PRINT Summer 1970

On the Hanging of the Show

IT MUST BE HARD to be a museum director, or even a curator for that matter, nowadays. Not only must the trustees, patrons and potential patrons be kept happy, but a whole host of others—the city fathers, the protectors of the environment, the blacks, irate artist groups, the general public, the art historians, critics, and museum professionals. The Metropolitan Museum’s show of 19th-century American art and interiors is a show which judiciously tries to combine the functions of pleasing various publics and remaining within the bounds of artistic and art historical decorum. It really is an almost impossible task and it should not surprise anyone that it is not a total success either as spectacle or as art history.

I saw the show three times: once with my five-year old, once alone and once with the photographer, John Schiff. I liked it least when I was by myself, thinking about what the show could have been like and straining to see some of the skyed paintings, the paintings hung in period rooms, and interiors roped off and visible only at odd angles and behind the furniture. I liked it most when I saw it in company with my five-year old, who found one garden-like room full of cast-iron benches, a lovely place to sit, who walked with pleasure between and around the sculpture and bounced on the Victorian-inspired (legal) sitting places. It is a fine show to see with the family or to argue over with a friend, but it is not a new look at 19th-century American art or culture.

What do we expect from a curator who puts together a show—especially of so questionable a period as the 19th century? We expect him to subject his derived opinions to intensive scrutiny, and on the basis of this scrutiny arrive at insights which furnish the pretexts for his choices. We don’t expect him to look at the past with the eyes of one of its contemporary tastemakers (this is impossible) but we do expect him to be free of the temptations to value the past largely through the fog of current taste in art, assigning value and quality as work approaches today’s taste in today’s art. He should certainly be aware of this taste, but treat it gingerly.

Napoleon was, like Hitler, assured of his infallibility in matters of artistic value. Vanderlyn’s Marius won Napoleon’s medal and it thus has historical value, but it remains a poor painting, revealing Nappy’s flaw in taste and Vanderlyn’s in conception. Vanderlyn’s The Death of Jane McCrea (provincial American Poussin) and Ariadne (provincial American neo-Giorgione) are remarkable and interesting paintings for what they achieve as well as for where they deviate from European models and ideals. It is characteristic of this show that all three of these paintings are represented. Thus history and nostalgia mix with the appreciation of art. The view we get of S.F.B. Morse, for example, is like the view we get of Vanderlyn. Besides two paintings, a landscape and a portrait of his daughter, which present him at his best, there are two much larger paintings, The Gallery of the Louvre and The Old House of Representatives, which are of historical interest, breed nostalgia, etc. The Old House of Representatives is the dominant painting in the first room of the show. The Gallery of the Louvre, together with the Vanderlyns and some productions of various members of the Peale family continue the main theme—lack of discrimination as to artistic quality. In the first large gallery good paintings are hung together with paintings of historic interest (Exhuming the Mastodon, for example), but of questionable quality. It seems strange to include eccentric work full of obvious provincialisms and errors while excluding the work of true primitives. I, for one would trade with pleasure the two big Morses, Marius and the mastodon for an equal number of primitives.

Choice of paintings is not the main problem though; it is their arrangement. The show derives authority from its location at the Met, which makes it difficult not to wander through it deriving value judgments from the character and prominence of the installation of the work. Thus the prominence given the mixture of paintings of quality and paintings of historic or sociological interest in the first room, automatically assigns quality to them all. The skying of Inness above Cole, of Fitz Hugh Lane’s two paintings, of one of Kensett’s happiest efforts, one of the best early Wyants, Bingham, Bricher, etc., inevitably leads to lower estimations of their quality.

The paintings thus tiered are all among those produced during the middle of the century. We sense a telegraphed message of lack of faith in the intrinsic quality of the work in question. The rooms full of paintings which are skyed and tiered to mimic Victorian salons can all too easily be compared with those installed according to modern taste. The former are automatically assigned a lower place in the esthetic hierarchy than those paintings displayed apparently for their artistic quality and not as nostalgic mementos of past taste. Even more striking is the display of genre paintings by Woodville, Blythe, Le Clear and Edmonds, hung behind a velvet rope and visible at an increasingly sharp angle as they parade along the wall, and at an increasing distance. They are reduced to the level of décor in Victorian interiors. One interior, visible only through its roped-off doorway, contains, hanging on its opposite wall, dimly visible in a combination of glare and dim lighting, Brown’s The Music Lesson, Rimmer’s Flight and Pursuit and a landscape as well as a bird and flower piece of M. J. Heade. All of these are delicate paintings. I thought that Heade and Rimmer, at least, were of unquestioned interest since the sensibility nurtured by Surrealism helped return them to public favor.

The period rooms, with their objets d’art, and the salons hung with canvases in tiers as in Victorian times, do have values beyond those of nostalgia. They show the interior which the genre painters painted, and help explain the character of the paintings which would be hung in them. The Heade Hummingbirds and Orchids acts in the interior as a jewel-like object, a part of a jungle of arranged and separately chosen ornaments which in. late Victorian times proliferated and became more and more bejeweled. A painting by Louis Comfort Tiffany, The Snake Charmer at Tangier (hung, one suspects, as décor since it, together with a late work of J. F. Weir, is unidentified and not in the catalog) clarifies the transition from the painted jewel to the jewellike object, as in Tiffany favrile, from fine art as the major jewel of the interior to the increasingly strong role played by artistic objects.

If the entire show was hung in some version or other of the neo-Victorian salon, most of my arguments would be truncated, if not wholly short-circuited, but the two rooms hung pretty much as we hang paintings now contain what must be taken as the curatorial conception of the “best” of the work produced in the late Victorian era, the first room pre-Impressionist, the second room (except for Saint-Gaudens’ Diana) Impressionist. The choice of treating the art in these two rooms in the manner to which modern museum-goers are accustomed is, in the context of this show, a most unfortunate one. It says, “Look, here is the real art. What you have seen earlier was just for the sake of nostalgia, but this is the real goods.” And of course it isn’t. Some of the paintings in the first room are the real goods: Whistler, Eakins, Ryder, Inness, Peto, Harnett (at least one of his). This, though, is the brushiest Inness in the show. Is brushy better than dry? It would seem so. But in actuality we are dealing with a new academic convention, as rigid as neo-Classicism. And Sargent and Chase, for all their bravura, are provincial painters, perhaps not in the sense of their acceptance by the sophisticated world of their time in Europe and America, but by comparison with their European contemporaries who were creating radically new forms. They were provincial intellectually rather than territorially. Winslow Homer has an unquestionable reputation in the United States. I find that he has done numerous questionable, problematic and downright bad paintings. Trained as an illustrator, he never learned to deal with some of the subtleties of tonality and drawing which make forms come alive. He also negatively reflects his American provincial origin and lack of schooling or early contact with art. I find him most acceptable when he is closest to his illustrational roots as in Snap the Whip and even more so in his illustrations themselves. Northeaster, a rather good Homer seascape, would look paper thin next to Courbet. I am not convinced the Heade and Fitz Hugh Lane would suffer a like fate next to a comparable European. Eastman Johnson’s Two Men is, at this point of its chemical development, a mess. It is almost impossible to read most of the painting because of changes in the pigments. I am not sure, though, that it ever was an inspired painting, despite its modern look. His small sketch In the Fields is of much higher quality. Essentially what I object to here is the presentation of an anthology of current taste predilections in later 19th-century paint-ing as a sufficient exercise of critical function.

The next room is largely American Impressionist and the paintings are generally a pleasure to look at. Besides the fact that a number are marvelous in themselves (the William Morris Hunt, J. A. Weir, Robinson, Hassam, Cassatt) they are hung well, with plenty of light falling on them and plenty of room around each painting. But did taste in picture-hanging change that much from Inness’s time to Weir’s to explain the installation? In this room we are given a chance to compare MacMonnies and Saint-Gaudens nudes—as in an earlier room Powers and Palmer—and this is in each case most instructive.

The catalog, when compared with the show, by virtue of its format and necessary even-handedness to all the artists involved, evens out the show. It reproduces all of the paintings and sculpture in the show (with the exception of such items as the Weir and Tiffany mentioned earlier). Of course, the choice of color plates can continue to mislead, but the Impressionists don’t get them all. In the catalog, American art does not come alive in 1875 or so; there are good and poor paintings and sculpture from beginning to end. The Tarbell and the Twachtman look weak. The Factory Village of J. A. Weir, the Robinsons and the Hassams look strong. Harnett’s The Artist’s Card Rack and Peto’s The Poor Man’s Store make the Haberles seem uninspired. The invisible Heades are here lovely and visible, together with the well-displayed Thunderstorm, Narragansett Bay. The skyed Wyant and Colman show their quality. Kensett gets a color reproduction of a lovely painting of Lake George, but his inspired View Near Cozzens Hotel From West Point is reduced to postage stamp size below a vapid Bierstadt. All in all, the catalog makes a better show than the show itself.

Is it a bad show? No, but it is not the show of 19th-century American art which the major museum of the American city in which art is currently most alive should mount. It is aimed at the general public, and down to the general public level. It does not aim sufficiently often at new insights into American art and culture which would further enlighten those supposedly already enlightened. It is not eccentric enough. The taste expressed is too “good,” not sufficiently personal, nor does it start from some new and surprising attitude towards art in general which then necessarily informs the selection here. We should be grateful for all the hard-to-get-at delights collected from all over the country, but somehow more is wanted. “The Year 1200,” at the same museum, represents a level of museology which is all too evidently available as a criticism.

Gabriel Laderman