Correspondence Course

  • Share
  • Read Later

Tell me again why most museums are so afraid to mix work from different styles and periods in their galleries? It’s not that I can’t appreciate the value of the standard chronological force march through art history, but I’m always struck by how rarely museums are willing to depart from that model, to put aside a gallery from time to time where, say, a Matisse odalisque….

Odalisque with Red Culottes/Henri Matisse — National Museum of Modern Art, Paris

…. could lounge for a while alongside one by Ingres or Delacroix.

Odalisque Reclining on a Divan/Eugene Delacroix — The Fitzwilliam Museum

Or better still, where a Severini (the painter) could share space with a Maserati (the race car), so you could see one of the those fast machines the Futurists were all obsessed with.

I thought of this a few weeks ago when I was touring the not quite complete new addition to the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) that opens in May. A good part of the museum’s permanent collection had already been re-installed. As it happens, one of the galleries devoted to contemporary African art is adjacent to a gallery of 18th century European work. That gave Pamela McCluskey, SAM’s curator of the art of Africa and Oceania, the idea to lure in two Hogarth prints, part of his great picture cycle Marriage a la Mode, from the European collection….

The Unhappy Pair at Home/William Hogarth — Seattle Art Museum, Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection

…to display in the African gallery near Nuclear Family, an ensemble piece by Yinka Shonibare, an artist born in Britain and raised in Nigeria, in which a family dressed in what appears to be late Victorian fashion is actually wearing “African-style” batik fabrics manufactured in Indonesia for sale to Africans today.

Nuclear Family/Yinka Shonibare — Seattle Art Museum

It was an interesting match. In Marriage a la Mode, which casts a very cold eye on the downfall of a fashionable young couple, Hogarth leads us through the same thickets of class, status and social performance that are always on Shonibare’s mind. And not surprisingly, Shonibare has pointed to Hogarth as one of his continuing inspirations. Putting their work together drew Hogarth’s very English comedy of bad manners into the wider world while it rooted the Shonibare piece in the long line of satire that it extends and complicates. And it reminded you of how the wheels of commerce roll through both works.

When MOMA reopened in New York three years ago the museum bragged about having new galleries where they could mount rotating shows devoted to individual artists, mini-exhibitions that would combine work from all periods of their careers. It was a good idea, but why not put aside some space occasionally for something a little more daring, like a show that plays with the idea of domestic space by matching one of Rachel Whiteread’s plaster cast interiors….

Ghost/Rachel Whiteread — Photo: Gagosian Gallery

….with, say, one of those stifling parlors by Vuillard?

Mother and Sister of the Artist/Edouard Vuillard/Museum of Modern Art, N.Y.

It might actually let a little air into the room.