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Hol publisher, Greg Albers, stepping aside to take on digital publishing at the Getty. Read more →

On art and books and reading books on art (the thoughts of Hol publisher Greg Albers)

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Entries in At the Met (7)


At the Met, Day 7

[I'm no longer in New York, but I fell woefully behind so am continuing my At the Met series of posts this week.]

Today at the Met, I had books on the brain again. So, I started with Alexandra Lapierre's recent novel, Artemisia, which I found in the Met shop. The book is a fictionalization of the life of 17th-century Italian artist Artemisia Gentileschi, "the most famous woman painter of the seventeenth century".

From that book, a quick search of the Met's collection database turned up this painting:

"Esther before Ahasuerus", Alexandra Lapierre. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Image in hand, I started wandering the galleries in the direction I thought 17th-century Italian paintings should be. I must say, this kind of visual, roughly art-historical search was particularly satisfying, especially once I found the painting. It hangs in a far gallery in the back. As a matter of fact, it's right outside the Francis Bacon exhibition. Meaning, I'd passed through the gallery at least three times in the last week and never even noticed this seven by nine foot painting.

Perhaps for good reason. The wall label declares it as on of Gentileschi's more ambitious paintings, but conspicuously stops short of saying it's also one of her most successful. And they're right, it's not all that terrific a painting. The handling of the fabrics and embroideries are notable but, the overall composition is lacking and the handling of the main figures is rather unconvincing and inconsistent.

Looking beyond the main action of the work though, Gentileschi has a wonderful moment in her handling of the woman at the far left, who's catching the fainting Esther. The way this woman's face is painted, the coloring hidden in the shadow of Esther's neck, her face pressed in, whispering, urging forward in words and action -- very nicely done.

Standing in the gallery, in front of this painting, I kept thinking about the many things that can bring us to a particular work of art. Perhaps we were passing through the gallery and found some moment within it that grabbed our attention. Maybe we had some art historical background and knew that the painter was "the most famous woman painter of the seventeenth century". Or maybe we were one of the thousands of readers who first found the painter in a book.


At the Met, Day 6

Looking at and writing about random work of art was starting to feel a little too self-indulgent, so today at the Met, I decided to bring it back to books.

One of the current exhibitions is Francis Bacon, and as it happens, there are a number of notable books on the artist: Michael Peppiatt's biography of the artist, Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma; the collected writings and interviews Francis Bacon: Studies for a Portrait, also by Peppiatt; and Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation by Gilles Deleuze.

The exhibition was nice, just about the right size to get a good sense of the artist's work without exhausting it, or yourself. The works were well hung, the gallery walls cleanly painted, and of course there was the ubiquitous wall text and wall labels.

Not including archival materials, there were 65 works in the exhibition, 52 of which had wall labels. The shortest was around 36 words, and the longest around 108. All together there were some 3,564 words on the 52 wall labels alone. Add to that some 1,576 words of wall text explaining the overarching theme/era of each gallery and you have more than 5,000 words of exhibition text. Equivalent to the first three chapters of Tolstoy's War and Peace.

I don't know when we came to the idea that an art exhibition should include so much text to read, and include it in a way that makes it physically difficult to read. Standing on your feet for an hour or two among crowds of people, small text adhered vertically to a wall at or below chest level... If we evaluate this as a reading experience, rather than an exhibition one, this design is a massive failure. Yet we persist.

As a visitor to the Bacon show, I was looking for words to put to these paintings to help me process and understand them. But because of the length of the exhibition texts and the negative experience of reading them, I was missing a lot of what was offered there and was left searching. And anyway, I didn't want to spend my time in the exhibition reading, I wanted to spend it looking. Offer something to help me engage with the works in front of me. Get me so interested in the work that by the last room of the exhibition, I want to buy one of the dozen books on the artist and read more. Maybe, just maybe, I'll even then come back to the exhibition another time, after having spent days (not just the minutes or hours I would have gotten in the show) reading about the work.

So, if the new mission of exhibition texts is to engage rather than to inform, what would they look like? Well, what if instead of three paragraphs of didactic exhibition text, the Met opened the exhibition as Deleuze opened his book?:

"Francis Bacon's painting is of a very special violence"

In fact, there's more to gain from the summary of single chapter from Deleuze's book than in the thousands of words offered on the exhibition labels:

"Man and animal — The zone of indiscernibility — Flesh and bone: the meat descends from the bone — Pity — Head, face, and meat"

Or what if, instead of telling me Bacon was inspired by T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" and the work of Frederico Garcia Lorca, the labels simply quoted from the poets themselves? Or, as Peppiatt does in Studies for a Portrait, quoted Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness?:

"I saw him open his mouth wide — it gave him a weirdly voracious aspect, as though he wanted to swallow all the air, all the earth, all the men before him."

Or, again as Peppiatt, why not quote the artist himself?:

"[Bacon] talked famously about wanting his pictures 'to look as if a human being had passed between them, lie a snail, leaving a trail of the human presence,' and his hope that he would one day be able to paint the mouth as Monet painted a sunset."

"'What I really like,' he once said, 'are phrases that cut me.'"

To me, these short, well-written, evocative texts give me a better grounding and more to think about than thousands and thousands of words of exhibition texts do.


At the Met, Day 5

Today at the Met, I spent some time with a nice little Vuillard:

Edouard Vuillard, "Romain Coolus and Mme Hessel". Metropolitan Museum of Art.

This is a painting of two of Vuillard's regular acquaintances, Lucie Hessel (left), wife of the art dealer Jos Hessel; and their mutual friend, writer Romain Coolus (right). Though on the surface, it might be tempting to see only solitary figures, bent over in fixed concentration on their work, a sense of friendship and familiarity is plainly evident (even had I not read the wall label first). This is a picture of two people of mutual interests who choose one another's company even when working solitarily. Two people in their own artists' salon, writing table at the ready, pictures on the wall. You can almost see one of them looking up to ask for the others' opinion on whatever project it is they are working. And if you extend the image outward and imagine Vuillard himself in the room, painting the scene -- bent over his own work just as the others are -- it becomes a picture not of two, but of all three friends so engaged.


At the Met, Day 4

Today at the Met, I had a minor Fragonard epiphany. I've always liked Fragonard's portraits, but have never been a particular fan of his landscapes. It never really occurred to me until today that what I liked was his thick, free-flowing, single-color single-stroke lines. And where those are most prominent, and most successfully used, is in things like silk dresses, drapery, ribbons, and yes, the wavy white hair of a pet dog. A lovely marriage of style and form.

Above, from top to bottom, details of The Love Letter, Portrait of a Woman with a Dog, and The Two Sisters.


At the Met, Day 3

Today at the Met, I went to MoMA, where I found The Rose Marble Table, by Henri Matisse, painted in the spring or summer of 1917:

What I found interesting about it, aside from the starkness of the composition, was how quickly Matisse seemed to have done it. Though I often think of Matisse as a quick painter (or at least an intuitive and fluid one) this particular painting stood out in the gallery of other Matisse works. Here, he barely took the time to bring the background up to the edge of the leaves, or to fill in the weave of the basket; he used a very minimal palette (brown, pink and two greens); and aside for some subtle areas of the table and background there's very little reworking of the paint. It seemed a sort of remarkable one-off.

On closer examination however, he did in fact take the time to sketch the basic composition onto the canvas in charcoal before painting. You can still see the lines delineating the table and it's front edge, the basket, and the placement and size of the limes. Not an art historical revelation to be sure, but a good reminder I think, that even the most simple or seemingly improvisational painting may (and often is) carefully planned.


At the Met, Day 2

Today at the Met, I came to Ernest Meissonier's, 1807, Friedland:

What I know of Ernest Meissonier comes from Ross King's excellent book, The Judgment of Paris. There, King frames Meissonier's exactingly realistic and historic style against Eduoard Manet's newer, more impressionistic one. Even without a Manet hanging next to it on the wall, I found this contrast immediately and viscerally felt in front of 1807, Friedland.

The painting is extremely detailed. Almost inescapably so. And with that detail (and the four years Meissonier spent working on the piece) also comes a sharp and unrelenting focus. It's a focus imbued upon everything in the front of the painting from left to right and from the individual blades of grass in the foreground to the group of riders surrounding Napoleon at the top of the small hill. From anything closer than four or five paces, this makes the four-by-eight-foot painting surprisingly difficult to look at as a whole.

Whether this effect would have been felt in Meissonier's day, or whether it's a result of modern visual habits developed in the years of Impressionism and Cubism following him, I can't say. But because of it, I was fascinated to find myself much more comfortable, and much more rewarded, looking at the painting as a series of details.


At the Met, Day 1

I'm in New York for a couple weeks, on a trip that's blessedly both business and pleasure. [You can follow my city wanderings over at Twitter, or check out pics from my informal, museum and independent bookstore tour and other book-related tidbits at our new Flickr home.] I'm staying at a place a block away from the Met, and being some 2,510 miles closer than usual, I'm hoping to take full advantage and go everyday, even if for only a bit. Today, my first day, I was struck by this odd little graphite and gouache by sculptor Auguste Rodin.

"Girl Seated", Auguste Rodin. Metropolitan Museum of ArtDone around 1910, exhibited that year at Alfred Stieglitz's Photo Secession gallery, and purchased by the Met shortly thereafter, the drawing is, according to the wall label, the direct result of Rodin's exercise of working while not taking his eyes off the model. Looking closely at the work, this was certainly the case in parts -- the model's left shoulder, the negative space formed between body and right arm -- but it would be surprising if it were so in the salient details of the headdress and the drapery, especially where it is pulled up under her seat, and where her foot is intertwined in it. Not to dismiss the possibility of the artist's great skill, but these details seem to me far too worked and far too aggressive to have been done without setting eye on paper. Of course, I mostly bring this up because I was surprised it was the focus of the wall label, when what I think is so interesting about this modest drawing is the flatness and ethereality that Rodin -- the era's great sculptor -- has endowed the model.

Here is an artist who, by way of his chosen medium, was supremely focused on the creation of mass and form in three dimensions, yet, when given a piece of paper, produces this body that seems tethered to the earth only by its heavily-drawn hat and robes. For me, the alternative dimension of interest expressed in this drawing and some of the others of the artist's in the Met's collection, speaks particularly to Rodin's writing. As the drawing reaches for the mysterious and fleeting, it gives writing I once only heard as booming and melodramatic, a deeper resonance:

"Man is incapable of creating, of inventing. He can only approach nature, submissively, lovingly. For the rest, she will not disappear from his sight; he has but to look, she will let him see what by force of patience he has arrived at understanding—that only. And yet the part is beautiful! He is an equal of Prometheus, he, who has known how to ravish from nature the life we adore in the Venus of Melos."

August Rodin, Venus.
Coming from Hol Art Books, September 13, 2009.