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What’s wrong with art exhibitions?

26 January 2015

dscn6821There have been some fabulous exhibitions in London – I’d cite the Leonardo, Barocci and Rembrandt exhibitions at the National Gallery as obvious examples that validate the concept. But they have been greatly outnumbered by disappointments, ranging from the boring to some that can only be called stinkers. Like opera, art exhibitions involve jumping a great many different hurdles, any one of which can spoil one’s enjoyment of the whole experience. We need Goldilocks exhibitions that steer a middle course through all these constraints. Here’s what so often goes wrong.

Artists: some stand up to monographic treatment. Many do not (that after all is the point of the monographic exhibition: to find out just how great an artist is). Some would if the right works were shown, but they are not always available: and that can leave the public with a worse impression than they started with – particularly if the exhibition is filled out with rubbish. Too often “wallpower” (in the jargon) is preferred to significance; should you include representative examples when they are unattractive? Even great works can be diminished if shown in the wrong context. Rubens would be a far better exhibition if it consisted only of the room with the Garden of Love. (If you want to know how great a painter Rubens was, go to the NPG: the portrait of Arundel is by a long way the best 17th century portrait in the gallery. Then go to the National Gallery; their Arundel is even better, and their deep holdings of Rubens give a far better picture of the artist; but instead of lending the Chapeau de Paille, they sent their Vigée Le Brun, which isn’t even the primary version of her self-portrait.)

Size: Most exhibitions are too big (Rubens). They place physical demands that many of us don’t enjoy. Some are just too small (Unseen at the Courtauld), even for me. Usually this is due to fixed locations of the wrong size, but not always: the Wallace basement can be perfect, but not if you try to squeeze in forty pictures. I like the Sackler wing in the RA, and a good exhibition will comfortably fill the Sainsbury basement in the National Gallery, but neither space is ideally laid out in terms of rooms, light etc.

Too often lighting is a real killer; I’ve blogged about this before. It’s really important: not only does it set the tone of the exhibition, but it defines what you see, particularly if you’re old (if you’re young, don’t laugh: it will happen to you too, and doesn’t mean you’re blind or past it). This exacerbates the problems from designer-led labels: I have 6/4 visual acuity, but I can’t read 8 point grey on grey type at knee level from where I’m standing to enjoy the picture.

Did I mention noise? What in the world are curators thinking when they add sound tracks, or just fail to deaden noise from nearby installations? Beware videos of any kind: they rarely work, but curators love them.

Ah, curators… (I’ve slipped into the vernacular, but they don’t like to be called organisers.) A rum lot, particularly the career professionals. Some very good; most imbued with daft ideas from fuzzy educational establishments. Too few real specialists with a dedicated love of the particular subject (what would they curate next?). They are necessarily followers of fashion (how else do you get funding for a show?) and all too often succumb to what Art History News terms guff. No need for further examples, but when the writing is on the floor you know you’ve hit rock bottom. But some of us stop looking at the pictures when the captions provide alternative, if unintentional, entertainment: banal, moronic, ignorant, patronising, highfalutin are all possible, even simultaneously. Keep them short (but do include the artist, title and lender/permanent location): if more than a further two dozen words are needed to explain why the picture is there, it probably shouldn’t be.

Walls are not the pages of a book. If you need to explain themes, send people to the catalogue. But the Themed Exhibition is itself a warning indicator of the Wonderland that has taken over exhibition curation. A simple chronological hang is almost always better. When the themes are Abstract Nouns, take a quick look for the exit sign.

Catalogues, of course, perpetuate the ephemera of curators’ foibles. We buy them avidly, whether we enjoyed the exhibition or not, as totems of our connoisseurship (and we buy at the door, never when remaindered: why do economists fear deflation?). Few of them are read, whatever our intentions. Mostly they assemble the incoherent ramblings of disparate specialists who are rarely coordinated and barely edited. It only matters because these publications make it uneconomic to publish proper monographs or catalogues raisonnés.

And lenders, with their outrageous demands: publicity/no publicity (insurance, handling, couriers may not be so unreasonable: but the safety of transportation deserves a separate post), attributions, reciprocity, politics: have we lost our marbles?

Worst of all, οἱ πολλοί: Procul, o procul este, profani! Sadly they come in their droves and spoil it for the rest of us. But then, if you do go to an empty exhibition, it feels like turning up at an empty restaurant: do they know something I don’t?

What can be done? It isn’t easy to reverse the momentum that has built up this activity (in which money plays a bigger role than you might think, and the tyranny of visitor numbers imprisons museum directors whatever their personal ambitions). My wish would be for scholarship-led projects in which the monograph takes the lead, with the exhibition secondary and in parts virtual. So a new catalogue raisonné is produced, and a group of simultaneous exhibitions is organised at each of the museums with the main holdings: let the public travel rather than the exhibits, and let the monograph take the strain of the “narrative”, with the benefit of all the evidence. (Just because a picture is too fragile to travel doesn’t mean that it isn’t a vital part of the story, although that is the logic of our present system.) At times it seems as if the world’s great masterpieces are lent so often that they are being treated like roads, dug up repeatedly by different agencies with no coordination. We need to channel more of the vast energy and resources that support the exhibitions industry into scholarship of permanent value.

From → Art history

  1. Excellent article! It hits all of my principle concerns:
    My first would be the sudden surge in tourist hoards, who appear to be there simply to tick the box and have little to no real interest in what is being exhibited. My wife and I have been forced to try to be the first through the doors, then head directly for what may be of particular interest to enjoy a few moments of appreciation before the hoards begin to catch up.
    My second is the lack of understanding in basic graphics. Grey on grey is not trendy cutting edge typography, it is simply appalling graphics. As the population continues to age, one hopes that the ‘curators’ will catch on.

    • Quite right. But haven’t you noticed – the curators are getting younger and younger, while most visitors are as grey as the type…

  2. Excellent, although I think Late Rembrandt shows many of the problems you describe – bad wall text, daft thematic organisation, badly hung (impossible to see some of the portraits), unreasonable lender demands (Raphael and various other Rembrandts sent off as reciprocal loans), bad lighting.

    I’d add a point about populist subjects – endless variations on narrow themes (exhibition titles including words ‘impressionism’ ‘treasures’ ‘royal’, etc…).

    • Of course you’re absolutely right about the Rembrandt: I struggled to think of examples that would exempt from the charge of complete Eeyoreness, and allowed my affection for the NG to draw a veil. Bendor made the same comment, finding that the pictures were so good he didn’t notice the captions. It’s the combination of mediocre exhibits and mindless organisation that drives people to blog.

  3. Milon permalink

    This is a great analysis. I think your idea of scholarly exhibitions following the lead of a monograph a good idea, although it might be difficult for exhibitions of that other than paintings (sculpture, decorative arts). There is a definite obsession with exhibitions – many people I know regularly go to exhibitions at the V&A, Tate or NPG but would never even think of spending the same amount of time going round the permanent collection. I think mini exhibitions which some museums put on, focusing in on some aspect using objects from their own collection are a way forward. For example, this display the V&A put on in accord with Majorie Trusted’s new publication on Baroque Ivories –

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