Two recent major exhibitions got me thinking about the relationship between individual, masteful works of art, and how they could potentially form dialogue, shape a story and create a drama with an arch -and side stories- within an exhibition.
In the production of Helene Schjerfbeck (1862-1946), it is the story, development and eventual isolation of the painter-person linked with her works of art that starts to move and penetrate into your mind. Classically trained in fine European tradition, her shift from historical scenes and portraits to her stylized, more and more economical interpretations on people (women, often herself) end up as fleeting visions of light and shadow, all unnecesary edited out, yet full of character. Striking, timeless ability; a clairvoyant of a painter.
Past summer’s major Schjerfbeck retrospective at the Finnish National Gallery (Ateneum) was a disappointment, though. And I was disappointed that it was a disappointment. The whole did not become a whole, there was no arch, no drama, no story, themes were interrupted, much was fractured. The exhibition made Schjerfbeck look inferior to her ability and recently rising new fame. I talked about this with some curator friends, and we were frustrated, irritated and a bit sad.
Clearly the exhibition was over-packed with works and under-curated. Not everything needs to be shown to have a major impact! The exhibition showed little focus and simply too much of the display designer’s infatuation for painting background walls with bold colours, no matter how trendy it happens to be in museum shows these days. If one, indeed, does find in a painting a smallest splash of ice-cream peach colour in a girls’s blouse, painting a giant wall that icky tone is underestimating the original artist’s intention and her refined palette.
While the Düsseldorf Kunstpalast this year examined El Greco’s influence in Modernism, the Ateneum exhibition had related aces with great timing at hand. Schjerfbeck painted wonderful interpretations of some major El Grecos, loaned to Finland for this show. The placement on the 2nd floor in a shadowy corner lost the remarkable case at hand, and proved that without a sense of drama and occasion by the exhibition architect, a great artist can be lost in her own exhibition, while simultaneously losing the visiting El Grecos.
“Glorious works of art with no relation to each other, or the space” was the projecting thought with this visitor at The Royal Academy of Art’s BRONZE exhibition in London. To have all these remarkable works of art there, sculptures in bronze spanning some 5000 years and all continents, is truly incredible! Individually, and in different ways, each work was breathtaking, spellbinding. Their display, however, showed them no respect. One would hope to have the chance to walk around a major piece of sculpture to experience its three-dimentional qualities from close-by and from a distance. This was seldom possible as they were placed on blindingly white boxed platforms with sides (as if backs) close to walls.
Masterpieces shouting for attention and an elementary sense of display drama -and clearly demanding space- were placed in curious corners, or clumsily behind other works. An archway into the next hall should offer a tantalizing view; not for these display architects, who seemed to be focusing only on their next white cube, lifting a dazzling horse’s head so high its beauty was out of sight, fragmenting Matisse’s four interlinked bronzes into oblivion. Was there any thought behind the lighting in the cases? Direct lighting from above erased most wonderful and significant details.
In art, it is so rewarding when the sum is greater than the parts individually counted. And it is frustrating when marvelous individual works of art result in less than marvelous exhibitions due to lack of thought or ability by the organizers.