Saturday, January 30, 2010

1AA3: The Bling King at the AGO (Part 1)

The blockbuster exhibition King Tut: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs, currently on display at the Art Gallery of Ontario, is attracting much attention and even a measure of criticism. While most visitors are happy to see the 130 rare objects on display some have expressed disappointment at the absence of the famous funerary mask which is no longer permitted to leave Egypt. Yet others have directed criticism more specifically at the exhibition design which raises questions about the purpose of such blockbuster shows and their role within the public museum or gallery proper.

Without a doubt the current exhibition is designed to bring in the numbers and generate revenue through bloated ticket sales and, perhaps more importantly, merchandising. Still, there are those who wonder if this is what art gallery or museum exhibitions should be about. Tyler Green, an art journalist who writes for the Modern Art Notes blog, is a particularly vocal critic of the 'for-profit' approach to exhibition design. The precarious relationship between the various host museums who have presented the Tut exhibition and the private groups responsible for organizing the show has been an issue of particular concern to Green who makes this evident in the following blog entry:

Green's reservations are understandable. When private companies (in the case of the Toronto exhibition AEG Live and Arts and Exhibitions International) stand to profit through partnerships with public institutions it is necessary to determine if the public interest is being upheld. Travelling exhibitions at public galleries and museums serve to introduce visitors to works they might otherwise not have occasion to see (especially if those works are from distant collections). Yet they also serve to educate. Curatorship is therefore an essential aspect of the exhibition and the scholarship that informs (and develops through) the design of the show must be made accessible to the public. Moreover, if the exhibition follows upon earlier shows treating similar material it should build upon the body of knowledge established by prior curatorial work.

Thirty years after hosting the first major Tut blockbuster (which included the funerary mask)* the AGO is once again inviting the public to engage with the art of the Pharaohs. But is this new exhibition expanding our knowledge of ancient Egyptian art or superficially treating a subject that has been treated many times over? As we look at the current exhibition we might ask if it is challenging our perceptions. Is it relevant to have an exhibition on this subject at this particular moment in history?** Does the exhibition help us to explore why we find ancient Egyptian art so fascinating (and, for that matter, why it ranks among one of the few subjects that will guarantee blockbuster ticket sales)? Does it build upon existing scholarship? How does the exhibition benefit us? As we reflect upon these questions we at least have occasion to reflect upon the role of public galleries and museums in our society and, hopefully, their importance.

*The first blockbuster which was presented to North American viewers between 1976 - 1979.

** The timing of the first blockbuster coincided with a moment in history when diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Egypt were were of particular concern. This point is obeserved in the following ABC News blog entry:

Friday, January 8, 2010

3D03: The Carracci, Mannerism and the Early Baroque in Italy

The 3D03 course text by Ann Sutherland Harris directs attention to the importance of a group of painters, Lodovico, Agostino and Annibale Carracci, who established an academy of art in the city of Bologna during the 1580s. Much has been written about these painters and their contribution to the origins of baroque art in Italy. The Carracci, as they are collectively known, have generally been credited with initiating a reform of art which displaced Mannerism and hailed a return to a classicized art perfectly balanced with the study of nature. According to the German art historian Walter Friedlaender, this reform of art coincided with an 'anti-Mannerist' sensibility. Friedlaender thus argued that that the Carracci were motivated to produce paintings that consciously rejected Mannerist style.

We do not know, of course, whether the Carracci truly did object to Mannerist painting and there is no real reason to assume that Friedlaender's argument is valid. His conclusions are understandable when we take into consideration his distaste for Mannerist painting and it is clear that in writing about 'Anti-Mannerist' (ie., early baroque) art Friedlaender invents the Carracci in his own image. To some extent the compulsion to write about the Bolognese reform in glowing terms may have had something to do with the fact that baroque art had conventionally been regarded as 'bad'. But Friedlaender's efforts to set aside the prejudice against baroque art only resulted in sustaining a bias towards Mannerism.

As we proceed with our exploration of early 17th-century art we will discover that the differences between Mannerism and the early baroque are not at all clear.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

3S03: Why Millard Meiss?

Some of you in my ART HIST 3S03 course may be wondering why I selected to use a text that was originally published by Millard Meiss in 1951. To answer this question it is first necessary to draw attention to the importance this book has held for scholars interested in late medieval and early Italian Renaissance art.

The 13th and 14th centuries are associated with a transitional period in European history. During this time significant social and cultural changes occured. These changes (registered keenly in the fields of political and religious thinking, education, science and the arts) have conventionally been associated with a shift away from an old medieval order to a cultural 'Renaissance' or 'rebirth of classicism'. In the visual field this 'Renaissance' was ultimately expressed in formal terms (ie., in the rendering of figures, the treatment of compositional space, etc.) and in the theoretical treatment, reception and uses of art and architecture. Survey texts on art history will frequently point to the work of Italian 14th-century artists such as Giotto or Duccio to illustrate this point. In their work we witness the emergence of a new art that will develop in the 15th century and culminate in the work of 16th-century artists such as Michelangelo and Raphael.

The historiographic model presented here might, at first, seem quite compelling. It is not hard to imagine that art could experience a period of change during which new ideas are born and mature rather like a child growing into adulthood. Yet upon closer consideration the model becomes less convincing. How should we account for works of art that indicate a regression in terms of style or ideas? And where should we place works that eschew new ideas in favour of tradition? Questions of this order simply complicate matters and lead us to reconsider the usefulness of an historiographic model that fails to account for such anomalies.

Fortunately (and conveniently) for Meiss the historiographic model of progressive development was not an issue though his interests in 13th- and 14th-century Italian art did lead him to consider the problem of regressive style. In an introductory passage to his book Meiss draws attention to a discussion that reputedly took place between a group of late 14th-century Florentine painters at the church of San Miniato al Monte. The discussion finds the painters praising the earlier work of Giotto and lamenting the decline of art in their time. For Meiss this passage confirmed that artists of the period were aware that painting had deviated from the innovative models of the early Trecento and suffered as a result.

Whether art really did experience a decline is questionable and this is a matter that will be explored in our 3S03 course. Meiss nonetheless took the ideas expressed at San Miniato at face value and sought an explanation for the changes that so disturbed the Florentine painters. What could have caused art to shift away from the progressive ideas offered by Giotto in such a short period of time? The answer, for Meiss, lay in the dramatic cultural and social shock brought on by the plague (Black Death).

The argument presented by Meiss has since been challenged and we will be examining some of its flaws. At the same time we will need to look at its strengths and consider some of the reasons that might account for its longevity. Once we have come to terms with this text and the various dimensions of its argument we can then better understand the current state of scholarship pertaining to this important moment in art history.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Ulisse Aldrovandi

The title of this blog derives from the Renaissance and Baroque fascination with curiosities that led to the creation of early museums or wunderkammern (cabinets of wonders). These early museums were sites of knowledge, spaces in which men and women could structure understanding of the world through discourse and comparative analysis of things natural and unnatural. Visitors to this blog can expect to find musings on visual culture (many of them directed towards students in my art history courses). In time I hope that this little bit of cyberspace will come to resemble the early wunderkammer in form and spirit.

The image of the red coral above marks the first visual entry for this blog and is taken from Ulisse Aldrovandi's Tavole (Biblioteca Universitaria, Bologna). A comprehensive set of images from the collection can be found at Click on 'Archivio on line' and follow the links.