Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 18, 2001
Francis Haskell The Ephemeral Museum: Old Master Paintings and the Rise of the Art Exhibition New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999. 208 pp.; 60 b/w ills. Cloth $25.00 (0300085364)

As Francis Haskell reminds us in this meticulously researched book, the idea of a permanent collection of paintings is slowly becoming a thing of the past. The collecting, arranging, and display of art works in museums reflects an increasingly ephemeral experience determined by the needs of museums and galleries to prove their worth in a world of accountability. In a witty introduction, the author reminds us that as jets are ferrying their precious cargo to blockbuster exhibitions throughout the world, curators work like harassed nibelungen to ready paintings for fast-approaching deadlines.

In The Ephemeral Museum: Old Master Paintings and the Rise of the Art Exhibition, Haskell leads an informed guided tour through history, taking in the practice of the display of paintings on feast days, the culturally imperialistic collecting tendencies in the Napoleonic era, and the staging of the first “old master” exhibitions by British institutions. The author reminds us that the concept—although not the term—of the old master originated in Italy near the end of the sixteenth century. It was created to recognize that the High Renaissance era was at an end and that efforts should be made to keep the work of artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael in the country. Thus, the old master concept came to be inseparable from a nationalistic frame of mind that resulted in the championing of various schools on the part of academicians and power brokers. The concept as related to national schools of painting, however, became somewhat problematic when old masters such as Sir Joshua Reynolds were given their own exhibitions. The Reynolds exhibition, held in 1813 on the premises of the British Institution in Pall Mall, resulted in protests in which many refused to lend Reynolds’s paintings on the part of the Royal Academy. Detractors feared that such an exhibition might be perceived as depreciating the efforts of present day artists of the English School. Eventually, Thomas Lawrence prevailed upon the recalcitrant Academy to yield. Still, even that great, lonely genius Turner remained opposed to the idea of the old master exhibition. This example shows that the old master concept did not mesh comfortably with the idea of a national school because the concept was too individualistic and could not be reconciled with the interests of a collective enterprise intent on creating an English school of painting. The contradictions between the old master exhibition and the creation of an English school are evident in Reynolds’s self-portrait (at the Royal Academy of Arts, London) where he posed as Rembrandt standing next to a bust of Michelangelo.

Perhaps it is Rembrandt more than any other painter who reveals the problems associated with the old master exhibition and attendant scholarship. In recent years, the relentless pursuit of authenticity on the part of the Rembrandt Research Project has led to more attention being directed towards the work of his pupils. As Haskell points out when discussing the Rembrandt exhibition mounted in Amsterdam in 1898, the kind of approach that promotes the achievement of one artist is truly out of fashion today; scholars now prefer to concentrate on questions of attribution, chronological development, and esoteric issues such as iconography. The 1898 Rembrandt exhibition is a good test case concerning blockbuster exhibitions: it showed 124 works (insured for £4 million sterling) and was attended by 43,000 visitors. Yet, as Haskell asks, how many of these ‘Rembrandts’ would be accepted as autograph today?

Exhibition scholarship is one of the main bones of contention in this survey, and Haskell has a few axes to grind. His comments about the glossy exhibition catalogues produced for public consumption are particularly apt. One sympathizes totally with the author when he laments the cumbersome oversized catalogues that could hardly be carried around as a person looks at the paintings in an exhibition. More seriously, Haskell argues that presenting the sequence of an artist within the context of an accompanying catalogue is to the detriment of good, thoughtful scholarship; an exhibition, let alone an exhibition catalogue, inevitably presents a distorted view because of oversights and omissions. Would it not be more fitting and more true to the spirit of art-historical scholarship if one produced an incisive and methodical monograph instead of a slickly illustrated brochure? Haskell’s example of Poussin (whose 1994 Paris catalogue, although exemplary in every respect, did not really represent the true state of Poussin scholarship at that time) is salutary. As a Poussin scholar, this reviewer can attest to the truth of Haskell’s comment that in order to arrive at a comprehensive view of contemporary Poussin scholarship, a long and tedious journey through highly specialized journals and articles must be undertaken.

Perhaps Haskell’s comments on today’s gallery directors are a bit unkind, since one can think of inspirational professionals such as Neil Macgregor, a first rate scholar, particularly in the field of seventeenth century French painting, at the National Gallery in London. The author, however, is right to argue that this kind of director is in the minority, and that today’s custodian of the museum is often forced to become something of an entrepreneur that sips sherry at a private view with politicians or appears in front of a television camera on some pseudo-intellectual late-night forum instead of a scholar engrossed in a catalogue raisonné at the library.

Haskell sees the origins of this new type of director in Lady Chamberlain, the wife of the foreign minister in the Conservative government of 1920s England. In his chapter, “Botticelli in the Service of Fascism,” the author shows how Lady Chamberlain’s vision of bringing Italian artworks of the first rank to Britain resulted in 1930 in one of the most extraordinary exhibitions ever mounted; much of the visual Renaissance was transported to England as if to underline the country’s own lack of a Renaissance as far as painting is concerned. The exhibition itself, somewhat optimistically entitled Italian Art 1200-1900, was not a landmark in terms of art-historical scholarship and failed to stimulate interest in the seicento, perhaps because of the perennial problem of omissions. It presented a rather distorted view of the Renaissance itself, with minor artists such as Cosimo Tura eclipsing major ones like Leonardo da Vinci. Indeed, Sir Kenneth Clark—the main compiler of its catalogue and a man who has done much to inspire a large percentage of the present British art history establishment—pronounced it “by a long chalk, the worst catalogue of a great exhibition ever produced” (124), a judgement that might have been influenced by a certain guilt in consorting with fascism (although Haskell states that this is possibly unfair to Clark).

Much of Haskell’s book is retrospective, as Nicholas Penny informs us in his prefatory tribute and explanation of the book’s evolution during the author’s fatal illness. Penny points out that Haskell was re-visiting some of his intellectual and spiritual antecedents, such as the work of Jules Michelet and Johan Huizinga, the latter chiefly known for his book The Waning of the Middle Ages. It is Huizinga’s highly idiosyncratic meditation on the Middle Ages that forms something of a coda to the present book. This part of the chapter called “Enduring Legacies” is the resumption of a theme about which Haskell had written in his History and its Images: Art and the Interpretation of the Past (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), although in that book the idea of cultural history had been considered mainly in the context of a discussion of Jacob Burckhardt’s Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. In The Ephemeral Museum, Haskell deftly ties together the idea of cultural history from his previous survey and the concept of the “old master” from the earlier chapters of the present book. Haskell explains that, against the background of the Flemish “primitive” exhibition of 1902, Huizinga was exceptional in refusing to see images by Jan Van Eyck and his contemporaries as realistic, unlike others who were making comparisons between Van Eyck’s Eve on the Ghent Altarpiece (Church of Saint Bravo, Ghent) and Gustave Courbet’s work. Instead, Huizinga attended to the artificial nature of this realism, preferring to perceive in the transparent glazes of Van Eyck’s paintings what scholars such as Craig Harbison would call the “play of realism.” In fact, this observation is at the heart of Haskell’s synthesis of ideas from previous books and the present one: the fascinating contention that a whole view of a period of history and civilisation could have been derived from the choices of exhibition organisers. One stands behind Huizinga as he views these works—paintings such as Hans Memling’s exquisite Saint Ursula reliquary (Museum of Saint John’s Hospital, Bruges) that, to use Haskell’s words, combines “picturesque architecture with eminently pretty, though slightly gaudy, and awkward figures, engaging in scenes of ceremony and cruelty” (157)—and one understands perfectly Huizinga’s pessimistic reaction to the Middle Ages. Furthermore, Haskell convincingly argues that it was probably this enhancement of the illusionist idea that led Panofsky to construct his own theory of ‘disguised symbolism’ that is debunked today. In spite of Panofsky’s relegation of Huizinga’s observations to the discreet location of his footnotes, one agrees with Haskell’s very judicious comment that Panofsky’s rejection of Van Eyck as a realist painter came indirectly from Huizinga’s visit to the Bruges exhibition in 1902. What we have here is an entire theory of cultural history engendered by a visit to a museum exhibition—an “enduring legacy” indeed.

There is no more telling illustration of the power of Ephemeral Museum to affect the way we see art, and, indeed, civilization. Haskell’s book deserves the highest commendation for its originality and its lucid and measured style. The finest tribute the art-history community can give to Francis Haskell is to make sure that his book is brought to a wider audience.

David Packwood
University of Warwick, United Kingdom