DOING THEIR BLOCK
Picasso to Warhol: Fourteen Modern Masters
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-