For the ESNAblog we invite everyone who has something salient to write on artists, exhibitions, books (etc.) within the time frame of the long nineteenth century (c. 1750-1915). You can send a Word-document of 300-500 words to our email address firstname.lastname@example.org. One or two images are welcome.
ESNAblog| Interdisciplinary exchange:
An art historian’s outing in the field of musicology
by Lisa Smit – researcher and assistant curator, Van Gogh Museum; ESNA secretary
Recently, I embarked on an interesting exchange when I was invited to participate in a conference organized by the Institute of Musicology of the University of Vienna. Ästhetik der Innerlichkeit: Max Reger und das Lied um 1900 marked the centenary of the death of composer Max Reger. Not only was I the only non-musicologist, I was also one of only three non-native German speakers. And I am quite sure I was the only one who was unfamiliar with the music of Reger. The conference focussed on the Lieder (German for songs) within Reger’s body of work, as well as on those by his contemporaries such as Richard Strauss and Arnold Schönberg. Special attention was payed to the turn-of-the-century preoccupation with Innerlichkeit (interiority; inwardness; subjectivity) within the genre.
It was my task to enrich this highly musical conference with an art historical perspective. I did so by way of an anthology of the topos of music in visual arts in the second half of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, concentrating roughly on the cultural scenes of Vienna and Munich. Through a variety of examples ranging from Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead to Kandinsky’s Composition III (Concert), as well as lesser-known but then popular make-believe depictions of famous composers behind their pianos, I tried to explain why the analogy between music and painting flourished in the nineteenth century.
Afterwards, some of the musicologists asked me about my impression of their discipline, and in turn I asked them about their impression of art historians. One of them jokingly replied that in general, art historians usually: A. “dress very well” (Hurray!) and B. “when discussing a certain painting, tend to be preoccupied with pointing out other art works that can be recognized in the work at hand” (Touché). Amusing as it was, this conversation got me thinking about the similarities and differences between our disciplines.
What struck me, was that almost all of the musicologists’ talks focussed on the structural analysis of sheet music, often discussing the harmony and/or the discrepancies between music and poetry, two sister arts inevitably joined in the genre of the song. With the emergence of modern art, visual artists of a range of disciplines became fascinated by the intrinsic power of music to capture the intangible. And as visual artists endeavoured to develop the same transcendental qualities, music became a guiding star for the modernization of art. Perhaps it is exactly this quality of music of being so entirely of and for its own that explains the profound concentration on actual music in the field of musicology.
One of the ways in which the conference was an inspiring experience for me, was the (renewed) realization that when discussing art, “we” art historians often discuss everything but the actual art works. With the current fashion of art-historical subjects such as the art market or the infrastructure of transnational exchanges, we often employ art to discuss broader cultural tendencies and formulate a cultural history of ideas. I am not at all suggesting that this is a bad thing. On the contrary, I feel it is highly important to embed our discipline within a larger social-cultural context. But perhaps this blog can serve as a little reminder that we should encourage ourselves to actively engage in interdisciplinary exchange, as we can gain new insights from related disciplines.
In the end however, musicologists and art historians are very much alike: a bunch of nerds intensely devoted to their field of study.
ESNAblog| City of Sin: Some thoughts on the 2016 ESNA conference
by Malika M’rani Alaoui – MA Museum Curator, University of Amsterdam NL
Henri Evenepoel, La buveuse d’absinthe (1899)
Inspired by Baudelaire’s 1846 appeal to artists to open their eyes to the shadow side of the modern metropolis, this year’s ESNA conference, City of Sin: Representing the Urban Underbelly in the Nineteenth Century focused on the more subversive subjects of nineteenth-century city life. An inspiring group of art historians and students assembled at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam to discuss the depiction of topics such as prostitution, criminality and addiction in nineteenth-century art. Although this may sound a bit peculiar, these topics actually present fundamental issues of nineteenth-century urban culture.
The two-day conference started with a lecture by Fleur Roos Rosa de Carvalho, curator of prints and drawings at the Van Gogh Museum. The main point of Fleur’s lecture, focussing specifically on prostitution in prints, was that for several reasons prostitution is often depicted in a veiled way. We need to read between the lines to recognize it. In the first session, speakers discussed ways to reveal the invisible and provided food for thought for different approaches.
From the invisible we made a leap to the ignored. The second session examined topics that a lot of art historians will probably regard as ‘not academic enough’. Issues such as gambling, drug (ab)use, alcoholism and venereal diseases were discussed, and the speakers made clear why these topics are of interest to art historical research. They were widespread phenomena, not restricted to the lower classes but part of nineteenth-century culture and everyday life. Therefore we should not ignore them – at least, not if we want to gain complete and genuine insight into the nineteenth century.
The second day of the conference started with a lecture about the relation between the artist George Hendrik Breitner and his model Geesje Kwak by Suzanne Veldink, curator of the exhibition Breitner: Girl in Kimono. Suzanne demonstrated how in the nineteenth century, double moral standards were the norm, not the exception. Her lecture was followed by a session about different representations of prostitution in art, and maybe more importantly, how to recognize its metaphoric depictions. The speakers came up with some new and interesting points, but as a critical note I want to add that we must be careful not to over-interpret the artworks and loose ourselves in complex theories.
As a curator in training I’m particularly interested in the question how to present this kind of subversive subject matter to a broader public. Or more specifically, how to tell people another story than they are used to hear. Therefore, I was glad that Professor Tamar Garb of University College London concluded the conference with a critical lecture on these issues. The modernist narrative, which is still dominant in both research and curatorial practice, gives little space for other approaches. Of course it’s difficult to rewrite the art historical canon, but I don’t believe it’s impossible. Let’s rethink the history of the nineteenth century and to a certain extent try to shed the white-male gaze of the so called “Baudelairian paradigm”. This would enable us to explore other narratives and broaden our knowledge of the most fascinating period in history. All in all, the conference was very inspiring, and ESNA made a step in the right direction. I’m looking forward to next year’s conference, and I hope that the organization will continue to address unconventional topics.
ESNAblog| Nature’s Picture: Photography meets painting in the 19th century
by Jorien Soepboer – MA Museum Curator, University of Amsterdam NL
Last year, I worked as a curator in training at the Van Gogh Museum as part of the Museum Curator MA program at the University of Amsterdam. The goal of this internship was to master all aspects of curatorship, from the preservation of a museum collection to the production of exhibitions. Luckily for me, the big Van Gogh Museum has a little sister, The Mesdag Collection. At this small museum in The Hague, I had the chance to experience the process of setting up an exhibition as a curator. In June last year I started only with a subject (‘something with photography’). By March 2016, the exhibition titled Natuur in beeld – Nature’s Picture, was born.
The Mesdag Collection houses the private collection of painter Hendrik Willem Mesdag, which includes a high-quality holding of Barbizon and paintings from The Hague School. Nature’s Picture presents a small part of this collection in a different light, bringing the works together with Dutch and French landscape photographs from the same period. In the second half of the 19th century, nature was one of the places in which a lively dialogue arose between photography and the art of painting. Photography was quite new – its invention was publicly announced in 1839 – and still fully in development. The early French landscape photographers, such as Gustave Le Gray and Eugène Cuvelier, were influenced by the paintings of their day in terms of composition and subject matter. Painters, for their part, collected photographic prints or, by the end of the century, took up the camera by themselves.
The French forest of Fontainebleau was one of the places where the paths of photography and painting came together. Nature’s Picture shows how the landscape, with its ancient trees and great rock formations, offered a wide variety subjects in both media. Artists like Théodore Rousseau, Narcisse Virgile Diaz de la Peña and Jules Dupré began to visit Barbizon in the 1830s. From this village, they made frequent hiking trips to the nearby forest of Fontainebleau and worked en plein air in the unspoiled nature. Partly due to the growing popularity of Barbizon paintings, photographers found their way to the well-known woods in the late 1840s.
In the cliché verre, the photomechanical technique literally merged with those of fine art. When creating this glass print, the artist began with a drawing in a layer of ink on a glass plate. This image is then printed, using daylight, on light-sensitive paper. The final result looks like an engraving, but has a beautiful velvety tone. Painters like Camille Corot and Charles-François Daubigny used this technique to capture impressions of the countryside. Two prints by the latter are some of my favorite objects in the exhibition. In these, Daubigny experiments with the technique in a particularly masterly fashion.
As far as we know, Louis Apol was one of the few Dutch landscape painters using photography. In the late 19th century, cameras became increasingly portable and painters began to take their own photographs. The prints could be useful as an aide-mémoire in the studio, helping artists to fill in perspective or study moving subjects. Unfortunately for Apol, known for his winter paintings, the photographic technology in the nineteenth century wasn’t refined enough to capture high snow contrasts. For this reason, his use of the camera was only of short duration.
It scared me to bring ‘my baby’ into the world, where everybody could see and criticize it. But above all, I enjoyed creating this exhibition: to visualize research with objects, bring different artworks together and educate the public. What the future will bring for me? I really don’t know, but I sincerely hope there will be more chances like the one I had last year.
The exhibition Natuur in beeld – Nature’s Picture will be on view until the 5th of June in The Mesdag Collection in The Hague: www.demesdagcollectie.nl
The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere in Vienna are jointly preparing an exhibition with the preliminary title Reflections: Gustav Klimt in International Context (2018/2019). The exhibition and accompanying scholarly publication will focus on the influence of international avant-garde artists on Gustav Klimt (1862-1918). As a researcher for the Van Gogh Museum, ESNA secretary Lisa Smit spent the Autumn of 2015 at various research institutions and archives of Vienna. In this blog, she reflects on her experiences.
Spending time abroad to do research is an enriching experience for any art-historical researcher. It is a unique way to investigate a particular field of interest more in-depth with the benefit of doing so in a cross-cultural setting. It enables you to fully indulge in your research without the distractions inevitably faced at home. A big bonus is the empowering feeling of being on your own and managing just fine.
My first challenge was to familiarize myself with the do’s and don’ts of Austria’s curatorial scene. The right introductions and the support of the widely known name of the Van Gogh Museum on my business card opened many doors. I got in touch with some of the household names of „Vienna 1900“ scholarship, and had inspiring meetings and conversations with many museum curators, (independent) researchers, collectors and gallerists in the field. What a rewarding experience it has been, to lay the foundations of my research on the shoulders of these giants.
I conducted my research in various libraries, archives and research centers. Like any researcher, I experienced both frustrating days with zero result, and exciting moments when you discover hidden gems in unexpected places. I sifted through endless volumes of non-digitized newspaper feuilletons and contemporary periodicals. Fairly quickly, I got adjusted to the gothic print and I developed techniques to speed up the work. I compiled exhibition photographs as well as exhibition catalogues, and played ‘Guess the Picture’ to determine which art works Klimt might have actually seen. In doing so, I made headway in mapping the presence of avant-garde artists such as Vincent van Gogh, James Mc Neill Whistler, and Giovanni Segantini in Vienna around 1900.
My time in Vienna was a Totalerlebnis. Time and again, I visited Klimt’s Beethoven Freeze, his painted ceilings at the Burgtheater and the splendid selection of his paintings at the Belvedere. I spent my Sunday afternoons in Vienna’s coffee houses eating Sachertorte or Suppentopf, and went to see the theatre plays Professor Bernhardi by Arthur Schnitzler and Karl Kraus’ Die letzten Tage der Menschheit at the Burgtheater. I even paid visits to Klimt’s former studio and his grave in Hietzing. My evenings were spent reading the biographies of the women surrounding Klimt, e.g. Berta Zuckerkandl, Hermine Gallia, Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein, and Emilie Flöge. And in October, I came face to face with these ladies at the exhibition Klimt | Schiele | Kokoschka und die Frauen at the Belvedere. What’s more, I further explored the former Hapsburg Empire by visiting Budapest, Salzburg, Innsbruck and Bad Ischl. I even took a short break at the Attersee, where Klimt spent so many summer holidays with his beloved Emilie Flöge, and where he painted most of his landscapes.
After three months, I returned home feeling like a soaked sponge, having absorbed all the information I could lay my hands on. I now knew which direction the research should take, and was ready to share my newly gained insights with the colleagues at home for the benefit of our exhibition.
To conclude, some wise words from a fellow-researcher:
– Gemeinsames Wissen ist vermehrtes Wissen –
Lisa Smit – junior researcher Van Gogh Museum | secretary ESNA
ESNAblog| ESNA Winter Seminar 2015
On the 30th of January 2015 ESNA organized their second winter seminar at the Netherlands Institute for Art History (RKD) in The Hague. This meeting concerned Methodological developments within 19th-century art-historical scholarship. Or more specifically, as stated in the introduction by Jenny Reynaerts (Rijksmuseum), “not what, but how is our focus”. Several lectures, covering various methods for art-historical research, were presented by researchers and subsequently discussed within the group. Contributors were prof. dr. Saskia de Bodt (Universities of Utrecht and Amsterdam), prof. dr. Wessel Krul (University of Groningen), dr. Jan Dirk Baetens (Radboud University Nijmegen), dr. Rachel Esner (University of Amsterdam) and drs. Maite van Dijk (Van Gogh Museum).
In her lecture, Saskia de Bodt discussed the possibilities of interdisciplinary research and, above all, the problems of this methodological approach. She tried to demonstrate the difficulties that arise when one tries to examine parallels between different media that, in De Bodts eyes, are incompatible, for example text and image in book illustrations. As an alternative she suggested the approach of multidisciplinary research in which different disciplines enter into a dialogue, instead of researchers who explore other fields on their own like nomads.
The second lecture by Wessel Krul concerned a more theoretical approach, exemplified by the ideas of Hippolyte Taine on Dutch art. Based on his key concepts of ‘race’, ‘moment’ and ‘milieu’, Taine believed that paintings from the Golden Age reflected something of the ‘true Dutch character’. This idea proved to be very useful in the search for national identity in the nineteenth century. As a result, a canon of ‘purely Dutch art’ was put together. The seventeenth-century ‘realistic’ paintings hereby served as models for contemporary artists to acquire knowledge about the Dutch ‘national character’.
After the break, Jan Dirk Baetens gave a lecture about failure(s) in art history, or actually the absence of it. The art-historical canon is formed by ‘genius’ and scholars pay little heed to mediocrity. However, as Baetens rightly remarked, mediocrity is much more widespread than genius in the history of art. So why don’t we, as the objective scientist we should be, pay more attention to failures and mediocrity? Moreover, the study of failures in art-history can help us better understand the successful artists.
The fourth lecture by Rachel Esner focused on the emergence of the artist as a celebrity and the role of new media in that process. Illustrations and photographs of the artist and his studio became more and more popular during the nineteenth century. Since artists were very aware of the importance of image building, it is interesting to look at what’s behind those pictures. How did artists represent themselves and what can it tell us about their art? Moreover, these resources can give us a broader view of the social and economic situation of artists during the second half of the nineteenth century.
The last lecture by Maite van Dijk questioned the old-fashioned idea that French critics ignored foreign artists. Her current research focuses on the critical reception of Edvard Munch at the Salon des Indépendants. By counting the number of reviews about the participating artists, Van Dijk was able to show that French critics surely did pay attention to Munch and that he was mentioned in a relatively large number of reviews about the Salon. This makes clear how quantitative research can also be a useful method for art-historical research.
Altogether it was an interesting seminar, which gives food for thought about new approaches in art-historical research. We look forward to the next ESNA winter seminar, where the emerging and exciting field of digital humanities will be discussed.
Written by Matthijs ‘t Hart and Malika M’rani Alaoui, third year Art History students at respectively Radboud University Nijmegen and the University of Amsterdam.
ESNAblog| To tag or not to tag: research into the Van Gogh Museum print collection
When I tell people about my job as a Print Collection Researcher in the Van Gogh Museum, a frown is the usual answer. ‘Did Van Gogh make so many prints?!’ – no, he did not. However, the museum houses an important and choice collection of approximately 1,750 prints from the fin de siècle (1890-1905): autonomous art works as well as posters, illustrated sheet music, books and theatre programmes by luminaries such as Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, Steinlen and the Nabis. Due to the light sensitive nature of the paper the prints spend most of the time in the depot, so hardly anybody knows of this hidden treasure. In 2010 the museum has started a scholarly research project in order to make the print collection better known and to tell the audience the story of printmaking during the fascinating cultural period of the fin the siècle. This spring the museum hosted a peer review meeting discussing the project´s progress and future plans with scholars and connoisseurs from the field: Philip Dennis Cate, Richard Thomson, Christopher Drake, Britany Salsbury, and Chris Stolwijk. Of course, also the print specialists from the museum were present: Marije Vellekoop, Fleur Roos Rosa de Carvalho, Lisa Smit, Laura Prins, and myself.
The day was chaired by Curator of Prints and Drawings Fleur Roos Rosa de Carvalho, initiator, researcher and manager of the project. In the morning, Fleur took us on a journey through the collection database to show how extensively the collection has been catalogued, documented and photographed over the last four years. Of course, we registered the basics such as artist, title, creation date and technique. The core of the research, however, consists of the numerous tags we have applied to every print, regarding both the content and the context: from concepts such as japonisme, décoration and prostitution, to styles, function, and printers’ and publishers’ names. Instead of publishing a hard copy collection catalogue with entries on each individual print, we are working on a website, which will focus on the prints’ correlations (by means of the tags).
Therefore, an important question that aroused during the peer review meeting was: how far should we go with tagging? Should we narrow down to the bare essentials the amount of tags applied to a single print? Or should we apply as many tags as possible, even when a print has only a touch of japonisme, for instance? Findability should be the keyword, the experts agreed. When one searches for japonisme, one wants to find all the prints associated to this cultural phenomenon in one way or another. The more we tag, the more illuminating and surprising connections will emerge. The website will be launched next year. We are now writing short explanatory texts on the 150 most complicated and frequently occurring tags – quite a job, but a sweet deal for the fin de siècle loving researcher.
Another milestone of the research project will be a large exhibition in 2017, focusing on the tension between high and low culture in late 19th century printmaking. Obviously, four years of research have yielded many more stories and findings than we can share through the website and the exhibition. The afternoon of the peer review meeting was therefore a brainstorming session about further ways to publish the results for both the scholar, the amateur and the general public. Is it possible to serve these various audiences with one publication? Or should we think of an exhibition catalogue in 2017 and a separate volume of scholarly essays, perhaps in conjunction with a conference? Food for thought. First we have to tackle the tags.
Marieke Jooren, Researcher Print Collection, Van Gogh Museum
[more in formation on this project: http://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en/about-the-museum/research-projects/research-into-the-french-print-collection]
[for a selection of the collection: http://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en/contemporaries-and-inspiration/highlights-french-prints ]
ESNAblog| A Royal Course of Events
At the nineteenth century section of the permanent exhibition in the Rijksmuseum the large Schipbreuk (Shipwreck) by Wijnand Nuyen, ca. 1837, is on show in the second room. For lovers of this period it is a well-known painting. The highly expressive, colourful and emotional scene makes it the pre-eminent example of Romantic art in the Netherlands.
From 1842 to 1850 the Schipbreuk was part of the famous collection of King Willem II of the Netherlands. He had bought it from an art dealer who had just before acquired it form Alexander de Ceva. I recently wrote my thesis on De Ceva and was intrigued why someone would buy the painting of Nuyen, a painting that was in my view very un-Dutch. Ultimately that resulted in a research on De Ceva who played an important role in the art world of The Hague in the 1830s and 1840s and who turned out to have sold his entire collection to Willem II. By researching this major deal between De Ceva and Wllem II I gained in-depth knowledge of the king’s collection. My thesis is published online on JHSG.nl.
After my graduation the question remained why there hadn’t been an exhibition in a major Dutch museum about the collection of Willem II, which was arguably the greatest private collection in the history of The Netherlands. With the upcoming 200 year jubilee of the kingdom of The Netherlands it seemed to me that this was the ideal moment to realize such an exhibition. But as a recent graduate I had no idea where to start with my plan. Coincidentally (?) I was contacted around that time by the Dordrechts Museum with an offer to join in the preparation of the upcoming Willem II exhibition, which was soon to be held. Of course I was delighted to help. Some of the artworks in the Dordrecht exhibition therefore are accompanied with a little text about De Ceva, such as a painting by Gustaf Wappers.
The jury at the ‘Tentoonstelling van Levende Meesters’ (Salon) in The Hague of 1839, of which De Ceva was a member, had awarded Nuyen’s painting the gold medal for best picture. Fortunately for De Ceva this painting was in his own collection. Two years later it was one of the most expensive paintings of the lot that he sold to Willem II.
It was a fortunate course of events that brought together my graduation research and the organization of the exhibition in Dordrecht. Therefore the museum was able to include some new research to its catalogue and walls and I had the opportunity to work on this great project and gain some experience in a museum. Hopefully more events of this caliber with a nineteenth century subject will follow – preferably with my assistance of course!
Early 2012 Teylers Museum in Haarlem received a phone call from the Dutch private collector and former TV producer Jef Rademakers. As an avid promoter and collector of Dutch romantic painting, Rademakers was also in touch with the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and proposed to make an exhibition in which paintings from the romantic period of his collection together with that of the Tretyakov Gallery and Teylers Museum would be shown side by side, mingling Dutch and Russian artworks. This promised to be a special opportunity to change the historic setting in which the Teylers’ paintings are usually presented into an unexpected international context. It presented a possibility for reviewing the similarities and disparities of Dutch and Russian painting from the first half of the nineteenth century, as well as a chance to re-evaluate the often debated position of Dutch romanticism. Although time for preparation would be short – the exhibition was scheduled to open in Moscow in November 2013, which left us only one and a halve year – the three partners agreed to work together.
What followed was an exciting joint venture in which my Russian colleague Lyudmila Markina and I dived together into the three collections to select over fifty paintings that would form a loosely knitted but coherent whole, showing the diverse qualities of the period. Much to our surprise there were far more similarities than expected, considering the huge differences between Russia and the Netherlands regarding size, climate, history and society. While Russia at the turn of the nineteenth century had only recently developed its own approach to the fine arts – until then mostly producing religious icons – Dutch artists had to deal with the towering fame of their seventeenth century predecessors. From these two very different starting points, both Dutch and Russian artists actually turned to the same examples in old as well as contemporary art, to find answers for their artistic questions.
While therefore the qualities of Dutch and Russian painting from the first half of the nineteenth century might not differ so much, the reputation and popularity of the period in both countries has been very different. For Russians the works of romantic painters like Shishkin, Bryullov or Venetsianov belong to their most treasured pieces of art, whereas paintings by Koekkoek, Schelfhout or Kruseman in the Netherlands are often considered as just the results of an interval period in between the highlights of the Dutch Golden Age and the impressionistic realism of the late nineteenth century Hague School. Unfamilar with Dutch painting of this period, Russian vistors to the Moscow exhibition were surprised to see the quality of these Dutch painters – and were even more surprised to hear that this period belongs to the most underexposed in Dutch art history. On the other hand for most Dutch viewers the Russian paintings are also a discovery – perhaps often along with the works of their nineteenth century compatriots. Judging by the reactions of the public and the number of visitors so far (similar to earlier successful exhibitions of Anton Mauve and Claude Lorrain), the Dutch seem finally ready to embrace their romantic side. Or are they? Let’s try to find out during the ESNA excursion on May 20th.
Terry van Druten, curator of Teylers Museum and of the exhibition
ESNAblog| A Study Day at the Phillips Collection, Washington DC
Phillips Collection, Washington DC
In recent years it has become a tradition for some museums in the US and Canada that stage ambitious exhibitions to organize gatherings of scholars (curators, researchers, conservators, academics) and discuss a wide range of topics in the galleries in the proximity of the actual artworks. It works best when one of the participants briefly introduces a selected (group of) artworks and ends with a provocative remark or a question to start the discussion.
Together with four colleagues from the Van Gogh Museum I was invited to participate in a study day at the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC. The exhibition Van Gogh Repetitions is a rare opportunity to see together and compare some of the works he did in more than one version. Most famous in the relatively small exhibition (c. 40 works) are The Bedroom, The Postman Roulin and La Berceuse, but there were also other works, such as a series of weavers from the Nuenen periode (both painted and drawn) and a series of eight different prints of Doctor Gachet.
Participants came out excited and exhausted. It was one of the best of such study days I’ve attended and I think the reason for its success was twofold. First, almost all people present were really well informed about Van Gogh and his art; on other occasions I’ve seen surely very kind and interested people but they were less informed about the subject and consequently contributing less or asking, well, less urgent questions. The other reason is that the starting points in every discussion were the very artworks we were standing before: the paint layers, colours, brushstrokes, contours, differences between versions. Looking at the same work or series of works with thirty pairs of eyes was great fun to begin with and it inspired many animated discussions that raised a lot of questions for further research.
On a critical note I should add that the fact that virtually all of these mini-debates centred around material and technical issues pushed the art historical quite into the background. Why portraiture was so important to Van Gogh; how some of the portraits fit into what we know about his artistic programme; what he tried to achieve with his weavers; if and how different reasons for repeating his own works led to different approaches, etc. – these types of questions were at best touched upon in passing. This can partly be explained by the fact that in preparing the exhibition the Phillips Collection and the Cleveland Museum of Art devoted much of their time and resources to technical examination. Also, the relatively modest number of works naturally limited the ground they cover. Admittedly, giving the art historical side its due would have required one more day.
As far as I know these study days are not organised in The Netherlands. It would be hard to realise it in museums that are open seven days a week. But it would be worthwhile to see if we could learn from our colleagues overseas; it’s also a very good opportunity for expanding one’s network. What are we waiting for?
Leo Jansen, curator of paintings, Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam
ESNAblog| Living on the Edge
National Gallery, Londen
Last week I was kindly invited for a preview by National Gallery curator Chris Riopelle of the exhibition Facing the Modern. The Portrait in Vienna 1900. The exhibition focuses on the turmoil years around 1900, when Vienna was the center of big cultural, political and social changes. Think Freud, Jung, Klimt, Kokoschka but also Makart and the fin-de-siècle architecture on the Ringstrasse, built to celebrate the city as an achievement of high bourgeois culture.
The overture is Beethoven’s – his death mask and hands in plaster immediately show how art and culture were worshipped, but they also introduce a darker note. In the second room the drama continues: the big chasm between the complacency of the wealthy bourgeois world and the pending downslide is shown by a portrait of a typical upper class Viennese family, well fed and richly attired. Even their smiles are heavenly, though one would expect these to stiffen as the curators have forced them to look on the naked bodies of Egon Schiele, his wife and child. Schiele’s huge and haunting portrait is a world apart from the ideal nucleus family. In this setting, the painting seems to be more of a comment on the claustrophobia of conformist social formulas.
The tone is set and room after room we are confronted with faces full of anxiety. There is a paradox here in form and content: the overall tone of the modernist paintings is blue, a predominant color in modern art from the Impressionist era. It contrasts all but in content with the rather morose ‘museumtone’ of the pre-1900 portraits. The self portrait of Arnold Schonberg is literally blue in the face, but instead of innovative expressionism it rather reminds one of strangulation.
Indeed, death seemed to be on everybody’s mind and can be read in these faces. It was of course paramount, culminating in the slaughter of WW I and the Spanish flue epidemic of 1918. Schiele’s family portrait is a reminder of that, both he and his wife died of the flue. The exhibition tells the story of many deaths and suicides. The flamboyant sitters of Hans Makart lose their bourgeois significance and as time went on seem to have become part of a Danse Macabre.
For once, I don’t feel envious or want to live in these exciting times. Instead I want to know more about these individuals, and the huge changes they faced. The exhibition is thus not just about modernist portraiture, it is about facing life.
Jenny Reynaerts, senior curator of 18th and 19th century paintings, Rijksmuseum