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The exhibition Déjà Vu? Revealing Repetition in French Masterpieces at the Walters Art Museum challenges many of the assumptions that both scholars and the general public have about the importance of the original in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century French art. Beginning with Jacques-Louis David and ending with Henri Matisse, the exhibition investigates the variety of ways that artists engaged in the act of replicating their works of art. From studio copies, to prints for commercial distribution, to variations on a theme, numerous types of repetition are brought to the fore in order to unsettle convictions about originality. In so doing, the exhibition reveals the extent to which repetition was both an accepted fact of nineteenth-century art and, as it became the predominant means of production in early twentieth-century modernism, the driving force behind contemporary anxiety over questions of originality and authenticity.
Exhibition curator Eik Kahng, Curator of Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Art at the Walters Art Museum, has made use of what some would consider the lesser important works in the museum’s collection—such as copies and replicas of master works—to build a smart, challenging exhibition that offers innovative scholarship on major concerns of the academic world and useful new conservation research on the status of some of these objects. The catalogue, The Repeating Image: Multiples in French Painting from David to Matisse, has essays by a number of important scholars of nineteenth- and twentieth-century art history, including Stephen Bann, Simon Kelly, Richard Shiff, Charles Stuckey, Jeffrey Weiss, and the curator herself. Though the catalogue is not the focus of this review, it should be noted that it successfully builds upon many of the discoveries and questions posed by the exhibition (from research that belongs to the more traditional realm of connoisseurship to more theoretical investigations of repetition as artistic motivation).
In the entry vestibule, the exhibition quickly establishes its parameters with two different types of repetition. One is an unidentified, seventeenth-century copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (ca. 1503–05), a work that offers the example of copying as a form of emulation—the long-held academic tradition of a younger artist copying the work of a more established master in order to study his technique. On the adjacent wall is the other, a short video montage of the various forms of commercial appropriation that the Mona Lisa has undergone in the twentieth century.
Once the viewer turns the corner into the first room, she or he enters into the heart of the show, and is confronted by four large studio copies of Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Marat (1793). Although scholars debate the authorship of these replicas, they are remarkably beautiful examples of David’s Neoclassical realism. But despite their almost palpable presence, one is also immediately aware that the original work is missing. A video installation shows the prime version in situ in the Royal Museums of Brussels. The murmur of the visitors in the museum in Brussels, recorded on the video and projected into the Walters galleries by speakers, disturbs the act of viewing, making the absence of the original all too evident. In the presence of the studio replicas, it also serves to remind the viewer of the context of the museum, and how the institution itself promotes the notion of an original masterwork.
If the replicas of David’s picture appear to have been made for commercial or propagandistic purposes, three versions of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s Oedipus and the Sphinx offer an alternative form of repetition, something more personal. The prime version of the mythological subject dates from 1808 and was intended as a reception piece at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, though Ingres later reworked it for the Salon of 1827. A smaller second version, possibly made around 1826, may have been intended as an aid for the 1827 reworking of the first. Lastly, a small third version, completed in 1864, reverses the direction of the figures, so that Oedipus is on the left rather than the right, and the Sphinx turns to the viewer with her eyes open in surprise, rather than contemplating the questioner. Scholars believe that the third picture depicts the moment after Oedipus solved the riddle rather than the moment before, as is the case in the earlier works. This third version, completed over fifty years after the first version, has an element of personal allegory, and, as Stephen Bann suggests in the catalogue, may have been made late in the artist’s life as a comment on his own artistic triumphs.
With the example of Claude Monet’s Grainstack (1890–91) paintings (three are on view along with two of the Rouen Cathedral [ca. 1894] series), the exhibition makes a turn into a slightly different kind of repetition; the more modern concept of a series, where each work is essentially an original, begins to replace the earlier easy acceptance of a more exact copy or replica. The Impressionist series is often considered a result of the artist’s desire to record the ever-changing details of artistic perception, but, in the context of the exhibition, other concerns such as the market and a related emphasis on originality are revealed to be important factors in the development of the series.
The show continues with examples of series from Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas—whose paintings, sculpture, and etchings may have been influenced by the stop-action photography of Eadweard Muybridge—and ends with Henri Matisse’s use of photography to record the various stages of a single work. Eleven artists in all are represented in the exhibition, and although many others would have served similar purposes (Edouard Manet would have fit well into the group here), these artists are well chosen—the shock of six versions of Eugène Delacroix’s Christ on the Sea of Galilee (1840–54) only serves to better emphasize the ease with which replication was enacted in the nineteenth century, in this case by the master of authentic Romantic touch and color.
Part of a welcome trend of integrating art-historical scholarship with conservation practices, the exhibition makes excellent use of techniques such as x-rays, observation by conservators, recent cleaning, and examination under ultraviolet light to direct the visitor to specific aspects of an artist’s technique. Instead of being hidden away in the catalogue as is often the case, the findings are cogently explained and illustrated in the accompanying wall text, allowing the visitor a more complex view of the nature of art-historical research.
The exhibition also makes use of some of the latest developments in museum technology and education practice to guide the viewer through the show. But this is one aspect of the exhibition, albeit a minor one, that did not always work well. Along with the two videos (Death of Marat and Mona Lisa) and a variety of museum text panels, which included extensive explanations of concepts, artist’s biographies, and conservation research, there were interactive laminated cards in pockets on the wall, stations with cell phone tours (poor reception, however, rendered cell phone use nearly impossible), iPods, interactive computer stations where a visitor could electronically hang and frame thirteen digital reproductions of Monet’s Grainstacks (which were then projected on a screen on the gallery wall), and, finally, rather charming and low-tech little “Magic Slate” pads below Degas’s series of etchings Leaving the Bath (1879–80), so visitors could make their own copies of the works.
In the end, a visitor (or at least this visitor) goes to an exhibition about paintings to escape technology, and though it was meant to complement the looking and to emphasize the differences in the serial nature of many of these works, it was too much. The works themselves, many of which clearly revealed the influences of historical forms of new technology (the explosion of printmaking and photography, for example) were enough to make the point of this excellent show on their own.
Karen K. Butler
Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow, The Barnes Foundation, Merion, Pennsylvania
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