Lost in the Galleries
I had an almost wonderful visit to the Brooklyn Museum yesterday. The weather was gorgeously sunny and mild and the museum was nearly empty, so I was free to wander, uninterrupted, and get a bit lost before I reached the exhibition I’d gone to see, “Playing House,” brooklynmuseum.org. This is part of a new project, in which curators invited contemporary artists to install site-specific works in several of the museum’s period rooms, in order to better engage visitors with those rooms. This seemed like an exciting idea, though one with potentially great pitfalls. Hidden away in a stale, dark corner on the museum’s fourth floor, the period rooms, as beautiful and unique as they are, do not exactly beckon a visitor. And the fact that they’re sealed off and untouchable is understandable from a preservationist’s point of view, but is also precisely what makes them hard to engage with. A room is meant to be moved and lived in, so the idea of activity in these quiet spaces was intriguing. On the other hand, it was easy to picture the new artists burdening the rooms with objects or ideas that somehow spoiled, rather than enhancing, the sense of place.
Interestingly, the project really seemed to work. Its best incarnation was in the Worsham-Rockefeller Moorish smoking room, from the 1860s, where Anne Chu had created a huge centerpiece vase filled with a great spray of flowers (all made of synthetic materials) on a small central table, and an approximately life-size fabric-and-wire vulture that she posed on the rug nearby. The bright colors and deliberately unrefined construction of these were slightly out of place in this muted, sumptuously patterned room, but not jarringly so. Reflecting both the sense of ornament and the drive for scientific collection and categorization that inspired the Victorians’ love of dried flowers, stuffed birds and countless other objects that overwhelmed their homes, the installed objects were also roughly as foreign to their new environment as the original Islamic-influenced motifs in that room would have been to the wealthy Fifth Avenue families who lounged amongst them. Together, the room and its new installation put past and present into what the museum, in wall labels and brochures describing the many similar pairings of old and new objects throughout its galleries, rightly calls a dialogue. In the case of the period rooms, even the less successful installations felt like an instructive art-history class, where learning about two specific works of art and the times and cultures they’re from was also an opportunity to take a broader critical view of how art works upon us, aesthetically, psychologically, philosophically.
But art-history lessons can also go awry. In the Beaux-Arts Court on the third floor, a fine collection of European paintings that includes the juxtaposition of a small William Adolphe Bouguereau (The Elder Sister, 1864), hung high on the wall, with a slightly larger Manet (Young Girl on a Bench, 1880) just below it. At first, a viewer might begin to think about the beauty of high finish (Bouguereau, considered by some the consummate painter of flesh) versus the pleasures of sketchiness (Manet, whose subject’s gaze is all the more intense for the fact that her eyes are essentially two black dots). One could enjoy the way the deep, somber colors of the Bouguereau and the lighter and less saturated colors of the Manet help to create different moods, or the relatively similar sense of sweetness and innocence that emanates from both of the young girls pictured. Exploring further, one might consider that the “older” work, the Bouguereau, is in fact only sixteen years older than the Manet. While at first glance, the one seems purely classical and the other is in many senses modern (if not necessarily modernist), both are designed on classical geometrical principles of composition. The coloring in the Bouguereau is more akin to later works by Sargent (say, The Wyndham Sisters, with the two children’s pink lips, cheeks, ears and fingertips), than it is to his classically influenced predecessors (David, for example). Neither of these two paintings is its painter’s greatest work, but both are nevertheless valuable examples of work by great painters, and well worth a long look.
But the wall labels next to the two paintings would have us understand things differently. To the museum, Bouguereau was “an academic painter who achieved great success in the Paris Salon [and….] later turned to genre scenes such as this [one … which] evokes the Madonna and Child [… His] works appealed to a middle-class clientele that cherished Christian and domestic values.” Note the past tense of “appealed” and the damning uses of “middle-class,” “Christian,” and “domestic”—after this, anyone who might have been interested in the painting would be embarrassed to admit it. The label next to the Manet, though, explains that while this painting also “incorporates Christian imagery” (the girl’s hat is likened to a halo), “unlike The Elder Sister, whose minute brushstrokes and highly polished surface exemplify the traditional style of painting taught at the French academy, Young Girl on a Bench masterfully compels the viewer to consider the painter’s process through its thickly applied, gestural brushstrokes.” If it wasn’t already clear from the Bouguereau label, we now know definitively that Bouguereau is merely traditional, while Manet is masterful.