Locating Masterpieces

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

assetimage.jspAs 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!

In summary:

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

Sargent_MadameXMadame 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…

In Summary:

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.

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8 responses to “Locating Masterpieces

  1. In last week’s issue of the New Yorker, Peter Hessler’s article “Art Factory” was an article that I found quite relevant to our blog’s discussion over reproductions. Hessler investigates the business of art reproductions in China. People from remote villages learn the trade of painting and find jobs painting reproductions of photographs. Most paint from photographs of small towns in the U.S. and Hessler reveals how the Chinese painters have no sense of what or where they are painting. There is a total disconnect present between the painter, the subject and the painting. This market, an obvious off-shoot of globalization, exists because of our culture’s understood power of art and what it means to own a copy or reproduction of art. The people who buy these paintings then, want to, I assume, evoke the same sense of a museum–they want to own art that they have seen in a museum. Moreover, this story reflects our other discussion about “The Self” and how though were are more and more connected, we are more and more enclosed in our own worlds that we create. This is exemplified in the fact that, as Hessler reveals in his article, that the Americans who purchased these paintings had no idea where their paintings were painted or by whom. See a video commentary by Hesseler.

  2. Humm…A couple of questions come to mind 1) How do these fit under the definition of Chinese “cultural relics” which we were discussing earlier? an 2) What would Andy Warhol think of the Chinese art factory?

  3. The importance of museums is the educational and life experience it brings to everybody’s lives. I agree it’s extremely important to understand art, design, archeology, etc., in its context and, not only its relationships with other objects but also with history, economics, politics, etc.
    This is why I think having reproductions in the museums can be a valuable tool now and in the future to create more comprehensive experiences and these reproductions may communicate all this relationships in a clearer way than a simple image displayed on the screen of your cell phone or a computer.
    As mentioned in the Virtual Worlds post, tangible experiences are invaluable in live and in consequence they are invaluable for museums.

  4. The issue of reproductions is less obvious when one moves away from fine-art (paintings as in this post). There is hardly any doubt that the real thing, when it comes to fine art, is preferable to a reproductions. But what about art objects that are not one of a kind? This is often the case in design museums, but also in more traditional fine-art museums such as the Met. For example, many Sevres porcelain peices in the ESDA wings are not one of a kind pieces (although some are), how does the issue of reproductions play in here…if the object wasn’t unique to begin with.
    On the note of the “cramped” public storage in the American Wing. I’m not sure if I have been to this particular described space, but the Henry Luce collection in the American Wing is definitely a sort of public storage space and I think it is an invaluable juxstaposition to the more traditional art galleries at the Met. There you can explore hundreds of objects, rather than see only a tiny fraction of what the museum has, as in the other galleries where the icons of Art have been preselected for you. I’m not saying that theres something bad about these traditional galleries, but I think its great to have something different sometimes.

  5. Yeah I agree the storage is a great way to show many many objects that otherwise wouldn’t be on display. The problem is that the aisles are about 4 feet so obviously no too easy to see paintings that are 6-7 feet high. Another example of reproductions shown in museums are all Roman plaster casts of Greek statues.

  6. museumdesignlab

    The Met seems to be a good place to place (or maybe misplace) masterpieces. Here is a relevant discussion in the NYTimes today about piece that may or may not involve Michelangelo, questions the authority of the curator, solicits a second opinion, involves a high-tech reproduction and flirts with the unassuming museum goer. Is it a Masterpiece? Does it matter in the end?

  7. I found the end of this article so interesting – Ken Johnson talks about this visceral experience a viewer gets seeing something they know to have been created by a master.

    Undoubtedly this feeling is can be contrived – we certainly feel compelled to think and look at something longer when experts say it is important.

    So its interesting to think: how are we supposed to feel in front of a piece that MIGHT be a Michelangelo? It challenges the viewers to be more discerning one would hope!

  8. The first idea I got from this post is “network,” how an artwork travels around the world and establishes relationship with each destination away from the owner. Its engagement with architecture that it existed and registration of the artwork within the space get lost as the artwork leaves the space. The effect and the atmosphere will be different as it gets embedded in different spaces every time they travel. When it becomes about an ownership, which is more personal psychological matter, I think the network of how and who owning an artwork is infinite. For example, I save my favorite artwork image in my iPhone photo album, just see whenever I want to makes me feel happier. But the network from artwork how it spreads globally around the world and psychologically in people’s mind shows various kinds of appreciation to artwork, but when consumption and mass production gets highly involved, the relationship to the artwork and us and its meaning become questionable.

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