merely as visual aids to memory, but reinforce the sense of engaging with a work of art. You are not merely a passive observer but you can choose the shooting angle, or even the part of the painting you want to record. The photos can be shared on social media, stimulating dialogue or encouraging other viewers to visit the museum or specific exhibition. Even as a souvenir of one’s presence (provided that it does not interfere with other people’s experience or enjoyment), the practice cannot possibly be considered objectionable, except by pedantic snobs, who think that behavior in an art museum (and not a cultural institution in general) should follow a specific set of norms. Would anyone dream of making the same argument for a Natural History or Science Museum? I will also not dwell on the class aspect of the will to control the response of the uninitiated in front of works of art, because that would take us very far. All the way back to the seventeenth century and Caravaggio himself, as a matter of fact.

Which is why I was disappointed when, after having to wait almost two hours in a line to get in the Musée Fabre (the real “stars” of the exhibition, Caravaggio and La Tour, were there), I was informed that I was not allowed to take pictures. I will not accept as an argument for denying a visitor the right to take pictures the assertion that the museum shop has reproductions of the paintings on display. I’ve been an assiduous museum visitor for more than twelve years and museum shops never provide more than a selection of their most famous artworks. A boring and predictable selection of best-sellers, a selection clearly based on artistic reputation and marketability. What about that lesser known painter that captured your imagination and for whose work there is no reproduction?

Neither will I accept the preservation argument (only flash might damage paintings and it should be prohibited on these grounds), nor the copyright argument that does not apply for works of art that are already in the public domain. Nor the ludicrous argument that allowing photographs would entail a loss of revenue for the museums. Personal photographs could never substitute professional ones offered for sale, and I don’t think anyone is taking pictures in order to save money from products that they would otherwise purchase from the museum shop. This is a serious and complicated issue that cannot be exhausted here, as it touches on questions about the public character and role of institutions and what kind of relationship they wish to maintain with their public.

For my part, I will never forget Gerrit van Honthorst’s Smiling Girl (A Courtesan, Holding an Obscene Image). Was it my favorite painting of the exhibition? Certainly not. But it was playful and unusual. I also took a picture of it, among other paintings that I photographed that day. When I went back to my hotel and looked at the pictures I had taken, I noticed something I had not seen before. The painting was covered by glass and on the upper hand right corner, it had caught the reflection of the vitraux windows, that looked almost as hanging ornaments in the photo. The exhibition was taking place in the medieval church that belongs to the former Augustinian convent where the Musée des Augustins is housed. This small “defect” immediately provides a sense of place – the memory not only of a specific painting, but of the space where it was originally seen. Mechanical reproduction may have stripped artworks from their aura (and Benjamin would be the first to welcome the democratization that this entails), but personal photographs sometimes salvage the magic of a unique encounter of an individual with a work of art. And that cannot be reproduced.

Gerrit van Honthorst, Smiling Girl, or A Courtesan holding an Obscene Image, 1625, oil on canvas, 106 x 89 cm, The Saint Louis Art Museum, Saint Louis (© photo of the author)

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“The Ancients Stole All Our Great Ideas”

 

While the idea of having an established artist curate an exhibition – or, rather, create an exhibition – sounds fascinating, one has to wonder about the limitations of this approach. Probably meant as a draw to younger (or other than the usual) audiences of the Kunsthistorisches, the exhibition “The Ancients Stole All Our Great Ideas” is the result of the choices made by Edward Ruscha, invited by the museum especially for this purpose. Although the juxtaposition of items dating from different periods, executed in diverse media, and coming from collections as wildly diverging as the Gemäldegalerie, or the Natural History Museum, can indeed be refreshing, eschewing traditional categorizations and inviting viewers to a re-appreciation (and re-contextualization) of the objects and artworks presented, the ramifications of the individual’s choice are worth considering here. What ultimately validates this particular choice and arrangement, its raison d’être and justification, is the individual responsible for it. In a culture that glorifies authorship (despite the claims about the death of the author, he – less often, she – is more alive than ever, as our copyright obsessed culture testifies), presenting to the public an exhibition that seems to have been conceived first and foremost as a door to the creative mind of an artist, reinforces assumptions about the importance and centrality of said authorship. Can we escape such assumptions? Are the objects and their history more important than their creators? Or, are the stories that we weave around them less pertinent than the story-teller himself?

 

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