Category

museums and exhibitions

War and “Place de la Concorde” by Degas

Edgar Degas, "Place de la Concorde," 1875. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Last night, I watched The Rape of Europa PBS documentary about Nazi looting during the World War II era. Near the end of the film, I was surprised to see Edgar Degas’s painting Place de la Concorde (1875, shown above) appear on the screen. This painting apparently resurfaced in 1995 after having been missing for four decades. Place de la Concorde was brought to Russia by Soviet “trophy bridgades” after World War II. These Russians had been sent to Germany to reclaim the stolen art which the Nazis had taken from Russian collections. In addition to reclaiming art which had been taken in the first place, some of these “trophy brigades” retaliated and decided to help themselves to works of art held in German collections. Such is the case with Place de la Concorde, which was taken from the collection of the German collector Otto Gerstenberg. It is likely this shady history contributed to the reason why this painting was held from public view for four decades. Today, the painting is a celebrated work in the Hermitage Collection and was featured in a six-month exhibition which ended at the beginning of this year.

The current context and location of this painting in the Hermitage Museum is interesting to me on several levels. On one hand, the subject matter and of this painting (especially what intentionally is not depicted in this scene) raises some interesting contrasts in relation to the current Russian ownership. Back when Degas painted this scene, only a few years had passed since the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) and the bloody civil war in Paris, the Commune (1871). During that time, the French lost the territory of Alsace-Lorraine to the Prussians. As a result, a statue by James Pradier that was located in Place de la Concorde, The City of Strasbourg (1836-38, shown below) came to be seen from 1871 onward as a symbol of the lost territory. The statue was draped in black on state occasions and occasionally decorated with wreaths until France regained the region in following World War I.

James Pradier, "The City of Strasbourg," 1836-38. Place de la Concorde, Paris. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Degas, however, chose to not depict The City of Strasbourg in his painting; the statue would have been draped in black to mourn the loss of the territory, therefore serving as a direct reference to the war and destruction which recently took place in France.1 Instead Degas intentionally removed this statue and reference to war with his strategic placement of the striding figure of Baron Lepic. Degas, along with other Impressionists, sought to escape from and ignore the death of the French and Parisians (and the figurative death of the territory of Alsace-Lorraine) by not referencing the recent wars in their Impressionist art.2 In contrast, with the placement of Place de la Concorde in the Hermitage Museum today, it seems as if the Russians are trying to compensate for the death of their people (1.6 to 2 million Soviets died in the Siege of Leningrad during 1941-1944) by keeping this trophy painting that once belonged to a German collector.

Although in the 19th century Degas tried to avoid a direct reference to war, this painting no longer can function in that way. The current context and placement of Place de la Concorde within the Hermitage Museum has created a new meaning for this painting which is intrinsically linked to war. The current museum label at the Hermitage proudly displays that this painting came “from the collection of Otto Gerstenberg.” This painting has changed in its function due to its current context, arguably and ironically opposite to what Degas intended in relation to its subject matter.

In 1997 the Russians created a law which claimed that this painting, along with other “displaced” trophy items that were part of the Russian post-war expedition, are inalienable property of the Russian Federation. The painting is now displayed in the Hermitage with a dark brown frame, which reminds me a little of the dark drapery which would have cloaked the statue that represented the lost territory of Alsace-Lorraine. Although Degas didn’t want to depict the draped Strasbourg statue within his painting, Place de la Concorde itself is now cloaked in a state of mourning, serving as a reminder of the past and the loss of Russian lives.

1 Paul Wood, “The Avant-Garde and the Paris Commune,” in The Challenge of the Avant-Garde (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 122.

2 Ibid. Paul Wood discusses how “The Commune and the Prussian war silently haunt Impressionist painting in small tics and changes in viewpoint,” which includes the striding figure of Baron Lepic.

— 6 Comments

Trip to London: New Discoveries

My family and I just got back from a vacation to England. About three-and-a-half of those days were spent in London, and we were able to cram eight museum visits into those few days! We visited Sir John Soane’s Museum, the Tate Modern, the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Wallace Collection, the Design Museum, the National Gallery, the Tate Britain, and the British Museum. I especially loved the elegance of the Wallace Collection, the quirkiness of the Soane Museum, and the grandeur of the British Collection.

I got to see a lot of beloved works of art on this trip, including relief carvings of Ashurbanipal’s lion hunt, the Parthenon Marbles, the hunting scene from the Tomb of Nebamun, and Holbein’s The Ambassadors. I also was really glad that I saw the “Vermeer and Music” show at the National Gallery (even though it meant that I had to sacrifice seeing The Arnolfini Portrait in another section of the museum, due to time constraints!). I also became familiar with new artists and/or works of art during this trip, and I thought I would share them here.

Emilie Charmy, Woman in a Japanese Dressing Gown, 1907. Oil on canvas, 81 x 68 cm. Image from StudyBlue

This isn’t a work of art that I saw in London, but I was introduced to the work of Emilie Charmy on the plane ride to England. Several of her paintings (including Woman in a Japanese Dressing Gown, shown above) are included in Gender and Art, a book that I read while on my trip. In 1921, the critic Roland Dorgelés wrote that that Charmy “sees like a woman and paints like a man.”1 An online gallery of Charmy’s work can be found HERE.

Lee Ufan, "From Line," 1978. Oil paint and glue on canvas. Tate Modern.

Ufan’s From Line is one of the works of art that I saw in the Tate Modern. I love this painting for several reasons, partly because the aesthetic perfectly matches the things that my husband loves about Abstract Expressionism. Ufan wrote this about his method: “Load the brush and draw a line. At the beginning it will appear dark and thick, then it will get gradually thinner and finally disappear . . . A line must have a beginning and an end. Space appears within the passage of time, and when the process of creating space comes to an end, time also vanishes.”2

Fred Wilson, "Grey Area (Black Version)," 1993. Five painted plaster busts, five painted plaster wooden shelves.

I am mostly familiar with Fred Wilson’s interesting exhibition work in Mining the Museum, so I found his piece Grey Area (Black Version) to be a welcome surprise. Plus, I love the Egyptian bust of Nefertiti. Wilson’s piece draws attention to “the claims for Nefertiti, and ancient Egypt generally, as positive examplars of blackness within African American culture, but also on the debates around Nefertiti’s actual racial identity and obscured histories of African peoples, alluded to in the title ‘Grey Area.'”3

Carolingian Ceremonial Comb with Astrological Symbols, c. 875. Victoria and Albert Museum

I was excited to see this liturgical comb in the V&A, largely because my friend Shelley had piqued my interest in liturgical combs with her post earlier this summer. The museum text panel for this Carolingian comb explained, “Combs like this were used to part the hair of the priest before celebrating Mass, and in other ceremonies. This combing symbolically ordered the mind, as well as reducing the risk of falling hair contaminating the wine.”4 The museum website also explains (in a blurb about a 12th century comb) that liturgical combs symbolized “a concentration of thoughts toward the liturgy.”

Cast of the Hildesheim doors (center) in the Cast Courts at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Plaster casts of Trajan's Column, from the Cast Courts at the Victoria & Albert Museum

I was really looking forward to seeing the casts in the Cast Courts at the Victoria & Albert Museum. To my great disappointment, I found that the Cast Courts were closed, and only one of the courts could be seen by looking from a second-story balcony. I was most looking forward to seeing minute details in the casts of the Hildesheim Doors, but I had to try and be content with seeing those doors from a distance. I did feel like I had a new perspective though, on the sheer size of Trajan’s column after seeing the cast placed in an indoor space. Both my husband and I exclaimed in surprise when we stumbled upon the balcony which afforded a view of the column (so large that it is displayed in two pieces!). More information on the plaster casts of Trajan’s Column can be found HERE.

Fragonard's "The Swing" (second from right) and Boucher's "Cupid á Captive" (right) in the Wallace Collection

One of the Dutch Rooms in the Wallace Collection

I wanted to include two images of the Wallace Collection interior, since I felt like the setting for this museum was a work of art in-and-of-itself. If I had to choose, I think that this museum was my very favorite one that we visited on this trip. I wanted to visit this museum and the Soane Museum ever since I began to compile my Collection Museum list, and the Wallace Collection did not disappoint! It was also really fun to see Fragonard’s The Swing, since the first art history paper I ever wrote in college was on that painting. It was a lot smaller than I expected! I also thought it was neat that The Swing and Cupid á Captive hang side by side, since those are two popular works of art that often feature in art history survey courses.

Caspar Netscher, The Lace-Maker, 1664

One of the paintings that was a very nice discovery in the Wallace Collection was Netscher’s The Lace Maker. I feel like this has a really strong composition, but also exhibits some interesting interest in texture (for example, with the intricate cap, the plastered wall, and the paper on the wall). This morning I have been thinking about how the turned body and red clothes of the figure remind me a little bit of the centrally-placed woman in Courbet’s The Wheat Sifters (1854) from the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes collection. In some ways, it’s interesting to compare these paintings and see how Courbet was heir of the Dutch genre painting tradition.

Detail from Peter de Hooch, "Woman Peeling Apples," c. 1663.

Another great painting in the Wallace Collection that is hung near The Lace Maker is Peter de Hooch’s Woman Peeling Apples (c. 1663). I use this painting when I lecture on 17th century Dutch art, but I never had seen this painting before in person. The light streaming through the windows is quite lovely, and I like a lot of things about the color and details of this whole painting.

Colossal scarab, perhaps 305-30 BC (possibly earlier)

A colossal scarab! Who knew that such a thing existed?!? This scarab was brought by Lord Elgin (of “Parthenon Marbles” fame) to Britain in the 19th century. I like this scarab for a couple of reasons, including that the scarab was found in Istanbul, although it probably decorated an Egyptian temple. I wonder why the scarab ended up in Istanbul. Scarabs are also interesting to me because of their symbolic associations with rebirth and the sun. Egyptians thought that the scarab was seemingly miraculously hatch out of the dung. In addition, the scarab pushes dung into small balls, much like the god Khepri pushes the sun through the sky.

I took lots of other photos of museums and works of art on this trip, but I think that these are the main “new” (for me, at least) works of art and spaces which will stick out to me the most. Even though we got to visit eight museums, there are still many more things that I wish I could have seen. I already feel the pull go to back, especially since it seems like Millais’s Ophelia is not currently on view at the Tate Britain! I couldn’t find it anywhere. Could that painting have been taken down (or sent off for travel) with the recent rehanging of the Tate’s permanent collection?

What are your favorite works of art and museums in London? Why?

1 Gill Perry, “The Parisian Avant-Garde and ‘Feminine’ Art in the Early Twentieth Century” in Gender and Art by Gill Perry, ed., (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 220.

2 Museum label for Lee Ufan, From Line, London, Tate Modern, August 11, 2013.

3 Museum label for Fred Wilson, Grey Area (Black Version), London, Tate Modern, August 11, 2013.

4 Museum label for Ceremonial Comb with Astrological Symbols, London, Victoria & Albert Museum, August 11, 2013.

— 8 Comments

Museum “Shrines” and Performative Rituals

"Nike of Samothrace" on the stairs of the Louvre Museum

The quarter is progressing along, and now I am covering a new book with my students: New Museum Theory and Practice: An Introduction. It’s been really fun to delve into some of the museum theory that I studied several years ago as a graduate student and graduate fellow at a small art museum.

The introduction of this text explores several of the metaphors that are commonly used to describe museums. One of the most interesting metaphors for me is the “museum as shrine.” Museums have a quasi-religious environment, and I like how Janet Marstine explains this idea:

“The museum as shrine is a ritual site influenced by church, palace, and ancient temple architecture. Processional pathways, which may include monumental staircases, dramatic lighting, picturesque views, and ornamental niches, create a performative experience. Art historian Carol Duncan explains, ‘I see the totality of the museum as a stage setting that prompts visitors to enact a performance of some kind, whether or not actual visitors would describe it as such.’ Preziosi adds, ‘all museums stage their collected and preserved relics . . . Museums . . . use theatrical effects to enhance belief in the historicity of the objects they collect.”1

This description immediately made me think of the architecture in several museums which encourage performative, theatrical, and even ritualistic actions from the visitor. The first space that came to mind was the Grand Staircase at the Louvre, above which the “Nike of Samothrace” presides (see photo above). Here are some other spaces which I considered:

Seattle Art Museum stairs

The Seattle Art Museum has a “processional way” staircase in the older part of their museum. Although these stairs are no longer used on a regular basis, there are escalators in the main museum area which carry the visitor to higher physical (and suggestively “spiritual”) levels. Even with an escalator (which doesn’t require much physical movement on part of the viewer), I think that this motion still contains an element of performance on the part of the viewer. Also, shrine-like picturesque views are found at the Seattle Art Museum Sculpture Garden; the structure of this building is created largely out of glass walls.

Centre Pompidou exterior with escalator "tubes"

The Centre Pompidou probably has the most famous set of museum escalators. The way that the “tubes” slowly climb with alternating sections of flat and angled lines remind me of the terraces of ziggurats from the ancient Near East.

Interior of the Guggenheim Museum, New York

The ramp in the interior of the Guggenheim is probably one of the best examples of ritualistic art, I think because the viewer is continually aware of his or her ascent in relation to the rest of the museum space. The winding ramp reminds me of spires for religious buildings, even contemporary structures like the Independence Temple for the Community of Christ in Missouri.

Schinkel, View of the staircase (and view overlooking the Pleasure Garden) in the Altes Museum, Berlin (19th century). Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Rotunda of the Altes Museum, Berlin

I think that the Rotunda of the Altes Museum evokes this shrine-like setting (and performative nature) not only by evoking classical imagery (this is a small version of the Pantheon), but also creating a stage-like setting for the sculptures, separating them either with niches or columns. The sculptures on the bottom level are also elevated onto stage-like plinths.

Last week, my students and I discussed whether today’s museums should try to bring more self-awareness to their designs and displays, in order to perhaps expose or at least recognize the “shrine-ness” of the institution. We wondered what visitors might think if a museum was blatantly decorated like a shrine (with candles around works of art, offerings scattered in front of displays, etc.). Would viewers feel uncomfortable if they knew they were taking part in a ritual at a museum? What do you think?

What are some of the other shrine-like aspects of museums? Can you think of any museums which encourage some type of “performative” or ritualistic-like activity on part of the viewer? In a general sense, I think that the quiet whispers that are expected in many museums can fit with this idea.

1 Janet Marstine, “Introduction” in New Museum Theory and Practice: An Introdution by Janet Marstine, ed. (Blackwell Publishing, 2006. See also C. Duncan, Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums (London and New York: Routledge, 1995), pp. 1-2. See also D. Preziosi and C. Farago, Grasping the World: The Idea of the Museum (Aldershot and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004), p. 13-21.

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Manet Portraying Life: Exhibition on Screen

Edouard Manet, "The Monet Family in Their Garden at Argenteuil," 1874

This is my new favorite work of art by Manet: The Monet Family in their Garden at Argenteuil (1874). On one hand, it reminds me a bit of my own little family and home: my currently-bearded husband, my little boy, my flower garden, my yard. Plus, when learning more about this painting on the Metropolitan Museum of Art website, I grew to like Manet even more than I already do. In 1924, Monet wrote about his experience of sitting in his garden for this very portrait:

“Manet, enthralled by the color and the light, undertook an outdoor painting of figures under trees. During the sitting, Renoir arrived. . . . He asked me for palette, brush and canvas, and there he was, painting away alongside Manet. The latter was watching him out of the corner of his eye. . . . Then he made a face, passed discreetly near me, and whispered in my ear about Renoir: ‘He has no talent, that boy! Since you are his friend, tell him to give up painting!'”

I don’t really care for Renoir’s art, and it turns out that Manet felt the same way. I have a feeling that Manet and I would have gotten along!

Yesterday I was introduced to Manet’s portrait of the Monet family through a film screening of the exhibition, Manet Portraying Life. This show is currently on display at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. This film screening was informative and entertaining. I especially liked the analysis of the paintings given by various individuals who were invited onto the set, including curators, artists and even an actress, Fiona Shaw. The host Tim Marlow and Shaw had a really interesting conversation; they discussed how Manet’s The Railway (shown below) seems to include an interesting pattern – almost a barrier – created by the iron bars. These bars seem to separate these delicate females (and the viewer) from the industrial world of the railway. Even the smoke coming from the railway area seems to add an element of mystery (or perhaps inaccessibility) to modern life.

Manet, "The Railway," 1873

There were several little snippets of information that I learned during this film screening. Here were a few other short points that stood out to me:

  • Matisse used to show people Le Déjeuner sur L’Herbe (1863) in order to prove that black could be used without making it seem like a “hole” in the canvas. (This negative attitude toward black, especially during Matisse’s career, must have its origins in the late 19th century after the rise of Impressionism.)
  • One of the interviewees mentioned that Salon paintings in the 19th century were hung in rooms according to the name of the artist. From what I understand, artists with last names that began with the same letter would have been grouped together. This practical method of hanging is very interesting to me, especially since earlier museums chose to hang their paintings in either a chronological and/or a thematic fashion. (See more information about the Salon hanging method in the comments below.)
  • Manet felt that Velasquez was the greater painter of all time.
  • Carte-de-visite photographs may have influenced Manet’s work; these comparatively cheap photographs were left as little tokens or remembrances when an individual visited friends or family in the 19th century. Manet may have looked to some carte-de-visites when working on specific portraits.  This information made me wonder if the monochromatic tan background or sepia-like tones of photographs might have directly or indirectly influenced the backgrounds Manet used for several of his portraits (for example, as seen in his Portrait of Berthe Morisot from 1872).

Manet, "Music in the Tuileries Gardens," 1862

I also enjoyed that the film included some of the background information about Manet’s life and/or the history behind the paintings themselves. I appreciated a discussion of Baudelaire’s “Painter of Modern Life” idea in conjunction with Music in the Tuileries Gardens. The film host emphasized that Manet is shown as a flâneur in this painting: he is depicted in the left corner, an observer of modern life who is separated from the crowd. Another commentator in the film also jokingly noted that Manet has decided to depict different prominent critics and writers in the painting: those who might have written and commented on Manet’s art found themselves within the crowd!

I also learned that this painting alternates between spending six years in the National Gallery in London, and then six years in The Hugh Lane gallery in Dublin. This arrangement is due to a bequest that was contested: when Hugh Lane suddenly died in 1915, his official will stipulated that the painting would go to the National Gallery, but an unofficial addendum to the will (found in his desk) said that the paintings should be in Dublin. The six-year arrangement is a balance between following the legal will and honoring the wishes of the deceased donor.

I was hoping that the film camera would move through the different galleries so one could get a feel for the hanging and the layout of the exhibition space, but that didn’t really happen too much. Instead, the film mostly examined isolated works of art. Only some of the paintings in the show were discussed or even shown, which has led me to look for additional information and interviews about the show elsewhere online. That being said, I still really enjoyed the film; I hope to attend the future screenings this year (on exhibitions about Munch and Vermeer).

Did anyone else go to this film screening or see this exhibition (either at the Royal Academy of Arts or at the Toledo Museum of Art)? What were your thoughts?

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Politics, the Capitoline Museum, and the She-Wolf

This quarter I am working with just a few of the senior art history majors on a special “Directed Study” course. We are exploring museum history and curatorial theory, using two new books: The First Modern Museums of Art: The Birth of an Institution in 18th- and 19th-Century Europe (2012) and New Museum Theory and Practice: An Introduction (2011). I really like that The First Modern Museums of Art is written in a very approachable, yet scholarly, way. Each chapter serves a case study for a different museum that was established; the book proceeds in a chronological fashion, based on founding dates for the institutions.

This week, my students and I read about the Capitoline Museum (established 1733). Carole Paul writes about how the objects within the museum serve as strong signifiers of political and cultural heritage. The museum, which contains a lot of Roman art, emphasizes Roman authority and jurisdiction. The artistic “progression” and superiority of Roman culture (and those Westerners who are heirs to the Roman tradition) are implied in many ways, including the display of art. For example, the visitor encounters Egyptian figures before the Greco-Roman antiquities, which suggests both artistic and political succession.

Capitoline She Wolf, 5th century BC or medieval

The political associations and signifiers of power also extend into the collection. I think it’s particularly interesting that the bronze sculpture of the she-wolf forms part of the collection, given the history of the piece. Before Sixtus IV donated this sculpture to the Compidoglio (Capitoline Hill), the she-wolf was displayed in the Lateran Palace, the pope’s official residence.1 This she-wolf was seen as a symbol of the city, since the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, were suckled by a she-wolf. As part of the papal collection, this statue then served as a symbol of papal jurisdiction and the papal succession of authority after pagan rule.

Given these associations with Roman history, I can see why the Capitoline Museum seemed a bit hesitant to acknowledge the recent analyses which determined that the “She-Wolf” statue was cast during the medieval period! This was big change in the traditional attribution, which placed this statue in the fifth century BC (as an example of Etruscan art). When I covered this story in 2010, over two years after the new study results were made available, I was surprised that the Capitoline Museum did not have the updated medieval date on its website! Now that I understand the political and authoritative statements behind the formation of this museum, though, I can see why the museum seems to have been hesitant to acknowledge this new information. The museum would want to endorse this as a work of art as an authentic piece from the Etruscan/pre-Roman period, in order to emphasize the institutional message of Roman authority. If the “She-Wolf” is a medieval work of art, there isn’t as direct of a connection to Roman history.

However, today I went back and checked the Capitoline Museum website again. Now the site has been updated to acknowledge the alternate date and also mentions the Carbon 14 analysis (albeit that the information is slightly hidden under a “Reveal text” button).

What have been your experiences at the Capitoline Museum? Did you feel like the message of Roman authority and power came through during your visit?

1 Carole Paul notes that this wolf (lupa) was in fact returned to its rightful home through Sixtus IV’s donation. Paul writes that the wolf “had originally stood on the Campidoglio and in 65 BC had been struck by a bolt of lightning that apparently broke her feet and destroyed the suckling twins, who were replaced only in the fifteenth century.” See Carole Paul, “Capitoline Museum, Rome: Civic Identity and Personal Cultivation” in The First Modern Museums of Art: The Birth of An Institution in 18th- and 19th-Century Rome, Carole Paul, ed., (Los Angeles: Getty, 2012), 22. Given that the she-wolf is now thought to have been produced in the medieval period, I personally think that Paul might be referring to a different depiction of a wolf (perhaps lost) or that this story might have been a myth. Paul cites a 1980 publication by Richard Krautheimer in relation to this story about the lightening bolt. Therefore, she does not seem take into account the more recent Carbon 14 analysis and medieval date.

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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.