The current blockbuster at the Denver Art Museum is an enormous show with the exhaustively informative title of European Masterpieces: Six Centuries of Paintings From the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia. Filled with compelling pieces, it occupies both the Hamilton and Stanton galleries, which comprise some 18,000 square feet at the museum -- more than enough room for the 88 paintings in this traveling exhibition.
But if the show is installed too thinly in places -- there's even a blank wall or two -- it's usually for the best, since it gives the pieces some breathing room. And that goes for visitors as well. Because there are fewer things to see in each of the dozen or so galleries over which the exhibit ranges, the pace is faster than usual, and people will spend less time in each area. And surely that's what the show's designers and marketing experts had in mind, as they are expecting more than 160,000 people over the next few months during the show's Denver run.
Denver is only one stop on a multi-city U.S. tour for the Melbourne-based collection, the formation of which is an interesting story. In 1904, Melbourne businessman Alfred Felton died and left nearly £400,000 to a charitable trust called the Felton Bequest. A portion of the trust's assets was dedicated to the purchase of "art ancient and modern" for the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia's premier art museum. With this fairly modest amount of money -- which is now essentially exhausted -- the museum was able to buy more than sixty of the 88 paintings included in European Masterpieces.
One of the reasons the money went so far is that Felton had empowered his trustees to work with a group of advisors in Great Britain (Australia was still a British colony in 1904, remember). Among these were art historian Sir Kenneth Clark and curator and Soviet spy Sir Anthony Blunt, both of whom are now deceased. The ever-changing roster of experts made some savvy decisions that obviously allowed the NGV to stretch the Felton money. For example, in the early-to-mid-twentieth century, when people couldn't give away their nineteenth-century academic and Pre-Raphaelite paintings because they were so out of favor, the Felton Bequest picked up major works of these kinds for peanuts -- paintings which are now worth millions of dollars apiece.
That's how, in 1919, the NGV wound up buying one of the greatest of the Pre-Raphaelite masterpieces, "The Garden of Pan," a magnificent 1880s oil on canvas by Edward Burne-Jones, a key figure in the movement. Another example of insightful bargain-hunting was the Jules Bastien-Lepage, a breathtaking realist painting from 1878, which was acquired in 1924, the nadir for appreciation of this kind of work.
But the NGV also purchased contemporary pieces. In 1905, museum director Bernard Hall bought Camille Pissarro's "Boulevard Montmartre, Morning, Cloudy Weather," an oil on canvas from 1897, with the first year's income from the Felton Bequest. It's one of the few paintings in European Masterpieces to have been widely exhibited, and therefore to be widely known outside of Australia. And of the paintings that were exhibited in Europe before they were acquired by the NGV, almost none have been seen in the United States. That alone makes European Masterpieces a must-see.
The occasion for this U.S. tour is the ongoing rehab of the NGV's main building, a 1960s modernist structure, which is being carried out by designer Mario Bellini of Milan. What this means for the museum is that the majority of its collections had to go into storage while these paintings went on the road. The museum has vast holdings in Oriental, Aboriginal, decorative, and modern and contemporary art. It also has -- no surprise here -- the world's premier collection of Australian art, for which a separate building is set to open by the end of this year. The rest of the museum will reopen in 2002.
"The NGV is the most important museum in the southern hemisphere," says Tom Dixon, the museum's chief conservator. "And the paintings [now in Denver] are almost all of our finest paintings, with the exception of the Tiepolo, which is our most significant old-master painting." Dixon is referring to Giambattista Tiepolo's eighteenth-century "The Banquet of Cleopatra," an enormous oil on canvas. The Tiepolo was deemed too large and too fragile to travel.
The American-born Dixon -- he's from Iowa, believe it or not -- was in Denver last week and is personally responsible for including the city on the tour. Though he's lived Down Under for around twenty years, he's no stranger to Colorado. "I came to Denver in 1976 to oversee the move of the collection of the Colorado History Museum from the old building," he says. "I was also involved in founding the Rocky Mountain Conservation Center at about the same time, and I've been back many times since. My sister lives in Boulder." (Sadly the Art Conservation Center at the University of Denver, the successor to the Rocky Mountain Conservation Center, is set to close within the month.)
Over the years, Dixon came to know DAM director Lewis Sharp. "I went to Lewis with a catalogue of the NGV's collection -- not the catalogue that accompanies this show, but a similar one," Dixon says. "Lewis didn't hesitate to agree to join the tour, even though Timothy [Standring] was out of the country at the time."
Truth be told, Standring, the museum's curator of painting and sculpture, is often out of the country. Sometimes he's pursuing British paintings in London for the Berger Collection, which is housed at the DAM but not owned by the museum. Other times, he's off in Italy doing research. Wherever he was, when he returned, the job of organizing the Denver version of the show fell to him.
And it has been laid out according to Standring's plan, with input from a variety of sources, including exhibition designers, marketing specialists and members of the DAM's infamous education department, which has included annoying interactive gimmicks in a number of recent big shows. Here, for instance, visitors can try on replicas of costumes seen in one of the paintings. (I shudder to think what visitors would be expected to try on were there a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit in the DAM's galleries.)
Standring gave me a tour of the show a week or so ago, while the very last touches were being put in place. (Australia's Dame Edna, in town for her Broadway revue, was scheduled to go through that same day.) Over the years, I've had an ongoing discussion with Standring in which I've been highly critical of his often outlandish installation decisions. He will, at times, create disorienting and odd comparisons in which two or more stylistically and historically disparate artifacts are presented together. He practices this approach in the permanent sixth-floor display he oversees.
From my point of view, his installation style has never worked. But until I saw European Masterpieces, I hadn't fully grasped what he was attempting to accomplish. Now that I do understand what he's up to, I've been forced to alter my views. Whereas before I had been uncomfortable with his approach, I am now absolutely opposed to it.
Standring's self-professed goal is to "deconstruct art history." He said this to me as we began our walk through European Masterpieces...backward! (To fully understand this show, I had to return later -- without Standring -- and work from front to back, as exhibition visitors will, and not the other way around.)
The show begins with some of the oldest pieces and ends with some of the newest ones, but this is misleading, because it suggests the exhibit will follow an orderly, historical course, which it does not.
The first gallery, painted a deep terra-cotta red, is filled with exquisite paintings devoted to religious subjects, most of them by Italian painters. I disagree with Standring on many things, but there is at least one thing on which we totally agree: Sassetta's "Burning of a Heretic," a tempera and gold leaf on wood panel done in the 1420s, is riveting. The diminutive painting by the Siennese Renaissance master was originally part of an altarpiece. More stylistically advanced, since it was created in the late-Renaissance style of Raphael, is the sumptuous "Holy Family With St. Jerome, a Female Martyr and the Infant St. John," an oil on wood panel from the 1550s, by Bolognese master Prospero Fontana.
Also choice is a Flemish painting that's more late medieval than full-blown Renaissance, Hans Memling's "The Man of Sorrows in the Arms of the Virgin," an oil and gold leaf on wood panel from the 1470s.
But contemplation of these richly and subtly detailed works is viciously intruded upon by something in the second gallery that is clearly visible from the first. It stopped me dead in my tracks. On the back wall of the second gallery, Standring has created a pairing that is so violent from a stylistic standpoint that it constitutes a kind of aesthetic and historical terrorism that can't have been an accident. Facing us is a very sweet, anonymous Florentine tempera-and-oil-on-wood-panel painting from the 1540s that depicts a wealthy woman in profile. Though the topic is secular, it blends perfectly in style and tone with the religious subjects in the first gallery.
But next to this Renaissance painting, Standring has hung Picasso's surrealist triumph "Weeping Woman"!
Surely the most famous and most widely publicized painting in European Masterpieces, "Weeping Woman" is an oil on canvas from 1937 that's closely related to Picasso's "Guernica," done the same year. In both paintings, Picasso abandoned the fracture of pictorial space that had been his cubist signature and replaced it with a surrealist conception of the composition, which wound up being of supreme importance to post-war New York School abstraction, especially abstract expressionism.
Now, in a way, placing "Weeping Woman" so that it can be seen from the front of the show makes some public-relations sense, and the decision reminds me of something that Dianne Vanderlip, head curator of the modern and contemporary department, did in the Matisse show: She hung Matisse's "Blue Nude," from 1907, in the same place Standring has hung "Weeping Woman." But whereas the effect was magical in the Matisse show, it is tragic here. I believe Standring has cheated viewers by ripping the Picasso out of its historical context, because, like "Blue Nude," it is one of the most important paintings in the annals of modern art history to have ever been exhibited in Denver.
Some may believe that Standring has paired "Weeping Woman" with the Florentine portrait in order to act as an aesthetic agent provocateur, and that's what I originally thought. But it's worse than that. What he's actually done here, and throughout the show, is to marginalize modernism, to reduce it to just another phase in the development of the art of the Western world. On the contrary, the modern movement marks one of the biggest changes in art in recorded history.
As a result of his approach, a consummately modern painting like "Weeping Woman" looks downright stupid when paired with a Renaissance portrait -- and vice versa. This is a fact, regardless of whether or not the DAM's focus groups are said to have loved it (where do they find these people, anyway? At the Division of Motor Vehicles?) And other placements are offensive too, including the 1960s David Hockney next to the 1760s George Romney. The relationship of the 1930s Magritte to the 1730s Canaletto is also very bad.
Because Standring has taken neither a chronological nor a stylistic approach, the show becomes a thoughtless meander, and visitors will lurch from painting to painting feeling completely disoriented. There are quite a few treats for the eyes, but Standring has made sure that nothing of the history of painting could possibly be gleaned from the show -- even if you know how the events took place. (Luckily, an old-fashioned chronological approach has been taken in the excellent accompanying catalogue; it gives a more sensitive -- and, not incidentally, more interesting -- organization of the material.)
But as I said, there's quite a bit to see. There are several noteworthy court portraits, some hung in the third gallery, others hung in the large gallery that's the penultimate space in the show. The Anthony Van Dyck, "Philip Herbert, 4th Earle of Pembroke," is an oil on canvas done around 1634 and is majestic. That could also be said for the Modigliani portrait hung nearby -- in what looks to be another attempt by Standring to minimize modernism. In this richly dense painting, "Portrait of the Painter Manuel Humbert," an oil on canvas from 1916, Modigliani juxtaposes his characteristic style, used to convey the portrait's sitter, against a cubist background.
There's the pair of Jan Steens, "Interior" and "The Wedding Party," both oil on wood panels done in the seventeenth century. The Rembrandt, dating from this same time, is very fine, too, even if the subject, an unidentified man, is hardly an appealing figure. The Turner, "A Mountain Scene: Val d'Aosta," from 1845, is stunning -- but it is, most likely, unfinished. And even though the impressionist and post-impressionist paintings are few and far between, Claude Monet's "Vétheuil," of 1879, is very nice.
European Masterpieces -- aside from the unconscionable installation -- is worthy of repeated visits. Most of the paintings will never be seen in this country again; though a couple, like the Pissarro and the Picasso, will probably travel in the future to places like Paris or New York, most of the rest will never again leave Melbourne. And I don't know about you, but I'm more likely to be in France or on the East Coast some day than in Australia.
That means the only chance people like me will have to see the NGV's collection is right here at the DAM this summer. And if I were you, I wouldn't pass up the opportunity.
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