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Monthly Archives: October 2008

I recently heard on a French radio program a quote from the Goncourt Brother’s Journals: “Perhaps the thing that hears the most rubbish in the world is a painting in a museum.” Now, that one made me laugh out loud. Who hasn’t been in a museum, quietly looking, only to overhear some inane remark that breaks the spell underway between you and a painting? You can almost imagine the fellow in Rembrand’ts Old Man with the Gold Chain wincing several times a day when he hears comments about how old he is, how dark the painting is, how little his head looks, and how silly his hat is. Oh, wait. I’m the person who always thinks that his hat looks silly.

And yet. I’ve spent the last few months interviewing people at the Art Institute and what strikes me is that people think, look, and are moved by art in a way that belies the insinuation of the Goncourt brothers. Take Elizabeth from Mississippi. She loved Francesco de Mura’s Charity. This is a painting I’ve looked at many times: it is a lush, sensual depiction of a young mother taking care of three children all at once; a sort of precursor to today’s multi-tasking moms. With one hand she lifts up a blanket to check on a sleeping child, turns her attention to her oldest one as he runs up to her, and suckles her newborn. Amidst all the action she is serene; amidst all the vibrant colors the creaminess of her flesh tones calm. Finally, in the bottom right of the painting there is a pelican feeding its young by drawing its own blood from its chest. This comes from medieval iconography: the pelican represents Christ saving sinners with his blood and though it just seems wierd now, the parallel between Christ and the mother’s sacrifice would have been easily interpreted by those in Francesco de Mura’s time.

What marveled Elizabeth was the “conviction” of the painting. By “conviction” she meant that the painting wasn’t contrived, that it had a real stamp of authenticity. She also said that she had been moved, but couldn’t explain why; she felt as if the mother was “elevated beyond”. “Beyond what?”, I asked. Elizabeth couldn’t say.

After the interview I went back to the painting to try and figure out what Elizabeth was unable to explain. I realized that because she had been so transfixed by the central figure in the painting, she hadn’t even noticed the pelican pecking itself in the chest. This led me to see something I hadn’t seen before: the mother in the picture doesn’t notice the pelican either. The only one who does is the boy rushing up to her; his own startled recognition of the bird ricochets out to us and consequently draws our attention to the bird. I think¬† what moved Elizabeth, what made her feel that the mother was “elevated beyond” was the level of absorption the mother has in the painting: she is focused on her children at the exclusion of everything else. Elizabeth’s total focus on the mother may have caused her to miss a striking feature of the painting and yet, it is precisely due to this that she had a powerful experience with the painting: Elizabeth identified so closely with the mother that she saw the scene not through the eyes of someone outside the painting, but through the eyes of someone within it. Perhaps it was Elizabeth herself who felt, if only for a few seconds, “elevated beyond”?


There’s a great cartoon in Matt Groening’s book School is Hell called A Teachers’ guide to words that make kids snicker. Words in question include Uranus, Sperm Whale, Lake Titicaca, and verbs such as to erect. After some twenty years of teaching Middle School, I’ve learned that even the adjective “hard” can get boys to giggle, so it’s better to replace it with “difficult”.

Art history and museum studies have a few slippery terms, among them the “gentlemanly hang” and the “princely hang” (Louis XIV certainly had some nice gams – see Hyacinthe Rigaud’s painting of him – but let’s stick with the “gentlemanly hang” of our Greek fellow). For the prudes, there are more genteel hangs: “salon”, “art-historical”, and “aesthetic”. These terms refer to the way paintings are hung and they are also linked to the historical shift from private collections to public museums. Let’s look at four of these: the gentlemanly, the princely, the salon, and the art-historical.

The “gentlemanly hang” dominated in England, a land of gentlemen if there ever was one. Paintings, almost exclusively Old Masters, decorated the rooms of the wealthy and were hung without the kind of information we have become accustomed to in museums. English gentlemen, by dint of their education and good breeding, could identify the painter and school of painting. If you couldn’t tell a Van Dyke from a Rembrandt, chances are you didn’t belong in the Earl of Squirrel’s fancy digs. The “princely hang” is not dissimilar in its lack of information or its overall goal of signifying power, but whereas the gentlemanly hang emanated sobriety, the princely hang was meant to dazzle: paintings were hung on walls thick with paint, gilt, mirrors, tapestries, and plaster relief so that visitors would be awestruck by the wealth and taste of the king. A visit to Versailles will give you a potent dose of the princely hang, though works of American artist Jeff Koons are currently intermingling with the splendors of Versailles, so don’t let the giant aluminum lobster throw you off.

The Salons in France, exhibitions organized by the Acad√©mie de Beaux Arts, displayed paintings based on the idea that “more is more”: paintings were hung right next to each other, above each other, under each other; every wall was crammed with what was thought to be the best of the best (read: the most conservative and least challenging). The “salon hang” continued long into the 19th century, despite the fact that the “art-historical” hang came to dominate the logic of display in the late 18th and early 19th century. In fact, if my memory serves me right, the Louvre (before its magnificent renovation) still clung to the salon hang: the painting galleries were dark and claustrophobic; a glass of wine too many and the visitor felt as if the walls were collapsing on him, dragged down by the weight of hundreds of years of painting, Greek tragedies, and shipwrecks at sea.

The “art-historical” hang signals the transition from private collections meant for the few to public museums meant for everyone. Whereas private collections impressed, public museums were intended to instruct. Curators, taking cues from the fledgling discipline of art history, arranged collections chronologically and by school, thus establishing an ordered itinerary for the visitor who embarked on an edifying journey, observing the aesthetic progress of painting which inexorably culminated in the Italian Renaissance.

Most art museums today still use this approach to varying degrees and it is a useful way to guide the visitor. However, it is instructive to develop an awareness that your experience in a museum has in part already been programmed for you through the arrangement and display of its objects. Not only that, but the attention you give to individual pieces is tempered by the privileged hanging of paintings deemed more important than others. This isn’t inherently bad: your visit is not being hijacked by some curitorial control freak. At the same time, by being aware of the politics of display, you are more likely to ferret out the corners and darker hallways and stumble upon something normally unnoticed and decidedly wonderful, which makes “hanging out” at the museum even more rewarding!

This post relies heavily on Carol Duncan’s book Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums. If you are interested in the history of art museums you should check it out.

What would Mr. Tiepolo say? This is how Robert, an art student from Dresden, responded to my last interview question: is there any recommendation you would make to the museum? Mr. Tiepolo? Who’s that? It took me a few moments to realize that Robert was referring to the Italian Renaissance painter Giovanni Batista Tiepolo, long since dead. Ah, the question was rhetorical, akin to what would Jesus do? Alright Robert, medium of dead Italian painters, what would Tiepolo say? Robert seemed sure: “He would say turn down the lights!” Robert went on: Tiepolo painted Virgin and Child with Saints Dominic and Hyacinth as an alterpiece for a church. In a church the eyes must accustom themselves to sober lighting, the viewer has to be patient, has to look a long time, and then the colors slowly reveal themselves. In Robert’s opinion, Tiepolo’s painting was misrepresented because we could see it too well. To him, the colors were almost garish.

Robert’s question, on behalf of Signore Tiepolo, brings up an interesting point: art museums decontextualize objects, serving them up to us in dramatically different conditions than those for which they were made: a statue of Buddha in a museum provokes a different response than it would in a temple, the 13th century Corpus of Christ with its stoic style had an entirely different effect (and purpose) in the Church of Santa Maria in Banyoles, Spain (where it remained until 1919) than it has today on visitors to the Art Institute.

While Robert wasn’t questioning the museum’s legitimacy to display an alterpiece originally designed for a church (in fact, one of his preoccupations was museum lighting, which is a whole other kettle of fish), he does give us some food for thought: large, public museums as we know them come to us from the 18th and 19th centuries, beginning with the Louvre which opened its doors in 1793 after the French Revolution (prior to which it had been the private collection of the king). In the Age of Enlightenment art was seen not as the property of a privileged few but as a humanizing tool for everybody and thus replaced in some respects the role the church had occupied for hundreds of years. Today’s public museum can therefore be seen as a sort of secularized church…only with better lighting!

I now have my questionnaire posted, you will find it under tools for your visit. Feel free to download it to shake up your next visit to an art museum or to fill out and send back to me. I would love to hear from you.