Museums periodically reorganize the presentations of their permanent collections to refresh the visitor experience and attract the public. With a new show, which opened in February, the Brooklyn Museum has done just that — and more.
The museum, which has a permanent collection of around 6,000 works of European art, has re-displayed some of its 19th- and 20th-century pieces in a fifth-floor gallery, bringing together works it had previously displayed in its vast courtyard des Beaux-Arts, a space with a giant chandelier and a glass floor, and pieces that had been part of a traveling exhibit.
The resulting exhibition of 89 works – “Monet to Morisot: the Real and the Imaginary in European Art”, which will be on view until May 21, 2023 – gave the museum the opportunity to re-examine its collections at through a 21st century lens.
One of the main wall texts explains the museum’s rationale for the renovation.
“Like most American collections built during the 19th and 20th centuries,” it reads, “the Brooklyn Museum’s European collections from this period consist primarily of works by white male artists, with only a handful of artists women and no artists of color”.
The gender and race-conscious rehang was “an opportunity to connect this work to the current conversation,” said museum director Anne Pasternak. She said staff members answered questions from visitors about provenance, environment, economic inequality, gender and race.
When Ms Pasternak was an art history student in the 1990s, the field “was approached only in terms of formal qualities” such as color and light, she said.
But, she added, “these artists were all artists of their time. They reflected on labor and industrial issues, and societal changes. Why wouldn’t our facilities reflect this?
Lisa Small, the museum’s senior curator of European art, who oversaw the re-exhibition, said European collections from the 19th and 20th centuries were narrow in scope and not very diverse, so her job was to “break through those constraints” and be “very transparent”. about systems of taste, systems of collection, systems of patronage, all of which have long since been classified, racialized, gendered.
This mission could have resulted in a preaching exhibition, in which the message would eclipse the art. Yet “Monet to Morisot” is a thoughtful thematic walk through a collection that includes many gems, including Claude Monet’s “The Doge’s Palace” (1908), Pierre Bonnard’s “The Breakfast Room” (circa 1925 ) and “Nude in a Wood” (1906).
Some paintings, like Monet, are irrelevant to 21st century discussions of gender and race. Others are.
Consider, for example, Jean-Léon Gérôme’s “The Carpet Merchant of Cairo” (1869), an oil painting that depicts a carpet merchant in a bustling bazaar in the Egyptian capital.
To return to the “real and imagined” language of the title of the exhibition, the carpet salesman certainly seems to be an invention: his costume, the sumptuous silks and carpets draped over his shoulder, and the robed and veiled figures in the back -plan are figments of the Orientalist painter’s imagination. Yet at the time, European audiences saw them as faithful representations of the Orient.
“Right away you have this sense of distance, of otherness,” Ms. Small said, “this ethnographic look at this type of person who has a different skin color or a different physiognomy, and who lives according to customs so different than our own.'”
Another painting in the collection perceived differently today, the unfinished “Naked Woman Wiping Herself” by Edgar Degas (circa 1884-1886).
Ms Small said Degas would invite models into his studio to pose in a basin he had set up and would ask them “to wash as if they were alone”.
The resulting paintings and pastels were “very naturalistic in terms of how a body would bend and move,” she said. Still, she added, “they have a very voyeuristic quality to them”, especially since the subject is often looking away, and “the gaze is all ours”.
The Brooklyn Museum made headlines in 2020 when it raised nearly $40 million to maintain its collection by disposing of or selling some of its works. The ethics of alienation have been hotly debated; that same year, after a major outcry, the Baltimore Museum of Art canceled the planned sale of three works from its collection.
Ms Pasternak said the Brooklyn Museum had an endowment worth less than $200 million.
Without additional funds, she said, “every time there’s an economic downturn, you run the risk of losing important people who look after the collection, like conservators, art managers ‘art and registrars’.
The works sold in 2020 were “outliers in our collection, or lesser examples of artists’ works”, she said, adding that the museum has a policy of never selling contemporary art from living artists and never to sell major works.
Since those sales, the Brooklyn Museum has added nearly 500 new pieces to its collection, dating from the sixth century to the present day. Most of them, according to the museum, were gifts.
Among them is a 1793 portrait of a countess by Elisabeth Louise Vigée-Lebrun, a late 17th- and early 18th-century French portrait painter who was one of the few female artists of her day to teach her work in art history classes, studied and shown in museums.
Another is “Portrait of a Man of African Descent” (c. 1600), by an unknown artist. In a press release announcing the acquisition, the museum described the work as “a rare and compelling portrait of a yet unidentified black man” that had “none of the typical signifiers of servitude.”
The portrait, the statement said, opened up “inclusive narratives about the presence of blacks in early modern Europe – some who arrived as pilgrims or members of diplomatic suites,” and offset perceptions of southern Europe. seventeenth century as being “an almost exclusively white milieu.”
Ms Small said that after ‘Monet at Morisot’ is withdrawn next year, the next re-exhibition will focus on religious imagery from the Italian Renaissance, but also works from Peru and other Spanish-ruled territories .
Again, she said, the museum would take the opportunity to recontextualize the works — “thinking about art under colonial rule, the violence of that contact” and “the images that emerge from that conquest. religious”.