I went to the Met yesterday and I had two experiences that so well illustrated the post by Ryan concerning object reproduction as discussed in the Lippman article. It also pairs well with the concept of putting objects on display in context.
Part I: The Vermeer Exhibit
As many of you are likely aware, The Milkmaid , an iconic painting by the Dutch artist Vermeer, is now on exhibit at the Met along with the 5 Vermeers in the Met’s collection. The Milkmaid has not left its home, the Rijksmueum in Amsterdam, in 70 years! Talk about having to travel the world to see all of the greatest hits in the history of art…
When I arrived at the exhibit, The Milkmaid was surrounded by many more spectatorsthan those Vermeers owned by the Met. And who could blame us? I have no idea when will be the next time I’ll be in Amsterdam. And the painting is exquisite. So were the other 5 Vermeers in the Met’s collection which were displayed alongside it.
The funny thing was, I HAD seen The Milkmaid before. (At the Rijksmuseum obviously; I am not over 70 years old.) But I hadn’t really remembered it was the Milkmaid I saw there anymore than Love Letter or Woman Reading a Letter which are also in Amsterdam. But that didn’t really matter to me. I’m not an encyclopedia but I still enjoy seeing great paintings. Reproductions are never replacements when it comes to enjoying the technique of masterly painting.
But this is where it gets interesting; there are only 36 paintings attributed to Vermeer (plus another 30 that MIGHT be by him…)
The Met had an entire wall with reproductions of these 36 painting in a grid. Because so many of Vermeer’s paintings are recognizable (if not iconic), it was incredibly interesting to study which of these painting were located in which museums around the world! I was endlessly amused to see a reproduction and think to myself “oh, I’ve definitely seen this one, it must be at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam” – and then check the legend to discover it was owned by a museum I had never visited!
1: Because of the proliferation of reproductions in books and online, it can be incredibly challenging to remember which things we actually have seen years ago on vacations. The question is whether this makes going to museums meaningful at all. (I think so: it is all about the entire experience of visiting one which I will get to later. And in the case of painting at least – being able to examine painting technique in person)
2. Museums’ collections are no doubt assets, but they may also devise their own assets by making the experience of seeing their objects a meaningful and educational experience.
I thought the grid of Vermeer reproductions was such a simple, but incredibly effective tool to communicate just how limited in scope Vermeer’s work is, and it was so fascinating to compare the similarities between all of his paintings, while highlighting those that did not conform to his standard compositions.
Part II: The Quest for Madame X
Madame X by John Singer Sargent, certainly an iconic, memorable painting, was recently located in the European painting and sculpture galleries. This was somewhat problematic as Sargent is an American artist. On the other hand, it was displayed along other American and European full-length portraits in a similar, soft brushy technique. In my opinion, it was an absolutely amazing pairing of paintings – my favorite part of the entire museum at the time!
The Met has recently remodeled their American Wing (we discussed this earlier in reference to the new interactive screens in the Period Rooms.) Though their Period Rooms are “up and running” for the most part, the installation for many American paintings and decorative arts is not completed. As a compromise, these objects are labeled and displayed in a (for lack of a better word) cramped storage room that is open to the public.
They moved (as far as I could tell) all of their American paintings that were formerly in the European wing to their temporary “open to the public storage.” My friend and I were determined to see Madame X and were not convinced the Met would deign to keep her in this storage room, but a couple guards insisted she was there.
We looked and looked all over this storage room and were about to give up, when we noticed a couple in the corner closely examining a painting. There she was! Unframed, with maybe 3 or 4 feet of room to stand away from her. And of course a lovely glare on the display case. To think that this painting was recently displayed so prominently, between Manet paintings even. She could be seen maybe 60-80 feet away, through two arched doorways! Insane to think about…
1: Seeing an object in context is obviously one of the most important things a museum can execute. It is a complicated issue. Now Madame X is placed alongside other American objects. Does this do the painting justice when she is displayed so poorly? Obviously she will be much easier to see when the rest of the American Wing is remodeled.
But even so – the question is really should she be paired alongside other full-length portraits, regardless of nationality? Or only along fellow American full-length portraits?
2: In is so interesting when realizing that The Milkmaid is certainly as prolific an image as Madame X. Yet right now, as I type, they are both under the same roof. One is having people huddled around it, and the other is lost to the world.