PRINT Summer 1970

On the Organization of the Show

THE EXHIBITION CALLED “NINETEENTH-CENTURY America” at the Met is a show one has to make allowances for. Personally, I found it disappointing, and a good part of my disappointment stems from the type of exhibition this is, which for me is intrinsically unsatisfactory. This is one of those surveys embracing a large area, which, with few exceptions, is represented by very well-known examples by the biggest names. It is not a show that gives body to a certain point of view about the material it deals with, one that has a thesis or a direction; and this being so one comes away from it wondering what contribution it makes.

In all this it was a surprise, at least to me, since I had thought that shows of this kind were on the way out; and it is a fact that most shows today—including shows at major museums in large metropolitan centers—take a very different approach. Certainly they may choose to present an area that spans a century or so, but in this case it will be a neglected century, so that in the very choice of the period the show implies a thesis; and generally the selection of the works bears this out. The exhibition called “Romantic Art in Britain, 1760–1860,” shown in Detroit and Philadelphia and discussed in this magazine a couple of years ago, was a very good example of the type. Even more specialized was the exhibition of Chinese art of the Yuan period that was held in Cleveland during the same season: few people in this country know anything about Chinese art, and the Yuan period is not the most popular, yet the material was not considered too rarefied for Cleveland, and in fact the show was stunning, as well as being a contribution of permanent value to the serious study of its field.

It is important to stress that outside of New York exhibitions of this sort are common practice—next season Minneapolis, Chicago and Toledo will put on a big show of 18th-century Italian art, in which the emphasis will not be on Canaletto, the Tiepolos and other Venetians, but on Rome, Bologna, Genoa and other centers whose activity must be almost wholly unknown to the public which will visit the show; but evidently this was not considered a deterrent. The Met itself has sometimes taken another approach in mounting a serious show: another of its current major exhibitions, “The Year 1200,” is a good instance of how much can be done by concentrating on a smaller area and examining it in greater depth. In fact I cannot remember a show at the Met with quite as little character as this present American one since an exhibition of 17th-century French art, “The Splendid Century,” about a decade ago.

It may be that my reservations ought to be extenuated, as some—but by no means all!—of the friends with whom I have discussed this show have urged. After all it is not every day that one can see a large number of works that survey all the visual arts (excepting architecture) in 19th-century America; and above all, as the show will be up all summer, it had to be conceived as a tourist attraction. These things are true, and I suppose they do provide some degree of extenuation, but how much? After all, the public of Minneapolis, Chicago and Toledo must know far less about 18th-century Roman or Bolognese art than New Yorkers know about 19th-century American art—to say nothing about what people in Cleveland know about the Yuan period! In fact it will be vacationers from places like Minneapolis and Toledo who will swell the ranks of the summer visitors to New York. It is easily possible to put together an interesting show—a show that makes a point and from which one can learn a great deal that is new—intended to appeal to such a public, and to aim for a broad common denominator need not entail the corollary that the denominator be low. To me it seems axiomatic that, especially today, museums have to offer more than what is, in effect, bread and circuses: they have to offer an education, and it must be said that the Met’s show has taken a very relaxed view of what its possibilities are in this respect. But at least this show will do no harm, and it is certainly worthwhile for the examples it includes of the decorative arts. These are of a far higher quality than the paintings, partly because in the 19th century American decorative artists were, on the whole, better than American painters, and partly because with the decorative arts the selection of pieces is far more intelligent than with the paintings. Anyone who finds the exhibition interesting will surely find it so on this account.

At any rate, the problems a show such as the present one poses for the reviewer are formidable. To give a capsule history of 19th-century American art is of course impossible, even if it were desirable—which at the present time it is not. In fact, this is one of the weaknesses of this large exhibition. Studies of 19th-century American art are in an extremely fluid state. The premises on which interpretations had been based in the past are being questioned—or, to be more accurate, have been questioned and are being discarded; but new premises, and new approaches expressive of them, are only beginning to be articulated. In a situation of this kind it seems to me unwise to mount an encyclopedic survey, and if one is sensitive to developments of an intellectual or scholarly nature in the interpretation of this particular material one would not be likely to try—what is needed are much more specific shows and specific studies of other sorts (since a show should be one form of study, although the present show is not). And in recent years this is in fact the kind of show that has been done: American Neoclassicism (Newark), American Impressionism (New Mexico), Cole (Baltimore), Kensett (the American Federation of Arts), Church (the National Collection of Fine Arts), and so on. In such situations such shows can make contributions, and these particular shows have made contributions—the ideas they gave rise to are being considered and tested. But they are a long way from the point at which they can be synthesized in a general view.

What are these new developments in the interpretation of American art? There are many, but it seems to me that they make the most sense if they are all put into either of two categories. One has to do with the relation of “high” art to “popular” art, and in this regard the present exhibition is very weak indeed—even the selections of decorative arts, although they are very sensitive and very intelligent, lose much of their point by being limited to productions by “serious” artists, by professionals. To take a specific instance—and to offer a suggestion I have already made elsewhere—I think that Neoclassical painting in this country cannot be understood without reference to “folk” or “primitive” American painting. In fact I have been inclined at times to feel that without the influence of primitive painting there would have been little American Neoclassicism—the manner which would have prevailed in the painting of that time would have been the much more painterly style of Sully or Jarvis. In my opinion it was the pronounced linearity of primitive art and the hard clarity of its forms that inflected professional American painting toward some equivalence or correspondence with the school of David; and I think this is evident even in such cosmopolitan painters as the Peales, especially in the still lifes by the several children of Charles Willson Peale. The development of important (for their time) landscapists like Shaw and Wall is also impossible to understand without consideration of popular art, especially as they and so many painters from their generation down through the apogee of the Hudson River School made their living by doing landscape engravings for books or series of books or portfolios intended for wide circulation in a mass market. Shaw was certainly as sensitive to uncultured taste, if only because he had to be, as was the sculptor John Rogers later in the century. So in a successful show it would have been essential to have some examples of the kind of popular material these professional artists drew on.

Another moment when the influence of popular art on professional is a crucial issue occurred at the end of the century. The art nouveau rooms are certainly the most successful of the show: with the furniture, glass and metalwork one moves from one masterpiece to another, all of them brilliantly chosen, and one of the two paintings in the show that was really instructive for me—John White Alexander’s Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil—is almost as fascinating in its way as Khnopff. But what cannot be decided on the basis of the material that is shown—actually, the question is not even asked, much less answered—is, what idea did art nouveau artists in this country have of their work? Was the style as it was practiced over here a mandarin style, as this painting by Alexander or the patronage of Tiffany would seem to suggest? If so, American art nouveau would be significantly different from what the style was in Europe, where, at least in the decorative and applied arts, it represented an attempt on the part of post-romantic artists to remake themselves into pre-romantic artisans and to correlate in an explicit and thoroughgoing way the attitudes as well as the forms of high art with those of popular craft. As I said, we do not know what the situation was in this country, and for this reason it would have been all the more important to present the work of the art nouveau period against a background of popular crafts, which have a great deal of light to shed on what these artists were, or were not, trying to do. In this way, these stunning rooms would have taught the visitor lessons which, from the absence of any larger context, one must suppose that he is not intended to learn.

The other principal heading under which recent work on American art can be grouped involves connections between American art and European. It is not putting things too simply to say that the “native-son” school represented by writers like Flexner has had its day. No young person in this field would consider it a fault in an American artist that he looked to Europe for his models or sources; on the contrary, this is felt to add to his interest. The development of styles in American art and of the ideas on which they were based are no longer thought to have been independent of developments in Europe: they are studied either as reflections of what was going on in Europe or else as parts of the same overall currents of thought and sensibility.

Now what this means is that a purely American exhibition is of limited interest; what is wanted are shows which juxtapose American things and European in such a way that their relationship can be studied—even if in the end it were to be denied! There is nothing like this in the present show. Even in those cases—the furniture of Lannuier or the paintings of Allston, for instance—where it cannot be avoided and has never been denied, even by earlier generations of scholars, one is not given the opportunity of seeing the interplay of the arts of the two continents. Two or three instances of American developments in a real sense—that is, of works chosen so as to show how the earlier led into the later—are presented, but as it were in a vacuum. Thus, one is shown the evolution from Birch to Lane in marine painting, or, in a certain kind of genre, from the smithy of Bass Otis to the foundries of J. F. Weir. But these relationships could take on their full sense only if one had something by van de Velde or Brooking, by Wright or Volaire to indicate what these works grew out of and what their authors had in mind when they painted them.

Here, again, the decorative objects seem to have been chosen much more intelligently than the paintings. It is fascinating to move from the silver pitcher made by J. E. Caldwell and Co. in 1857(!) or Roux’s Greco-Egyptian footstool of 1865 to the pieces by Tiffany and his contemporaries. In my opinion, these are among those cases where, given certain origins, a certain development seems almost inevitable and would not require a kind of transatlantic cross-fertilization; and where the consequences of the earlier forms may have been arrived at first in this country. One wants to know more!

A final word about an area of particular interest to an increasing number of people, including me: the connections between painting and photography. One reason why this is such an interesting area is that it raises questions involving both the principal currents of research that I have mentioned: the connections between “high” art and “popular,” and between Europe and America. In the Met’s show there is a great deal that seems to bear on this question: old chestnuts like Elliott’s portrait of Mrs. Goulding or Robinson’s view of Giverny, of course; and others about which the question has never been asked, at least as far as I know, but ought to be—Kensett’s Lake George, Lane’s Schooners Before Approaching Storm and Sargent’s Venetian Interior are only a few. Perhaps some day the Met will put up a show on this theme—narrower and less grandiose in conception than the present exhibition, but both more difficult and more interesting.

Jerrold Lanes