Art History

Chicago Case Study: Dismantling the Historic House Museum?

Have you ever been to a Historic House Museum (HHM) where it wasn’t at all important to know who lived in the house before it became a museum?  It seems almost antithetical to the concept—historic house museums have, traditionally, been set up to honor the people who lived in them, which often means rich, white men. It’s only recently that historic houses have embraced new philosophies on what they embody and display. When I went to Chicago this past weekend, I searched for historic sites or history museums that I hadn’t visited before. We did the obvious things, the Art Institute (Manet show!) and the Field Museum (boyfriend’s choice), but there was another museum that caught my eye: the Richard H. Driehaus Museum. It appeared to be a historic house, clearly a beautiful Gilded Age site. I saw that they had a Yinka Shonibare, CBE installation in their rooms. Sold!

The foyer of the Driehaus Museum. (My photo.)

The foyer of the Driehaus Museum. (My photo.)

We arrived at the Driehaus Museum in the middle of a rainstorm, and the staff ushered us back to the ticket counter. There, they had a small display about the people who had originally built and owned the house. Samuel Nickerson, first a liquor merchant and then a bank president, had built the house between 1879 and 1883 and spared no expense. He and his wife were art collectors, using the house as a gallery. When he died, the art collection went to the Art Institute, and after another private owner, a banker as well, the house was sold to the American College of Surgeons. That 1919 sale was an act of historic preservation, and then, in a second act of historic preservation, the house was sold to a philanthropist and collector named Richard Driehaus in 2013. Consequently, this museum is not a traditional HHM, but rather a showpiece of Driehaus’s dedicated restoration, a composite of the family histories and something else as well.  It has been open for only about 11 years.

Before heading into the restored museum spaces, I had a moment of fear after reading about the building’s history—where’s the historical authenticity if a house is restored not to its original appearance, but to some in-between ideal of a funder? How does that affect the mission of the museum? Does presenting a restoration as thoroughly historic reflect a broader attitude toward representing “the way things were” in the house’s original time period. One particular differentiation from the original appearance of the house would be the prevalence of Tiffany light fixtures, apparently a focus of Mr. Driehaus’s collecting. However, the most exquisite Tiffany works were produced after Mr. Nickerson had died.

Yet it turns out that perhaps this model of HHM can be liberating. The museum did have notes about how Mr. and Mrs. Nickerson originally used the rooms.  They also had fairly precise and careful indications, much more in the way of passive interpretation than I’ve seen at other HHMs, of what was original and what was restored. They also clearly felt free to comment on the institutions that gave way to the ability to create such a gem of a house in a city that has always been deeply stratified by class.  The signs that discussed the restoration made clear that one difficulty had been cleaning the Berea sandstone exterior of the house; a century of industrial smog had to be carefully removed to find the underlying color.

However, they mixed that context with a powerful critique of how such institutions came to be, simply by allowing the contemporary to mix productively with the historic. Currently, the Driehaus Museum is playing host to an exhibit called A Tale of Today: Yinka Shonibare CBE.  I’ve been fascinated by Shonibare’s work for a long time; I once wrote a paper that tried to compare his method of quoting art history to Edgar Degas’s. Shonibare, a British-Nigerian artist, borrows familiar tropes, plots, and visual configurations to disrupt the history of art from the inside out. Placing this exhibition in this kind of museum suggests that, by abandoning the strictures of one historic period, more thematic analyses are possible.

An excellent example of the clash between Shonibare and the traditional model of an HHM is Party Time: Reimagine America (2009), originally produced for the Newark Museum and on display here in the Nickersons’ dining room.

Party Time: Reimagine America  (2009) installed in the Driehaus Museum. (My photo.)

Party Time: Reimagine America (2009) installed in the Driehaus Museum. (My photo.)

The figures wear Dutch wax clothing, a critical signifier of colonialism in Shonibare’s visual language—the cloth, usually associated with Africa and imported into African markets, was actually made in the Netherlands. In Shonibare’s hands, it calls a viewer to consider who is really responsible for the societies that we inhabit. Party Time shows a dinner table full of people whose actions, like feet on the table, betray the exclusive and elite activities the circumstances are supposed to recall. The headless mannequins, nearly disembodied suits of clothes, also recall the ghosts of the people who once lived in the house, who likely had servants, and whose actions reified divisions of social class, race, and gender.

The Driehaus Museum was my most pleasant surprise of this trip to Chicago, the exact opposite of that moment of fear that had me rethinking all of my choices to go there.  While I have been wary of contemporary art installations in historic settings in the past, the Shonibare exhibit enriched the experience of being in the museum. It gave me so much more than if the house had simply been full of the Nickerson furnishings or a museum to the surgeons who called it their professional home for a century, even if I would have happily gone to either. It might not be rocket science, or even the interventions spelled out in Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums, but other museums could certainly learn from being so open to new ideas.

The Return of the Professor

Cathedral in Bayeux

Cathedral in Bayeux

I pulled something in my neck the other day.  I didn’t notice the pain then, but now I am balanced in our cat hair-covered recliner with a heating pad behind my neck and my computer on my lap.  This is fine, for the moment, and I’m sure it will be better soon. Being still able to type is good because I certainly have a lot to do in the next week or so – in less than two weeks, I’ll be back in the classroom, teaching an art history survey class at a nearby community college.  I have a syllabus to finish off, some reading to do, and some lecture notes to write. 

I’m excited!  It’s fair to say that I didn’t realize how excited I would be to go back into the classroom until it began to seem like it would happen.  A friend put me in touch with the department—she heard they’d lost an adjunct lecturer to a sudden move, and she happened to know an Art History Ph.D. (me!) who could handle such a class.  This has little effect on my day job at the museum, for the most part, it’s additional and outside hours that I would not normally be working, so while I will soon number among the contingent faculty of the world, it’s not quite the same as relying on piecing classes together.

I finished my dissertation three and a half years ago.  After that, I took a FULL break, cut the cord, barely thought about my dissertation or trying to publish anything until last year when a call for papers came up that was too good to pass up, even if it meant finding the money for a trip to Europe.  I came home from the conference a little frustrated—it seemed like people were only just coming to conclusions that I had come to literal years ago now.  I had a greater sense of what it would mean to have my scholarship out in the world because I believe that it’s true that no one has replicated my work since.  As I think about that conference experience, and as new opportunities present themselves, I’ve been thinking more about trying to publish parts of my dissertation.  With a few years distance, I have better sense of what I want from academia and perhaps what it can give me in return. 

And with this distance, and the opportunity to return to the classroom, comes the hope that my years away from academia working directly with museums and nonprofits, places where humanities majors apply their skills, will help me be a better educator.  If I have a better sense of what my scholarship could mean, I am also more able to make case for why it’s important for students to study art history.  I know what skills they learn from art history because I have had to deconstruct those skills myself, repackaging my knowledge and experience over and over to get the jobs that I cobble together to get to the point of having a CAREER.  (I have thoughts about the recent Twitter feeds exploring the twists and turns of careers after leaving academic. I have thoughts about the notion of having careers.)

When I was in the classroom while I was still in grad school, especially when I was teaching expository writing, I tried to be deliberate in explaining why I demanded they do an exercise over again or why it was so important for them to see one thing or another in the text—there is always a reason. A lot of academics, especially, are bad at this. They replace the idea that people deserve a justification of how they spend their time with the belief that certain things are inherently worth knowing and require no justification.  That may be true.  It may also be true that knowing why they are supposed to learn something enables people to take it further into their minds and hearts.  So here’s to a new semester, my first proper semester in three and a half years, and here’s to art history!  Hopefully my neck heals enough, soon enough, to make those lecture notes as interesting as I know they can be.

The Forgeries of Étienne Terrus & the Importance of Local Artists in France

A little over a month ago, news broke that a museum in Elne, a small town in the south of France near the Spanish border, had discovered that nearly 60% of its paintings were forgeries.  Many of these works had been attributed to a local nineteenth-century artist, Étienne Terrus (1857-1922).  Though the extremity of this revelation and its art market consequences cannot be ignored, this story caught my eye because I have been to a number of these local museums that proudly emphasize their local artist. The impulse to interpret this news as a tragedy of fraudulent goods and misspent funds misses the point entirely – the intangible consequences of losing Terrus as a local icon are more critical.

Terrus, like many nineteenth-century painters, went to Paris to study painting at the age of 17 and soon returned home to Elne where he remained, painting profusely, for the rest of his life.  Some short biographies on the painter suggest that his work had a strong influence André Derain and Henri Matisse, who visited the artist in Elne, as they began to paint in the Fauvist idiom. The Fauvist claim seems suspect to me—if they were attracted to Terrus’s style, it was likely partially a backhanded compliment of sorts. Fauvism, grounded in wild colors (fauve = “wild beast” in French) and a de-skilling of figural painting, would most likely have grown out of his LACK of skill or inspired experiments, rather than any unique contribution of the artist.

So the importance of Terrus comes down not to his “skill” or his actual paintings, but the fact of his locality. In The Pride of Place: Local Memories and Political Culture in Nineteenth-Century France, Stéphane Gerson has outlined how local cults of personality and celebrations of local history grew enormously during the nineteenth century.  In part, he writes, this was a particular turn of public relations by the current elites of any one town—by positing a certain group of ancestors as elites, they would claim for themselves a measure of glory by association, by being the group of people who had stepped into the places once held by those hallowed forefathers.  Though there could always be a tension between local pride and unified nationalism, enthusiasm for one’s home town or residence could be a way of expressing independence under an increasingly modern government.  Assuming an artist as part of a local tradition could mean positing creativity and discernment as a crucial component of local character.

The focus on sites of local art production, then and now, also rejects the notion that the provinces could only beget mediocrity relative to Parisian finesse.  In many cases, celebrating local artists, whether or not they had success in Paris, occurred because a local académie, or at least a few skilled teachers, existed to cultivate a local art scene—its teachers and students might then be more likely to be retained to produce local monuments, decorations, and other functional pieces of art.  These local teachers provided foundational instruction for pupils who might then choose to go on to Paris, get elite training for themselves, and then decide whether to toil after Salon success in the capital or return home as one of the most skilled artists available for commission.

To go one step further, local artists are often dismissed on the basis of quality, with scholars declaring their paintings to be less accomplished than artists working in Paris.  I’ve argued repeatedly in other contexts that assessing the quality of painting is not as useful as putting it into its immediate social and historical context, especially when it comes to regional artists.  In looking at Terrus’s paintings online, they seem to be quite pleasant landscapes that are clearly influenced by Impressionism—he understands how to use his brushstrokes to build up trees and buildings and pavement.  Instead of the building styles of northern France that characterize landscapes by the primary Impressionists, Terrus’s landscapes evidence the majestic stucco towers that populate cities and towns in that southwestern corner of France.  The landscapes include local character while still utilizing the Impressionist color palette and not turning to symbolist colors, like Van Gogh, or even the brighter Southern palette of a Cézanne or Bazille.  Other Terrus paintings show more experimentation with colors and lines, demonstrating how a wild beast, a fauve, might be found among these tame landscapes.  (Assuming, of course, that the paintings I found online were not the forgeries.)

His importance to Elne is now the contemporary consequence of those long-standing efforts across small towns in France to claim their local producers and elevate them to the status of legend.  Because Terrus fixated on his own lesser-known area of residence, his paintings preserve the changes of that town over time and demonstrate how an artist divorced from the Parisian establishment (defined contemporaneously or in retrospect) could adapt the trends of his era and re-present them for his friends and neighbors.  This would certainly be a point of pride for a smaller city without a storied artistic tradition of its own.  The timeline of the town’s efforts to build up its local museum, and in so doing unintentionally acquire a large number of forgeries, coincide with the increasing decentralization of art historical investigations.  In other words, where it was once expected that a scholar would study artists working in Paris, its become increasingly accepted that scholars might study a local artist with a local following in a small city a bit separate from the usual tourist endeavors.  It makes sense that building up a Terrus collection in a local museum would seem like a way to draw tourism because the infrastructure for local artists to be deemed interesting has considerably increased – yet so has the potential for bad actors, like the “experts” named in reports of this fraud, to take advantage of a small town’s desire to stand out.

So you wanna be a superheroine AND a museum curator...

Wonder Woman walking into the Louvre

So Wonder Woman, breaker of box office records, fortifier of women's hearts, is a curator at the Louvre.

At first, as Diana Prince walked through the courtyard of the Musée du Louvre, I thought they might just be setting up one of the popular "smash the fancy landmark" action sequences, or perhaps that someone had screwed up and not realized that I. M. Pei's pyramids did not exist during the World War I-era in which the bulk of the movie is set.  

But then you see Diana at her desk, surrounded by glass cases full of beautiful artifacts - then only seemingly similar to Wonder Woman's Amazonian tools - that befit the collection of the world's greatest museum.  And the purpose of showing her in the present is the delivery of a photograph of her and her friends during World War I that Bruce Wayne has unearthed for her safe-keeping, which is a perfectly sensible plot point to stage in a museum.

I said, after I left the movie on Sunday, that Wonder Woman may be the best conventional superhero movie I've ever seen, and I stand by that.  Like most other female viewers, seeing a woman superhero on screen provoked a cocktail of emotions.  Yet her "day job" in the present-day, which I assume will continue on for the Justice League movies set in the present, bothers me for two reasons.  

First, it perpetuates the idea that art history is an unattainable, luxury discipline and that a career based in its study is available only to those with special circumstances and skills.  (What I wouldn't give to bring Hestia's Lasso of Truth to an academic conference here or there.)

Second, you might actually need to be Wonder Woman to become a curator of ancient artifacts at the Louvre.  I don't mean this to contradict my first point - I mean simply that there's no better person to curate a collection of Amazon warrior artifacts than someone who has actually used them.  There's also little room in that model for an enthusiast of Amazon warrior artifacts to learn enough and argue effectively enough to gain equivalent prestige.

I wonder if Diana Prince will still be a Louvre curator in future films and if it could play a bigger role in the story at any time.  I'm going to keep watching, but I hope her day job doesn't turn out to be just a flimsy character trait.

Art for Everyone? Not Without Explanatory Labels

I can’t stand art exhibitions that do not use explanatory wall labels.

There’s no point in mincing my words on this topic.  I spend most of my time these days at a history museum that does not have label texts because they have guided tours, but for the most part, there is little in the rooms of a historic house museum that would seem inscrutable to the average visitor.  The guide of that tour, then, embroiders stories over what the visitors see, adding color and making connections that can shape a museum experience into something memorable.  In this case, labels are not really necessary because the experience aims throughout to be immersive and participatory.

And yet, for all the talk in professional communities about museums needing to focus on providing participatory experiences, art museums still frequently put up exhibitions without label texts that include no more than the identifying information for the work. For contemporary art, where the works are often, officially, “Untitled,” this identifying information alone can be next to meaningless.  Without available programming that engages the themes of the exhibition, there is little to provide explanation of the messages of the works on display. When the works being exhibited draw on complex social histories, theories, and politics, which the viewer may or may not be familiar with prior to their visit, how can a person participate in the dialogues the works are meant to invoke? 

If there is no audio tour, handout, or extra program, an art exhibition without explanatory labels asks for viewers to be already “in the know” about the issues the works address, like walking through the door of an art museum certifies entry into a privileged community.  This is the very opposite of a participatory museum experience, and it undermines the role that art museums should play in our society.  This oversight is the kind of thing that enables the belief that Art History, as a discipline, is the province of the rich and entitled, a discipline superfluous to regular life. 

I have been guilty myself of thinking that providing further explanation of Art History and also specific artworks seemed like an unnecessary concession—that people should understand the necessity of studying Art History without me explaining to them why I believe in its importance.  I realize now that this reflexive reaction of mine functioned more like a defense mechanism against forcing myself to confront the question.  Why do I believe in the importance of studying Art History? 

Good artists do more than make pictures.  They take entire worldviews and funnel them into visual work that tells a story, makes a protest, experiments with media, or takes any one of many, many other actions.  Their work is often complicated, whether or not the assemblage of paint and materials in the museum seems complicated.  And sometimes, a viewer needs a few clues to guess what message the artist was trying to send.  When work concerns issues of race, class, or gender, a viewer may need much more than a few clues to avoid relying on stereotypes for understanding and growth.

I’m lucky to live somewhere where the art museum has immense community support and colossal amounts of funding to put behind its outreach programs.  Maybe my art museum can get away with not using explanatory labels in special exhibitions, but it still shouldn’t.  Getting people through the door can’t be enough when art museums and, yes, Art History are two of the greatest tools we have to convince people why they should trust in empathy, creativity, and education.