Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Monographic Project

I was privileged to be part of a group of about 25 art historians who were invited to the Yale Center for British Art for a closed seminar entitled "The Monographic Project: Exhibition, Text, Museum." The seminar, held on April 17th and 18th and organized by Cassandra Albinson and Imogen Hart, was an exploration of issues and concerns over art historical monographic exhibitions and books. Part of the discussion was defining the monograph, but essentially this topic refers to exhibitions and books that focus on a single artist's work. Historically, this has been associated with an artist's life; however, as was discussed at this seminar, the monographic does not have to be so directly biographical in nature.

The seminar began with a tour of an exhibition currently on display at the Yale University Art Gallery entitled Picasso and the Allure of Language. The tour was given by the curator, Susan Fisher. Its thematic focus was on Pablo Picasso's relationship with various writers, most notably Gertrude Stein, but also related to how Picasso utilized aspects of language in his own works of art. It was an interesting exhibition, with all of the paintings, drawings, and archival materials coming from the collections of Yale museums and libraries. Afterwards, there was a talk given by John Elderfield, Chief Curator Emeritus of Painting and Sculpture at The Museum of Modern Art here in New York City. Elderfield discussed his own personal experience on the many exhibitions he has curated at MOMA over the past 30 years, one of the more recent being Manet and the Execution of Maximilian, which I saw and thought was quite good. Elderfield discussed some of the challenges of mounting monographic exhibitions, in particular those of living artists, and the lessons he learned as a result.

The second day's program was divided into two parts: painting and sculpture. The morning session had three speakers present their takes on ways of doing the monographic book. Gabriele Guercio spoke about the history of art historical monographs in the 19th century, providing a theoretical framework for the seminar that ultimately problematized the idea of what a monograph actually is, that in fact it always has been subject to interpretation by authors over time. Angela Rosenthal from Dartmouth University presented her work on the first woman elected to the Royal Academy, Angelica Kauffman (1741-1807). Rosenthal's book, Angelica Kauffman: Art and Sensibility (Yale, 2006), approaches the artist's allegorical and naturalistic self-portraits in the context of portraiture and women at the time. The image you see here comes from the collections of the Royal Academy. It is an engraving after one of these self-portraits by Kauffman, here representing herself as the allegorical figure of disegno (drawing/design). Richard Wendorf, Director of the Boston Athenaeum, spoke about his work on Sir Joshua Reynolds, highlighting how the objects themselves became less important when compared to the transactional relationships Reynolds had with his clients. Wendorf's take on the monographic, then, relates to cultural and psychological relationships.

After lunch, we shifted to sculpture. Martina Droth, Head of Research at YCBA, gave an introduction to the problem of sculpture in art history, noting for instance its exclusion from most art exhibitions and the dearth of research done on sculptors as compared to painters. Christina Ferando, a doctoral student at Columbia University, spoke about her work on the Neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova. Ferando's monographic take on Canova relates to how his sculpture was exhibited and displayed during his lifetime, and how this connects with perceptions about Canova and his work. Margo Beggs, a doctoral student at the University of Toronto, presented her work on the American sculptor Harriet Hosmer, specifically Hosmer's use of photography to define herself as a sculptor. Finally, Cassandra Albinson herself spoke about her experiences with an upcoming exhibition at the YCBA about the French sculptor Jules Dalou.

The seminar was very interesting. There was plenty of time for discussions, question & answer sessions, and networking. I always find the networking for these types of events to be as equally important as the information itself. Ultimately, I feel that the seminar has helped me consider different ways of working on individual artists. I've encountered criticism from people at times about the kind of monographic work I do, primarily because people assume it's always about biography. I now feel as if I have a better handle on how to respond to these critics, because as we learned the monographic project can be interpreted in many different ways.

The other highlight of this trip to Yale was seeing the YCBA exhibition that closes soon "Endless Forms": Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts. The exhibition celebrates the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species (1859) which altered people's perceptions about the origin of humankind with its ideas of natural selection and survival of the fittest. The exhibition drew on a variety of examples: paintings of geological formations and animals (you've got to love Landseer's paintings of dogs!), photographs of tribal peoples, and examples of taxidermy and fossils that the Victorians collected to study nature and man. It truly was a fascinating exhibition and has gotten excellent reviews. The show is moving to the Fitzwilliam Museum at the University of Cambridge in June, but you can preview the exhibition by going to its (very cool) website by clicking here.

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