New York Pt.1: The Met vs. The Search and Find

This post marks a significant decision I’ve had to make regarding this blog. As you may have guess from the title (you smart cookie, you!), I visited New York this weekend and naturally took in as many exhibits as I could in a roughly 30 hour waking period. The goal of this blog was and is to explore and assess museum education as a (hopefully) fresh pair of eyes in the field, but thus far I have steered clear of proper exhibit reviews because – quite frankly – I’m scared. I know many people have the liberty of writing delightfully scathing exhibit reviews all over the internet and magazines, but most of them are not hoping to eventually get a job with the people they’re reviewing… So I’m hesitant, to say the least. But, fear not! I will embark on the venture I promised, but I would like to make quite clear that I absolutely respect the work my colleagues at the respective institutions have done and my reviews are intended as a dumping ground for my ideas of how one could improve upon the existing schemes. Good? Good! Let’s go to New York!

Now, I’m not too difficult to please in terms of artistic content – I’m an art nerd through and through, but even so I will say that the exhibits I visited in New York had a positively mind-boggling quantity of top-shelf, you’ve-seen-them-100-times-in-textbooks, absolute rockstars of the oil painting canon. Each museum and exhibit dealt with sheer magnitude of its contents in a different way – some more successful than others. I’ve decided to split them up just in case you get bored part way through (ah yes, the old ‘parse your information in reasonable chunks’ trick!)

[Source: The Met Museum website]

[Source: The Met Museum website]

The Met’s “Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity” was arguably the most impressive collection of objects of the three and by far the most unique concept. For those of you a bit behind the times (you should be ashamed!), the Impressionism exhibit paired period textiles with fashion worn in some of the world’s most beloved Impressionist paintings, inviting the guest to compare the fashion with its artistic treatment and representation and treatment. When I say textiles, I mean full gowns and outfits complete with hats, gloves, and accessories matching almost perfectly the garments worn in the paintings. Cool, huh?!

[Mary Cassatt, "In the Lodge," 1878. Source: Museum of Fine Arts Boston Website]

Even homeboy in the back wanted to check out La Grande Jatte…  [Mary Cassatt, “In the Lodge,” 1878. Source: Museum of Fine Arts Boston Website]

This was always going to be tricky to deal with, in my opinion, because there was simply too much talent. With 10-15 works per room, all of which have whole volumes devoted to their intricacies, most are going to be scanned over. It’s the nature of museum going – most people will pick out two or three works per room to spend some time with (if you’re lucky) and the rest are subjected to the nod-and-shuffle. Truth be told, even an art historian like myself has a hard time paying exhaustive attention to every painting and text panel in overwhelming exhibits like this. I, personally, just found it a bit tough to watch Mary Cassatt’s In the Lodge get that treatment in favor of Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (study), but such is life!

The biggest hump you’re going to encounter with an exhibit like this, however, is what I’ve dubbed “Search-and-Find Syndrome.” Now, I am 100% on board with the scholarly merits of bringing paintings to life in order to truly grasp the artist’s skill and imagination – I totally get it! However, if most guests aren’t well versed in Impressionism and the rapidly changing world of 19th century Paris, the temptation is to run through the exhibit making a bee-line for the painting/textile pairs and exclaiming “I found it! Yeah, that’s TOTALLY the dress! Yeah it looks just like it!/In the painting it looks more floaty!” and promptly running to the next pair. Unfortunately, this is exactly the behavior I observed at the Met. It’s a tough row to hoe, but it might be helped by organizing the exhibit in a similar setup as the Musèe d’Orsay version of the same exhibit which, so far as I can tell, presented the viewer with the paintings (in groups according to style and theme with plenty of information), then revealing the corresponding textiles in groups. This invited comparison but also focus on each of the objects as individual works of art, craftsmanship, and history.

All of that being said, the Met’s ‘Impressionism’ exhibit was a stunning and informative (not to mention comprehensive!) display of 19th century modernism and is not to be missed!

À la prochaine, mes amis!

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