Pi­casso to Warhol: Four­teen Mod­ern Masters

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Christo­pher Allen

ABLOCK­BUSTER was orig­i­nally a bomb, then the term was used for films with mass ap­peal and, more re­cently, we have spo­ken of block­buster exhibitions. The idea is to put on some­thing with such scale and im­pact that it rises above the noise of the me­dia and the com­pet­ing claims of other forms of en­ter­tain­ment, and draws crowds — es­pe­cially new crowds — into mu­se­ums and gal­leries. Politi­cians love to hear that large num­bers of peo­ple have at­tended block­buster exhibitions and, mostly, have no idea whether the show is any good.

From the point of view of the visi­tor, block­busters can be a very un­pleas­ant ex­pe­ri­ence. You feel you should go but there can be a long and dispir­it­ing wait in a queue and, once inside, you jos­tle with crowds press­ing around each item. It’s par­tic­u­larly an­noy­ing when many of the in­di­vid­ual works could be viewed on any other day of the year in their home mu­seum at one’s leisure with hardly any­one in the vicin­ity.

It can be worth it, de­spite all, when the ex­hi­bi­tion brings works to­gether into a truly Art Gallery of Western Aus­tralia, Perth, un­til De­cem­ber 3 new and en­light­en­ing con­fig­u­ra­tion — gen­er­ally in the form of a mono­graphic show on an in­di­vid­ual or the sur­vey of a pe­riod, move­ment or theme in art his­tory. An out­stand­ing re­cent ex­am­ple was Leonardo da Vinci: Pain­ter at the Court of Mi­lan ex­hi­bi­tion at the Na­tional Gallery in Lon­don (2011-12); a few years ago an­other ex­cep­tional show, cross­ing his­tor­i­cal pe­ri­ods, was Manet/Ve­lazquez: The French Taste for Span­ish Paint­ing, at the Musee d’Or­say in Paris and the Metropoli­tan in New York (2002-03).

These are art-his­tory-mak­ing exhibitions, which not only as­sem­ble great works but sup­port them with es­says by the best art his­to­ri­ans and spe­cial­ists in the rel­e­vant fields, in cat­a­logues that be­come au­thor­i­ta­tive ref­er­ence books. And this is the sort of thing that is very hard for us to achieve in Aus­tralia be­cause none of our mu­se­ums is sig­nif­i­cant enough to en­ter into the kind of part­ner­ships be­tween gi­ant in­sti­tu­tions that un­der­pin these projects.

We have a very lim­ited abil­ity to ini­ti­ate in­ter­na­tion­ally sig­nif­i­cant exhibitions, al­though a par­tial ex­cep­tion to this was Ruth Pullin’s Eu­gene von Guer­ard: Na­ture Re­vealed, which opened at the Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria last year and has since trav­elled, in slightly re­duced form, to Bris­bane and Canberra. This ex­hi­bi­tion, al­low­ing us for the first time to un­der­stand the artist’s early years in Ger­many and Naples through a ju­di­cious se­lec­tion of in­ter­na­tional loans, showed him to be not only a great Aus­tralian artist but a fig­ure of wider sig­nif­i­cance in the his­tory of 19th­cen­tury art.

All too of­ten, how­ever, what a block­buster means in Aus­tralia is a large, poorly se­lected and ill-di­gested col­lec­tion of works, some­times from an over­seas mu­seum that is tem­po­rar­ily closed for ren­o­va­tions. Aware of how hard it is to per­suade for­eign in­sti­tu­tions to send their pre­cious pic­tures to the ends of the earth, I have of­ten been re­luc­tant to crit­i­cise these shows too harshly, but re­cent ex­pe­ri­ence has con­vinced me that we need to try a bit harder.

I ob­served a cou­ple of years ago that the Euro­pean Masters show from the Staedel in Frankfurt — the NGV’s Mel­bourne Win­ter Master­pieces show for 2010 — was lack­ing in cu­ra­to­rial shape. In fact it was a dis­parate as­sem­blage of ma­te­rial that might have com­posed four or five exhibitions. More re­cent Mel­bourne block­busters such as Vi­enna: Art and De­sign (2011) and the present Napoleon ex­hi­bi­tion seem un­sure whether they are deal­ing with art, craft or his­tory.

In Sydney, we had the colos­sal Pi­casso show in which less would cer­tainly have been more. In Bris­bane, the very dis­ap­point­ing Mod­ern Woman exhibitions of draw­ings from the Musee d’Or­say was ap­par­ently a pale ver­sion of the ex­hi­bi­tion of the same name pre­vi­ously shown in Van­cou­ver, while the present ex­hi­bi­tion from the Prado, as I pointed out a few weeks ago, con­tains some very fine pic­tures but has no over­all fo­cus.

There are two tests for a good ex­hi­bi­tion: qual­ity and co­her­ence. Ide­ally, all the works in a show should be out­stand­ing ex­am­ples of their kind, and it is bet­ter to have fewer pieces, but of higher qual­ity, than fill rooms with medi­ocre works that dis­tract the viewer from the bet­ter ones. The im­per­a­tive of qual­ity is par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant if the show has no other ra­tio­nale than to be master­pieces of this or that.

If the ex­hi­bi­tion does have a proper ra­tio­nale, though, it is a bit dif­fer­ent. The story can be told around a few out­stand­ing pieces, sup­ported by more mi­nor ones. This is an ap­proach we should con­sider in Aus­tralia, since it would al­low us to make the most of our lim­ited abil­ity to se­cure loans of re­ally great works. The Prado ex­hi­bi­tion could have been much stronger if fo­cused on the por­trait, for ex­am­ple or on reli­gious im­agery, both dom­i­nant themes in Span­ish art.

The Art Gallery of Western Aus­tralia’s present loan ex­hi­bi­tion from the Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art in New York is a good ex­am­ple of a prop­erly thought-out ex­hi­bi­tion, and in many ways also a model that other gal­leries should con­sider. All the works are of a high stan­dard, the cu­ra­to­rial struc­ture is sim­ple and straight­for­ward, and the over­all ex­pe­ri­ence, as a re­sult, is plea­sur­able and en­light­en­ing.

Pi­casso to Warhol is pre­sented as an an­thol­ogy of 14 mod­ern artists, al­most all of whom are un­de­ni­ably cen­tral to the story of mod­ernism dur­ing the first two-thirds of the 20th cen­tury.

Each artist is rep­re­sented by a group of works, so that we are able to en­ter into a par­tic­u­lar sen­si­bil­ity and un­der­stand some­thing of its evo­lu­tion.

The works could in­deed have been dis­played chrono­log­i­cally, di­vided ac­cord­ing to the three or four great phases of mod­ernism: the ini­tial ex­plo­sion of in­ven­tion be­fore World War I; the in­ter-war years (which can be fur­ther bro­ken down into the years be­fore and af­ter 1929); and the years af­ter World War II. But with such very dif­fer­ent artis­tic per­son-

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