Friday, 31 January 2014

Seminar: Museums I have known - reflections on being a guest curator

These notes were quite difficult to write up because in the end I wasn't sure what I wanted to say. I'm seriously regretting not going to the exhibitions mentioned, and given that one of them closed early Jan 2014, there is no excuse. However I wonder if I had seen it, these notes would have become a review of the exhibition rather than an intellectual discussion about the challenges the guest curators faced in their respective shows. This was also a trial of a new lecture format; each gave a brief overview of the exhibition, and then had a ‘conversation’ where they discussed the challenges, differences, goals, ideals etc of the different venues. I bring them all together because it made better sense.

Dr Tag Gronberg immediately struck a chord with the small audience which was dotted around the large theatre in lonely isolation. She stated that writing can be solitary. Therefore when an opportunity to share research and collaborate on a project with fellow scholars arises, it's a good thing to do. Combine this with working with different types of institution and it results in new challenges and opportunities. This lecture came out of the curating experiences of two academics, Gemma Blackshaw and Leslie Topp. They joint guest curated an exhibition both at the Wellcome Collection and Wien museum called 'Madness & Modernity'. Gemma Blackshaw curated the recent 'Facing the Modern' at the National Gallery - the one I really regret not seeing.


Madness & Modernity

Leslie Topp quickly ran through the goals of the Wellcome exhibition. Given its dual quality, the works and ideas presented was dictated by the subtle difference in venues. However in both London and Vienna they strove to link the progressive contemporary visual arts with practices of psychiatry and mental illness - essentially setting the art in its context. They felt it was important to present their on-going research to the public because they offered a new understanding of the visual arts of the period. Not as high culture but more grounded in the every day.

At the Wellcome, rooms included 'Modernist hospitals and architecture', 'Interior design and therapies (with the merest nod to Freud, who had little to do with the arts), 'Pathological artists' (with copies of Schiele's self portraits), 'Portraiture of patrons', 'Disorders and disease', and ended with the voice of the patient with the 'Patient artist'. They included a range of objects which meshed perfectly with the ethos of the Wellcome Collection; medical items, architectural details, pieces by unknown artists, applied and fine art. The exhibition designer made sure that there was equal importance attached to ‘a chair’ and ‘a painting’, or video installation.

They worked hard to reconnect the art to its context, not by simply reconstructing the rooms where it was created but by paring back the displays and positioning objects appropriately and playing with sight lines. Topp noted that the Wellcome are good at this at type of choreography and 'charging the atmosphere'. They also used film to evoke other places and create an immersive visitor experience. It was ultimately the success of the London exhibition which encouraged the Wien museum to invite them to Vienna.

The Wellcome Collection is not a museum, despite their historic collection. It is a workshop rooted in liberal thoughts and curiosity. They are interested in art history yet they treat every object as important and their design is deliberate. 45000 people came to this exhibition and they were happy with that as it helped cement their early reputation and put them on cultural map. It encouraged them to think about their temporary exhibition programme. Of course they had a problem borrowing objects for this show and had to made do with copies, they had no bargaining power. This show was in the spirit of Wellcome Collection but was focused on a specific time and place which is quite unusual for them.

As an aside, I have heard Topp speak about this exhibition before in last years module on 'Exhibiting the Body' and she mentioned the difficulties they had with the Schiele works. The gallery concerned were unhappy that they would have been displayed along side photographs of neurological disorders in an exhibition that explored mental conditions. This is one of the reasons they had to make do with copies.

Facing the Modern

Emma Blackshaw spent a little longer on her overview but I think this was important given the complexities of working with the National Gallery. As she said, they required ‘Masterpieces, on the walls’. Her focus was with portraits on canvas, not in dialogue with other arts, and the term ‘art’ very much in its narrowest , finest sense. Her starting point concerned identity within the Austro-Hungarian empire in the period 1867 to 1918, that widening gap between historicism and modernism. She took a social art history approach regarding the 'new Viennese', who invested in portraiture to promote their status and because of this, it was the genre of innovation.

From a practical point of view, the NG were very strict about a room by room structure and had fixed ideas about circulation. They had to have a vista through the central room (Room 4) for the marketing campaign. She gave an exhibition walk through:

Room 1. In order to see how revolutionary something is, you need to see what when directly before. She opened with the 'Old Viennese c19th' and a recreation of an exhibition by Gallery Miethka in 1905. In the centre of the room, she added Beethoven's death mask, which set up the themes and ideas for the rest of the show.

Room 2. The category of 'Family and child'. She mixed them up and included family in its broadest terms, i.e., married couples. They made some concessions and added temporary walls within the existing room structure. This resulted in blocking rooms off and they were initially anxious ... I never got to the bottom of why this was!

Room 3. The 'Appeal of the artist'. She stressed the vistas of paintings relating back to other rooms, which maintained the integrity of the exhibition.

Room 4. The post 1900 moment began in the room 'Modern Men and women'. This was designed as a portrait corridor and deliberately quite claustrophobic. Controversy arose with a family portrait belonging to Edmund de Waal. In the end it wasn't included and there were many discussions around the question of quality and what could be hung on the walls with the NG curator Chris Riopelle. Instead they included a de Waal photo album was included which was the 'least valuable' item in the exhibition. She initially started with a list of quite obscure paintings, but the final display had to change because some of these store paintings didn't look 'great'. All questions she had to grapple with and resolve to everyone's satisfaction.

Room 5. Concerned 'Love and loss'. This was literally and metaphorically a dark room and included posthumous paintings, deathbed scenes, suicides and a collection of Wein Museum masks. These masks presented their own difficulties with logistics of display, but echoing the Beethoven mask in room 1 beautifully.

Room 6. Ended with 'Finish and failure'. This included rejected portraits, unfinished works on paper and an uncomfortable juxtaposition of historicism and modernism with Makart as the old master and hung close to a Klimt.

She arranged it so that Klimt was with you through each room and linked it all together. Everything was presented; canons, hierarchy and others which disrupted the familiar putting women and Jews in the forefront. The important vista picture was one that no one really knew, moving away from the 'aesthetic hang'.

I don't have to say anything about the National Gallery; its status as one of the most important museums, its collection of art in the western tradition, is well known. This exhibition was a brave departure from the usual - and here I am thinking of the Leonardo and other 'block buster' shows. To do something like this pushed the NG in a different direction. As she said, you would expect Klimt Schieler and Kokoska if you were doing an 'ordinary' blockbuster of Vienna 1900, which is precisely what the Tate did in their Klimt show.  They define 'block buster as having more than 80,000 visitors over the 3 months and indeed, she was pleased to report she achieved that. One of the main complaints in the many unfavourable reviews was that the paintings exhibited were just not 'big' enough. The NG has institutional clout so can borrow pretty much anything so even though she felt she had an ambitious loan list, critics said it wasn't. But her focus was on the lesser known stuff and not the 'block buster' material - that is the immediate clash.

The internal politics of the NG was touched upon. The Sainsbury Wing is renowned for Renaissance art normally, not modernism so that was working against expectations. Interpersonal relationships in the museum meant that Chris Riopelle was pleased to have his period represented in Sainsbury Wing. Was initially called ' the new Viennese' but this name posed a problem with other exhibs and they said there could have been some confusion with Veronese. Curators there approach academics to assist with shows, rather than the Wellcome who are normally approached by outsiders. She outlined the complicated process in terms of contacts and commissioning, and the journey from curatorial committee, to NG director, NG board, and sponsors. The hierarchical structure sounds fiendish.

Finally she touched on the NG Press campaign. She was on call to work with the press though did not engage with art critics or indeed the marketing department! She said that the two poster images used didn't work well together but agreed that they'd appealed to different audiences - they didn't use the campaign images for the catalogue. Controversial to the end, one of the Klimt's in this exhibition has a history of restitution claims and has been through Viennese courts three times, and each time, thrown out.

They achieved their aims with both exhibitions in my view. The Wellcome one in comparison was probably more of a success because they were enthusiastic about something new. Saying that though, the NG was even more brave in taking on something so different and fly against so many expectations. So what will be the outcomes? The Wellcome have now enlarged their exhibition space because it is so successful. Will the NG be brave enough to try something like this again? Only time will tell.

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