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Old masters in a new light

Old masters in a new light
19 April 2009 posted by John Wyver

The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts is a glorious building in St Louis designed by Tadao Ando. It mounts exhibitions and promotes research about, mostly, modern and contemporary art, and it also has a half-share in a (very good) blog. The Pulitzer's 'collection' comprises just two recent masterpieces -- Richard Serra's Joe and Blue Black by Ellsworth Kelly -- which at present are sharing the space with an exhibition of Old Masters. Ideal [Dis-] Placements features paintings and drawings from the Harvard Art Museum and the St Louis Art Museum, both institutions in the midst of rebuilding projects. The show has been up since October (and remains in the galleries until 20 June) but it is now accompanied by a fascinating, elegant and in many ways exemplary online catalogue.

The European paintings loaned to the Pulitzer are for the most part not by household names. There's a very fine small canvas by Jean-Baptiste Greuze, The Laundress, c.1761, and a striking Saint Jerome, 1640, by Jusepe de Ribera, but this isn't about assembling a collection of crowd-pleasing masterworks. Ideal [Dis-] Placements is centrally concerned with exploring the conditions of seeing art, the ways in which hanging and juxtapositions and architecture and light shape how we look.

As the directors of the three institutions involved explain in the online Introduction

In his design for the Pulitzer building, Tadao Ando sought to emphasize the effects of ever-changing daylight, which inspired the decision to display paintings in this exhibition without the assistance of electric light. In Ideal [Dis-] Placements: Old Masters at the Pulitzer, the art is presented without the traditional conventions prescribed by today's museums: works are not equally spaced; heights are neither uniform nor predetermined; spotlights do not highlight particular pictures; and there are no interpretive materials on the walls.

One of the most welcome aspects of the exhibition's website is that the reproductions of the artworks feature the paintings and drawings as they are displayed. There's a strong sense in almost all of the images of the works on the walls with the nearby architectural elements also featured. They are also photographed in the natural light in which they are displayed. Although there are times when the clarity and detail of the reproduced artworks are compromised by this, the gains are considerable -- and the approach allows you to understand and enjoy the artworks in an entirely distinctive way.

The organisation of the show online reflects the architecture of the Pulitzer, with each of the galleries highlighted in turn. Images of the individual paintings are accompanied by basic catalogue information and by brief and well-chosen texts about the work's subject and the life of the artist. Curatorial interpretation is eschewed here in favour of elements from a variety of primary sources, including the Gospel According to St Luke, The Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine (from around 1260) and criticism by the nineteenth century writers Edmond and Jules de Goncort.

Sections about two of the galleries feature additional elements. There's a video taking the virtual visitor into the Cube Gallery in which are hung four early Italian works. And in the main gallery there's a timeline of stills taken throughout one day showing the main wall of displayed artworks. These brilliantly demonstrate the effects of changes in light from 7am one day through to 9pm that evening.

Alongside this, there are video introductions to aspects of the exhibition by the curators and two informative text discussions. This is Judith Mann from the St Louis Art Museum

The phenomenon ...[of] art experienced in dark spaces, I would call the slow look. Looking slowly changes everything. This is exactly what is demanded of the viewer in Ideal [Dis-] Placements. When you approach the Entrance Gallery, which can be quite dark, the seventeenth-century paintings emerge slowly, just as they once did in dark Italian side chapels or dimmed Mediterranean interiors.

The paintings we have installed in this gallery are distinguished by stark contrasts of light and dark: these works were made precisely for such an ambience. In the dark, the viewing process is actually set up in sequences, encouraging both eye and imagination to explore, beginning with those elements that are most easily discerned, such as the breast and knee of Potiphar's wife or Mary Magdalene's face. Like the pilgrims who originally came to light a candle in front of these paintings, today's viewers can be deeply affected by allowing the play of light and darkness to guide their viewing.

Needless to say, this show -- perhaps even more than most -- needs to be experienced in the space and light of the real world. But the website offers its own richly involving experience, balancing looking, listening, reading -- and looking again. Do please take a look for yourself.


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