In Praise of Blockbusters

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I didn’t want to let the week run out without throwing in something about blockbusters, all those giant loan shows of the past few decades, which have been getting spanked lately by critics and museum professionals insisting that museums must get back to focusing on their permanent collections. (A re-focus the recession has done a lot to promote.) Blockbusters, so the thinking goes, are prone to be crowded, glitzy, expensive to mount, too focused on the gift shop and too often devoted to the same revolving list of crowd-pleasing names, most of them Impressionists and post-Impressionists.

Okay, it’s true, there were big, blowsy shows I could have done without. But I love those big shows anyway and I’d be sorry to see fewer of them.

I’ve been thinking about this again because the New York Times critic Holland Cotter took a swipe at blockbusters in his fall preview piece in last Sunday’s paper. (The piece was even headlined: “Top of the Wish List: No More Blockbusters”.) Then Tom Campbell, the still new-ish director of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, told The Art Newspaper this week that he plans to cut back on big loans shows at the Met, though I was glad to see he still expects to mount a dozen or so a year.

The reason I’m glad is that at a time when art-historical education in schools is a dwindling enterprise, those much derided loan shows have been indispensable in helping people fill in the blanks in the most direct and exciting way possible — by standing in front of the actual work. Cotter in particular seemed to miss that point when he said about the Met: “I can’t think of any good reason for the museum to be renting acres of Turners or Courbets ever again.”

Well, I can. As the blogger Tyler Green also pointed out this week, mid-career art critics have stood in front of thousands (or at least hundreds) or Courbets, and may find it hard to retrieve that sense of wonder they had the first time, or to imagine that other people might find this artist unfamiliar. But for many people — most people? — Courbet is still likely to be uncharted territory. (This is especially true in the U.S., where he’s spottily represented in most museum collections.) I’m betting that for a majority of the people who saw it, last year’s great Courbet show at the Met was the first time they ever got a handle on who this guy was.

I’d say the same for the Met’s vast Turner retrospective. I’ll admit I found it a bit wearying both times I saw it, in New York and in London, but I was grateful both times for the way it put his long career into a comprehensible order and made you understand the interactions among his abiding genres like seascapes and history painting. I had stood in front of scores of Turners in the past and consumed a couple of biographies, but that show still brought it all together for me. I can think of plenty of exhibitions that have done the same. Miro, Bonnard, Matisse/Picasso and James Ensor at MoMA, Vuillard in Montreal, Cezanne in Philadelphia, Gauguin in Boston, Velasquez and Holbein in London — every one of them put me in front of familiar names, but every one of them somehow made the penny drop. There are more, lots more, but I’ll stop there.

Granted, real blockbusters, the kind with totally packed galleries, can be a pain. Two of the most frustrating viewing experiences I had last year were in the gallery moshpits at the Frida Kahlo retrospective at the Modern in San Francisco and at “Van Gogh and the Colors of Night” at the Modern in New York. And It’s not that I don’t look forward to what museums can do by playing with their own collections, or with mini-loan exhibitions like the lovely little Vermeer show at the Met right now, which combines the Met’s four Vermeers with other Dutch canvases from its collection to shed light on a single borrowed painting — Vermeer’s The Milkmaid, on loan from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. (The Art Institute of Chicago plans something similar in October when it exhibits Caravaggio’s The Supper at Emmaus, on loan from the National Gallery in London, with a handful of the Institute’s own “Caravaggesque” paintings.)

Shows like that are fine and, when they’re done right, really absorbing. But as far as historical education goes, museums are just about the only real schoolrooms we have anymore, and museums that don’t regularly revisit the “familiar” chapters of that history are letting us down.