Landscapes of France: Impressionism and its Rivals 1995
Impressions of France: Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, and their Rivals October 4, 1995 to January 14, 1996.
Claude Monet 1840––1926
Monet to Matisse: Landscape Painting in France 1874––1914
Floating on the sea of memory is an anecdote about a young artist—I think it was Géricault—whose teacher told him that his paintings resembled nature the way a violin case resembles a violin. So, too, an exhibition of paintings and its catalog are related in much the same way as a violin case and a violin. To the extent that a catalog molds an exhibition, it is like a violin case, and because viewing an exhibition is a temporal and mostly visual experience, it can be likened to a musical performance, temporal and mostly auditory. There is some resemblance in the shapes of exhibition and catalog, but one cannot substitute for the other. Sometimes the case is more elaborate than the instrument.
Since the 1950s, catalogs of major exhibitions have steadily grown in size and are now lavishly illustrated, with literally weighty texts. 1 They are marketed as books by trade publishers, and the shops in large museums have become major bookstores in their own right. Catalogs can therefore be considered art books as well as complementing the exhibitions they accompany. I shall discuss the three catalogs under review somewhat differently since I visited the London and Chicago shows and can comment on their installations, but I did not see the one in Edinburgh and will have to treat its catalog primarily as a container or case.
Chicago’s Claude Monet is a celebratory presentation of the most popular of the Impressionists (he is given more room in the London and Edinburgh shows than Cézanne or any other of his peers).2 Charles Stuckey, the Art Institute’s curator of twentieth-century painting and sculpture, apparently believes the value of Monet’s landscapes to be self-evident. Except for a scattered sentence or two, no commentary accompanies the excellent color plates of the 159 exhibited works. Stuckey precedes the plates with a short introduction and follows them with a chronology of seventy-two pages, embellished with photographs of Monet’s family and his estate at Giverny and many reproductions of his paintings, plus a few by other artists.3 Such a skeletal “life” is evidently intended to provide the means by which one may interpret the reproductions, not the paintings, for it is too unwieldly to consult while visiting the exhibition itself.
Of the three catalogs, Stuckey’s is the most like a violin case, in making no attempt to match the elegance of the performance it shelters. Once the visitor has passed through the forbidding marble mausoleum that fronts Michigan Avenue, however, he comes upon Stuckey’s installation with intense pleasure. Instead of the neoclasical room dividers that have been a museum vogue recently, we find plain walls that do not call attention to themselves, including portable walls that sometimes rearrange the spaces to suit chronological and visual groupings. Most rooms have one or two large wall texts that present informative commentaries on the artist’s life and work, the kind of annotation that Stuckey’s catalog lacks. Referring to Monet’s paintings of the cliffs of Etretat (1883–1886),…
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