Why Do You Go?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Shauna says:

    Monica, it is so funny that you posted this because I just went to an exhibition called Wedded Bliss at the Peabody Essex Museum with Gavin last week. It was funny to see what I liked and why compared to what G liked and why. With this exhibition I basically came to the conclusion that anyone can be considered an artist (I was not impressed with some pieces). I mainly went to see Vera Wang dresses and antique wedding dresses and admire the workmanship up close. There were a few paintings that I genuinely enjoyed and found interesting (there was one of a bride that looked like she was standing right in front of you and you could completely understand what she was feeling), but all in all it was too much Asian artwork for me. Enough rambling for me. I could explain it better to you in person.

  • M says:

    Shauna, I totally can relate to how you went to “admire the workmanship up close” in that show. I think one of the main reasons I like to go to art museums is to see the details in works of art – especially details that can’t be captured well in a reproduction.

    Sounds like it was an interesting exhibition. I would have liked to have gone with you and Gavin – it would have been fun to compare your likes and dislikes!

  • ixoj says:

    Ooo, I like your last suggestion. That would make things quite interesting and I’m sure T-rav would LOVE it.

    As for why people go to museums, I think you have 3 basic groups. (1) Art historians or well educated art lovers (as in peeps who know a lot about art) who go to see the art as well as ponder the theoretical side of things. (2) People who love art but don’t necessarily know tons about it (like me). I appreciate learning the details and theory behind a painting, but that’s not the only thing that draws me to it. (3) People who know nothing about art and go because they want to seem cultured or because someone is making them go. I think these peeps will just look at the “pretty pictures” and glance at the “tombstone label” without really caring what it is.

    So I think having a short historical description along with a possible theoretical explanation is best. One thing T-rav really really hates is when the text tells him EXACTLY what the artist meant by doing such and such a thing. His line of thought goes something like this…”Yes, that’s possible, but couldn’t s/he have just as likely been painting just to paint and subconsciously included qualities X, Y, and Z because of the historical circumstances?” T-rav would definitely prefer just getting the historical context.

  • Kiersten says:

    I guess I’m an already tainted art historian, but I really do go to museums primarily to see pretty pictures. I get the most satisfaction out of a museum experience, though, when I make an exciting discovery or new connection. I enjoy finding works of art that I’ve never seen before that appeal to me or stand out in some way. I do really enjoying seeing the originals of famous works, too, because (like you said), reproductions don’t do art justice.

    I also strongly feel that museum exhibits should create a dialogue with the viewer, rather than spoon-feed information or provide no information at all. Maybe this isn’t what people want, but I think it’s the most engaging way to learn about art. I was just discussing this idea with Neal the other day because we visited the Krannert Museum on UIUC’s campus, and I was explaining to him how disappointed I was with the way pictures were hung and organized. The museum had some great Dutch Baroque art, but there didn’t seem to be a great logic behind the order of the display, and they had no panels cluing us in to what sort of theme they were trying to convey. Also, the labels seemed to have been written by registrars because they explained things like why some paintings had lower light levels, but they failed to answer my most basic and pressing questions about each painting. Sorry about my rant–I’m done now.

    P.S. I liked your footnote–I really do think the curatorial voice should be more transparent in exhibits. I always felt like my ideas were getting shot down at the MOA whenever I tried to suggest something that radical, though. Perhaps something like that would come to pass after the next generation takes over.

  • M says:

    Ixoj,
    I can definitely relate to T-Rav’s skepticism for when a museum text panel tries to tell you EXACTLY what the artist was thinking. Sometimes, of course, there are historical documents (such as an artist’s diary) to prove exactly what an artist was thinking. But this isn’t always the case.

    This exhibition at the SAM (unsuccessfully) tried to demonstrate a connection between two paintings which both had ice skating scenes, arguing that one artist (I think it was Renoir) was “obviously” influenced by the tradition of ice skating paintings in Northern Europe. I was skeptical of that “obvious” connection – why couldn’t Renoir just have decided to paint some ice skaters independently of any other artistic tradition?

    And Kiersten,

    I also think one of the most satisfying things about a museum experience is making a discovery or connection. Sometimes the discoveries are things written on the text panels (things I didn’t know before), but not always. Sometimes it’s just one of those art historical “ah ha!” connections. *Sigh* – I love those.

  • phin says:

    Buddy, haha I really did like the ending. As far as my dear Cezanne goes, I would have loved to have seen the room dedicated solely to him! It does become rather difficult to pin-point him into a certain category however. He most definitely was a post-impressionist, could they not be showing the progression that impressionism was taking? Where there any other posties? Or did you just feel as if having an entire room dedicated to him, while he was but on the tail end of a trend, as too much?

    I would think that my opinion as to how a museum should present a work would be strongly biased. I do feel that the historical significance of a work is hugely important. I would have to agree slightly with Kelly about whether or not we can understand “what an artist was thinking.” For the most part there is a large volume of documentation as to the purpose behind several artists.

    I do agree that there is sometimes too much “historical license” taken, however, how better to understand the man than to understand the purpose behind the work. It can be a rather touchy subject, something that the vast majority of the humanities are confronted with: music, literature, art, film, and poetry. Sadly not one easily answered.

  • M says:

    Hey Buddy – No, there weren’t any other Post-Impressionists in the show besides Cezanne. The thing that bothered me was that there was no recognition that Cezanne was a Post-Impressionist, besides an audio clip where a curator mentioned that the Impressionists didn’t like Cezanne (and I thought, “Exactly! Because he wasn’t an Impressionist!“). I felt like it was misleading to categorize him with the other Impressionists in a show that supposedly was dedicated to Impressionism. The general museum-going public will have a hard time learning and differentiating art movements from one another if curators continue to take liberties and conglomerate different artistic styles within the same “ism.” It almost seemed like the curators had the opportunity to show a couple of Cezannes, and so they fudged the thesis of the show in order to weasel in some more paintings by a big-name artist.

    Interesting observation regarding “historical license.” I think that one often can argue that an individual artist’s influences, tendencies, etc. are a product of his time and historical context, but this is not always the case and should be remembered.

  • e says:

    Is your postscript mention of putting a piece of work in a gallery solely to remain on good terms with the estate of a deceased individual a reference to that strange and hideous wire, duck-head shaped sculpture in the middle of the MOA? Just curious.

  • Ashley says:

    This is such a great review! I’ve been really wanting to visit the Seattle Art Museum but haven’t been able to go yet. Now I’m dying to go and see that hideous large painting and form my own opinion about it. :) I haven’t been to an art museum in quite awhile, and I MISS it!

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.