New Realities for the Art Museum

By Wayne, Kenneth | New Criterion, December 2003 | Go to article overview

New Realities for the Art Museum


Wayne, Kenneth, New Criterion


The past few years have seen significant changes in the museum field, with some developments that will mark the field for decades to come. One interesting, and very. effective, development has been the noticeable increase in double-barreled exhibitions: "Matisse Picasso" (MOMA Tate, Pompidou, 2002-2003; curated by John Elderfield, Kirk Varnedoe, John Golding, Elizabeth Cowling, Isabelle Monod-Fontaine, and Anne Baldassari); "Van Gogh-Gauguin: the Studio of the South" (Art Institute of Chicago, 2001-2002; curated by Douglas Druick); "Manet-Velazquez: The French Taste for Spanish Painting" (Metropolitan Museum of Art, Reunion des Musees Nationaux/ Musee d'Orsay, 2003; curated by Gary Tinterow and Genevieve Lacambre); and "Schoenberg, Kandinsky and the Blue Rider" (Jewish Museum, New York, 2003; curated by Esther da Costa Meyer and Fred Wasserman).

Traditionally, museum exhibitions have been monographic, based on a single artist or a single movement. One reason for the popularity of the monographic approach is that it is the simplest, most straightforward, and most direct way of presenting material to a public which is often unfamiliar with the images being seen. On occasion, exhibitions will focus on a single artist within a certain time or place, perhaps joined by fellow artists (e.g., the Art Institute's current "Manet and the Sea" the Boston MFA'S "Gauguin in Tahiti" 2004, or my own "Modigliani and the Artists of Montparnasse" of this past year).

While the two-pronged approach sounded a bit academic at first--like sitting in an art history lecture and looking at slide comparisons--it has proven to be remarkably successful. The visual images carry the thesis better than words ever could. (A cynic would say that it is an attempt to get two flashy names into the title and therefore double one's chances of attracting visitors to the show.) The Matisse-Picasso show, for example, was so brilliant, and conveyed so well the point of the show--that Matisse and Picasso had an undeniably powerful lifelong artistic dialogue--that one almost wonders why we have all spent so much time thinking and talking about Picasso-Braque. The idea for the exhibition came from Picasso himself: "You have got to be able to picture side by side everything Matisse and I were doing at that time. No one has ever looked at Matisse's painting more carefully than I; and no has looked at mine more carefully than he." Picasso's artistic relationship with Matisse extended all the way until Matisse's death in 1954, as compared to his brief connection with Braque, a period from 1907 to 1914. As we know, Picasso's large seminal Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907; Museum of Modern Art) was a response to Matisse's Bonheur de Vivre (1905-1906; Barnes Foundation), which had been exhibited in the Salon des Independants 1906.

Matisse and Picasso shared more than just the same subject matter--portraits, still lifes, landscapes, reclining figures, interiors with tables, studio scenes--but even the same stylistic approach at times, with Picasso's work occasionally looking more decorative and Matisse's work showing marked cubist tendencies. Moreover, they were the only artists of their generation to challenge themselves in all of the major media--painting, sculpture, drawing, and printmaking--and display a remarkably high level of accomplishment across the board. Competition with each other was undoubtedly a motivating factor here. (Modigliani is the only other artist in that generation to come close; he worked in all these media except for printmaking.) Like all good shows, "Matisse Picasso" was an exhibition waiting to happen, waiting to be discovered, not a forced idea dreamt up late at night.

Indeed, it has always been my feeling that Picasso's entire career was a reaction to that of Matisse. Matisse, the older artist, established his career first, making a name for himself as the great colorist and liberator of color. Not wanting to be seen as a Matisse follower, as were so many other artists who flocked to the Parisian capital, Picasso had to stake a new territory and decided to make form and dimension the characteristics that he would dominate and change. …

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