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Thought-provoking and intriguing, The Darker Side of Light: Arts of Privacy, 1850–1900, seen by this reviewer at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, is the kind of exhibition museums should organize more often. It is primarily a works-on-paper show, featuring around one hundred prints, three drawings, four illustrated books, and ten sculptures. Including objects made during the last half of the nineteenth century, this display presents a broad range of artists: the French Rodolphe Bresdin, the Belgian James Ensor, the Swedish Anders Zorn, and the German Käthe Kollwitz to name only a few. Although this show proves the stereotype wrong, “print exhibitions” tend to have a bad reputation. Their customary focus on a single artist’s oeuvre or arcane connoisseurial concerns is a stereotype that no longer holds true. Now more than ever, print, drawing, and photography shows deal with issues at the forefront of critical scholarly and curatorial engagement. As The Darker Side of Light demonstrates, when curators dig into rich collections such as those at the National Gallery, even seemingly well-trodden fields such as late nineteenth-century visual culture can be presented in startlingly novel ways.
As Peter Parshall, the National Gallery’s Curator of Old Master Prints and organizing curator of the exhibition, states in the introductory wall panel: “For most, the art of the late nineteenth century means impressionism, an art of the open air and the café-concert, evoking the pleasures of the landscape and the radiance of Paris, city of light. But there is a less familiar side to the story—a realm of sober contemplation, of recherché, sometimes enigmatic and often melancholy subjects that explore an altogether different dimension of experience.” Not just a display for experts—but wonderfully challenging for them—this exhibition considers unusual kinds of printed imagery and their patterns of acquisition as opposed to a particular artist, medium, or zeitgeist. It is the subject matter of the tenebrous, the disturbing, and the erotic rather than the printmaking processes that makes the show so appealing.
The Darker Side of Light is as much about the history of collecting as it is about the breadth of eerie, contemplative imagery it features. Quoting Parshall’s introductory panel again: “Art of this kind was made for collectors who kept their prints and drawings stored away, compiled in albums and portfolios. . . . These works of art were not an evident part of one’s day-to-day environment, like a picture on the parlor wall. Rather, they were subject to more purposeful study on chosen occasions, much like taking a book down from the shelf for quiet enjoyment.” Given the discreet, even hidden, nature of these objects as described here, many of them incorporate disturbing, macabre, and sexually suggestive subjects, ones not allied with any particular stylistic designation. And so, rather than focusing on a single movement or national origin such as the “Belgian Symbolist Print,” the “French Impressionist Print,” “French Realist Print,” or “The British Etching Revival,” Parshall mixes up the genres, nationalities, and styles, just as late nineteenth-century collectors would have done.
In one room, there are works by Besnard, Rodolphe Bresdin, Ensor, Eugène Grasset, Max Klinger, Kollwitz, Édouard Manet, Edvard Munch, Alfred Rethel, Odilon Redon, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Adolphe Léon Willette. Despite their chronological and national variety (French, Belgian, and German, dating from 1849 to 1903), the works produced by these artists are not as far apart from one another as one might first imagine. Instead of marching to the canonical, developmental drumbeat of Realism, Impressionism, and Symbolism, this exhibition offers a synthetic view of the period from a wide range of styles, crossing over a broad compass of geographic boundaries. This is not only a refreshing approach but an accurate one. If we consider the wide spectrum of prints and drawings shown at the London, Paris, and Berlin variants of the “Black and White” exhibitions popular during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, many of these artists exhibited together. Moreover, their works were shown by the same dealers, and therefore collected at the same moment. This practice of transnational display and sale argues against the private function indicated in the exhibition’s title. While it is a captivating point of reference for a show, the international exposure and currency many of these works enjoyed was far from discreet.
The exhibition totals over one hundred and fifteen works, displayed in three galleries according to eight themes. The thematic subdivisions move from the natural, largely visible world through dream states to murder; thus the show contains its own internal narrative denouement from life to death. The subsections and artists featured therein include the following: The City (Meryon), Creatures (Jacque), Nature (Appian), Obsession (Zorn), Reverie (Cassatt), Abjection (Toulouse-Lautrec), Violence (Redon), and Death (Manet). These subsections are open enough to be non-constrictive and embracing enough to unify diversity. But at the National Gallery the art was too tightly hung in the space allotted, allowing insufficient room to breathe. While this installation strategy does lend an air of claustrophobia appropriate to the subject matter, suggesting the cluttered décor favored during the Victorian era, less is sometimes more.
The didactics were minimal and for the most part non-interpretive. Beyond basic object information, the labels included translations of non-English inscriptions, passages from the illustrative project to which a particular work is connected, or quotes from contemporary authors or cultural commentators such as Charles Baudelaire and Gustave Flaubert. For example, the Félicien Rops print Satan Sowing Tares over Paris from the series Sataniques (ca. 1882/83) was accompanied by a passage from Matthew (13:37–39) whose parable the print modernizes. The exceptions to this rule of thumb occurred when the artist is virtually unknown, such as the delightfully enigmatic Emmanuel Phélippes-Beaulieux, or when the subject of a work of art is somewhat abstruse, such as Toulouse-Lautrec’s color lithograph Le Tocsin (1895). This light hand on the wall texts successfully allowed the visitor to draw her or his own visual connections.
Given the general focus on sexual allure and social deviancy—a Washington Post critic called the show “wonderfully perverse,” awarding it an R rating—Besnard and Klinger emerged as the stars of the show both numerically and in the intense power of their imagery. Klinger was among the most popular printmakers of his day in Germany and was credited with precipitating the etching revival that flowered in Berlin during the 1880s and 1890s. In part due to his tightly rendered, one could say Realist, facture and overt narrative sensibility, Klinger’s work was largely forgotten when Expressionism’s raw, spiritual urgency gained favor. Besnard, like Klinger, was attracted to the plight of women and exhibited within both academic and vanguard circles. As well, the quality of Besnard and Klinger impressions is universally high, which is not the case with the Munch and Kollwitz intaglios (excepting her powerful 1903 Woman with a Dead Child). There can be vast differences between early and late Kollwitz, Klinger, and Munch intaglio impressions. Due to their popularity, the latter two artists sometimes steel-faced their plates after the early prints were pulled so as to maximize print runs. As a result, the later impressions lose much of their chromatic subtlety, spatial relation, and pure printed wonder. And, in the exhibition, these lesser impressions were all the more distracting when seen in proximity to particularly fine ones such as Eugène Carrière’s transcendent lithograph Sleep (1897).
Although artists like Degas, Kollwitz, Manet, Munch, and Toulouse-Lautrec are familiar to the general public, the focus on lesser-known figures was most welcome. Among the more obscure but virtuosic graphic artists in the show were Adolphe Appian, Félix Bracquemond, François Nicolas Chifflart, Eugène Grasset, Adolphe Martial Potémont, and Karl Stauffer-Bern. Their presence in many ways amplifies and expands the received vocabulary of nineteenth-century visual culture. We may know Degas’s brothels, Manet’s absinthe drinkers, and Munch’s vampires, but how many of us can visualize Besnard’s morphine addicts, Grasset’s acid thrower, or Chifflart’s flying spirits of cholera? When moved past the dance halls, Parisian views, and prototypical femmes fatales, both historians and the general public can experience a more complex and messily nuanced nineteenth century.
While the exhibition catalogue is clear and informative on the methodological basis for including small sculpture, the presence of these three-dimensional works in cases and on pedestals was somewhat distracting in relation to the broader context of hidden, bookish contemplation. Parshall united two- and three-dimensional objects in the introductory panel, arguing that, like those who acquired prints and drawings, collectors “mounted bronze medals in cabinets, placed a statuette on a table in a corner or set it above the shelves in the stillness of the library.” But their placement in visible cabinets, on tables, or stands precluded the essential notion of an art of privacy, one that is necessarily secluded. Particularly out of place in this regard, if still hauntingly beautiful and arresting, was the Rodin sculpture Figure of a Woman (The Sphinx) (model early 1880s, carved 1909) that greeted the visitor in the first gallery. It fit squarely into the exhibition’s undertone of the unnerving and alluring but was too large to have functioned as a modestly scaled art of privacy. Perhaps because of its outlier status, the sculpture will only be included in the Washington venue.
The intellectual impetus behind this exhibition aims to build bridges between academia and museums, a path often unnecessarily long and contested for those on both sides to traverse. As Parshall argues in the exhibition catalogue’s acknowledgements: “increased collaboration between museums and the academy is the single most promising development in art-historical scholarship over the past generation, and a maturing relationship that has contributed substantially to our mutual vitality and the enrichment of the discipline” (ix). A former professor himself, Parshall speaks to this engagement personally and has successfully fortified the aforementioned bridges in earlier exhibitions and publications. The catalogue contains essays by two museum professionals (Parshall and Nicolas Penny) and two academics (S. Hollis Clayson and Christiane Hertel), thus furthering his stated aims.
Another feature of the show was its focus on the National Gallery’s collection. About ninety percent of the works in the exhibition came from its holdings. Exhibitions that focus on the permanent collection are sometimes seen as second-class citizens, but, given the current economic climate, they have become necessities. Numerous journalists and bloggers have addressed this trend with varying degrees of disdain over the past twelve months. The Darker Side of Light was conceived primarily as a permanent collection exhibition (with a few keys loans) before the crisis hit. Parshall began researching the project in 2006, long before this fiscally necessitated trend came into view. Nonetheless, many curators, Parshall among them, find working on the permanent collection extremely satisfying and productive, allowing them to further research and plumb the collections under their care. Of course permanent collection shows are not recent phenomena and have a particularly distinguished history at the National Gallery. Despite their rewards, there are of course downsides to permanent collection displays. They often are not supported with publications and frequently are not advertised as thoroughly as loan shows, mostly due to a lack of funds directed at them. This is happily not the case with The Darker Side of Light, which comes with a substantial scholarly catalogue and a handsome banner on the exterior of the building. Given the disastrous effects the economy has wreaked on museum endowments and corporate sponsorship, we will be encountering many more such efforts. It will be interesting to see whether they are as rewarding and well thought-out as this one.
Enticing and interesting to the general visitor for its imagery and the window these works open onto commercial and acquisitive patterns of the past, The Darker Side of Light also allows the nineteenth-century expert to rethink connections between artists throughout Europe during the second half of the nineteenth century. The very best kind of exhibition, it has many levels for different sorts of visitors. Fortunately, for College Art Association conference attendees, the third venue of the show will be at the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum during the February 2010 proceedings.
Jay A. Clarke
Manton Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute and Lecturer, Williams College Graduate Program in the History of Art
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