"Czech Cubism, 1912-1916" at the Rupertinum, Salzburg. July 21-October 7, 2001
Kimball, Roger, New Criterion
Perhaps the second most common complaint one hears from people who patronize movie theaters today concerns volume: the soundtrack is much, much too loud. (The most common complaint, of course, has to do with the poor quality of most new movies.) An analogous complaint can be lodged against museum exhibitions. What we might call the visual volume always seems to be set on "high." More and more, substance takes a back seat to design. Or, if that seems an overstatement, say rather that the design of an exhibition often competes with its substance. Everything, from the wall labels to the PR, is super slick. And then there is the issue of education. No exhibition these days is complete without a large "educational" component. The scare quotes, alas, are necessary, for much of what is meant to have the effect of education winds up being decidedly uneducational, or educational in the wrong way. The point is that an exhibition of visual art should speak primarily to the visual sense. The educationists have got into the act with their wall texts and explanatory labels, their audio guides and lectures and panel discussions and field trips. Just about the last thing a viewer is encouraged to do is--view. Paintings were made to be looked at; many exhibitions today encourage viewers to regard the paintings as illustrations for a story going on elsewhere--in the wordy labels accompanying the paintings, say, in the abundant promotional materials, in the soundtrack of the audio guide. Doubtless it is all done with the best intentions, but the net effect is to discourage people looking for art from actually looking at art.
How refreshing it was, then, to discover a quiet exhibition at the Rupertinum Museum fur moderne Kunst in Salzburg that was intelligently and professionally put together and had the good sense and daring to concentrate on the art work. Everything about this exhibition is minimal except the works of art on view. There are no explanatory wall labels. A brief, thoughtful catalogue is available, but in the galleries the hundred-odd paintings and sculptures are left to speak for themselves. Even the art gallery itself--a new museum that is housed in an old convent--provides the kind of quiet and unadorned spaces that the best art finds welcoming. The irony is that by eschewing the machinery of the educational establishment, this relatively modest exhibition of one-hundred-and-twenty objects turns out to be far more educational than most exhibitions that neglect the work for the sake of the message it is supposed to communicate.
Braque and Picasso pioneered Cubism in Paris in 1907. Their innovations were soon ready for export. Thanks largely to the art historian and collector Vincen Kramar, the Cubist aesthetic quickly made its way to Prague, where the artists included in this exhibition absorbed not only the pictorial language of Cubism but also its ethic of radical innovation. …