Monographic Exhibitions and the History of Art

By Graciano, Andrew | Journal of Art Historiography, December 2018 | Go to article overview

Monographic Exhibitions and the History of Art


Graciano, Andrew, Journal of Art Historiography


Maia Wellington Gahtan and Donatella Pegazzano, eds. Monographic Exhibitions and the History of Art. Studies in Art Historiography, hbk: 368 pages , New York and London: Routledge, 2018, ISBN-10: 9781138712485, ISBN-13: 978-1138712485, $150

Maia Wellington Gahtan and Donatella Pegazzano's edited collection, Monographic Exhibitions and the History of Art, is the fruit of a remarkable symposium hosted at the Istituto Lorenzo de'Medici in Florence in March/April 2016. The event brought together likeminded scholars of art history and museum studies from around the world to speak about, to discuss, and to reflect upon the impact of monographic exhibitions on the written trajectory of art historical scholarship, and vice versa. The focused brevity of the twenty main essays indicates that the volume is primarily comprised of the conference proceedings, polished but perhaps little expanded. In another era, when academic publishing was less constrained by market forces, this would have easily been published as a two-volume set, allowing the contributors the space to elaborate and to include additional research and commentary undoubtedly inspired by the event's dialogues.

It is clear, nonetheless, that the editors created a volume that is as comprehensive as the conference that gave birth to it. The essays within consider monographic exhibitions that occurred from the late-18th through the 21st centuries, featuring artists ranging from the Renaissance to the contemporary periods. In this way, the book is of value and interest to scholars specialising across these many centuries.

The introductory chapter, written by the co-editors, contextualises the volume's intent, which is broadly 'to analyse the relationship between institutions that keep and display art and the discipline of art history'. The book focuses, as the title indicates, on monographic exhibitions of various kinds, using several case studies as a lens through which to view the complexity and multi-directionality of the relationship above. Gahtan and Pegazzano begin by tracing the history of temporary displays as well as what may be considered the earliest art historical texts that documented such exhibits, such as Athenaeus's description of the Sikyon school paintings displayed in the dining pavilion in Alexandria for Ptolemy II Philadelphus in the third century B.C.E. In so doing, the authors attempt to establish the (Western) historical trajectory that led ultimately to the first monographic exhibitions. The subsequent influence of Antiquity on the Early Modern period is highlighted in a discussion of how Pliny the Elder's notions about the value of displaying artwork from different periods to invite comparative assessment led to Renaissance collectors' decisions regarding display. Isabella d'Este's intentional exhibit in her grotto of an ancient Roman sculpture of Cupid beside a modern figure of the same by Michelangelo is one specific example cited. Such a juxtaposition not only prompted qualitative comparison but also, as Gahtan and Pegazzano argue, lauded the living artist by showing him to advantage. Such specific emphasis on the celebrated Michelangelo may be seen as a small step towards a monographic focus.

Several similar instances through the 17th century are briefly discussed before the introduction turns to proper monographic exhibitions, the first of which occur in the last quarter of the 18th century. The motivations for such early displays varied widely from a desire to present the work of a renowned painter as exemplary of a national tradition, in the case of Pahin de la Blancherie's 1783 exhibition devoted to Joseph Vernet, to personal and professional conflicts with conventional artistic institutional authority, in the case of Joseph Wright of Derby who mounted his own show in 1785. Monographic exhibitions increase in frequency through the 19th and 20th centuries, operating as celebrations of particular Old Masters, retrospectives of recently deceased artists of major importance, and, at times, showcases for the singular achievements of contemporary living artists. …

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