Block That Blockbuster?

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Nicholas Penny, the recently appointed director of the National Gallery in London, said last week that he wants his museum to move away from blockbuster exhibitions that bring in crowds, but at the cost of going back again and again to names we already know. He wants to focus on shows that bring to light neglected figures like the National Gallery’s upcoming exhibition on the Italian Divisionists, 19th century painters who drew ideas from both Symbolism and Seurat, and passed along a more politicized art to the Futurists.

I sympathize — up to a point. Who doesn’t wince at the annual surplus of shows that manage to work “Impressionism” into the title? (One of these days somebody’s going to figure a way to get Monet and Vermeer on the same marquee, like one of those Billy Joel-Elton John concert tours. They’ll have to fight the crowds off with a whip and a chair.) And who doesn’t want more shows that point you back to some lesser known figure who turns out to be a find, like the one five years ago at the Neue Gallerie in New York that opened my eyes to the pitch perfect creepiness of the Weimar-era portraitist Christian Schad? But my mature understanding of art history owes as much to the great string of blockbusters at American museums over the past three decades as it does to books or even permanent collections, though I live in a city that has some of the greatest. And I’m not alone.

Meanwhile, one of the best weeks of museum going I had in years was one spent in London in the blockbustery fall of 2006, when the National Gallery had its powerful Velazquez exhibition and Tate Britain had its unforgettable survey of Hans Holbein’s English portraits. At the same time the Dulwich Picture Gallery was having its brilliant little show of the undersung 16th century miniaturist Adam Elsheimer, which might have been the kind of thing Penny has in mind — a show devoted to one of those artists whose work you see from time to time, but who never snaps into focus until you see it all at once. I loved it. But should I have been denied the Velazquez survey, even granting that we had had a great one in New York in ’90s? Velazquez is one of the touchstones of modern painting. He needs to be revisited in depth every decade or so. Holbein, meanwhile, is not exactly an unfamiliar name, but do we really get that many opportunities to see his great chalk drawings of the family of Thomas More set side by side? Or three of his portraits of Erasmus in one room?

Penny may just be making a virtue of necessity. The truth is, the National Gallery has inadequate space for temporary shows, mainly some cramped galleries under the Sainsbury Wing. To accommodate the crowds for Velazquez they had to put some of the permanent collection in storage so they could mount the show in the big rooms upstairs. It also matters that his museum is publicly financed and doesn’t charge admission, meaning that attendance is not so much of an issue for him. But if his public — and the very obstreperous London media — start to get the feeling that the big shows are passing London by, I’ll bet it becomes an issue.