The Museum Talk

The current special exhibition of Carnegie Museum of Art, on one hand, shows the depth of its permanent collection, on the other hand reflects the somewhat disoriented organization of the institution.

The current exhibition, “Masters of American Drawings and Watercolors” features works by Winslow Homer, James McNeil Whistler, Child Hassam, and others. In the present day, museums seldom treat art works in paper with as much weight as oil paintings; yet for Winslow Homer, it is shameful to put those water color works of his Prout’s Neck period (currently part of the special exhibition) into storage. Simply put: no other American artists have ever equaled Homer in water color. And works around Prout’s Neck of Maine coast are particularly unforgettable. The crashing waves convey the same feelings as in those water color works with yellowish skies or faceless figures: a prudish, almost stoic solitude and objectivity of New Englanders.

In the permanent collection galleries, another work by Homer stands alone. “The Wreck” won the medal for the first Carnegie International Exhibition in 1896. It would be much better if it were displayed with ” Watching from the Cliffs” from the special exhibition. They compliment each other and explain what a story Homer is telling: solitude of human beings confronted by the harsh nature, yet restrained in color and sentimentality.

If it is acceptable to separate Homer’s works because of limited display space, then it would be perplexing to find out that William Coventry Wall’s works are displayed in different rooms. Not many museums have the luxury of say the Met to have a room designated for an artist such as John Singer Sargent or to own five works by Vermeer. How to display works from different painters in one room can be tricky, however, the Carnegie Museum of Art is the only one I have seen to strictly display works based on chronology.

I agree with Sister Wendy when she says that art does not get better, it just gets different. Displaying art work chronologically is the most seemingly logic, yet the most unrealistic way if styles and schools are not differentiated.

The effect, from a visitor’s point of view, is that the only thing that is consistent in display is its inconsistency. On one wall, works by Alfred Sisley (typical Impressionism landscape) , Adolphe Bouguereau (” Souvenir“), Frederich Church (a small-scale arctic iceberg painting) and George Hetzel (“Forest Brook” etc.) were packed together just because they were from the same period—all displayed as if they were in a Victorian parlor, stacked like bricks. Viewing these paintings in this manner only provides visitors one notion: art exists in diversity, but how to link them is lost on all but the well-versed art afficianado.

In the Greensburg Museum of American Art or the Butler Museum of Art, both of which are smaller than Carnegie Museum of Art, works are grouped by styles or topics. In the latter museums, landscape paintings of 19 th century are displayed together loosely in a chronological way with focus on Hudson River School painters. It makes sense that in the end there stand a more romanticized work by Thomas Moran, and a soft abstract work of George Inness, both of which paid tribute to earlier Luminism artists.

But in Carnegie Museum of Art, the name of the rooms are usually marked something like “European and American Art from 18** to 18**“. The words “European Art” are just too broad and ambitious to fit into one room. British landscape works by John Constable (the one which is displayed does not do justice to the fame of the artist) and later Benjamin William Leader are different from that from German school saying Caspar David Friedrich who is such an important figure yet not included in the display.

Another interesting observation is that the museum is still having a hard time positioning itself in the balance and breadth of collection, nationalism and depth of local artists. It would be much better to display Scalp Level artists together and show how the detailed style of William Coventry Wall contrasts with his Nephew Alfred Bryan Wall’s more painterly style in his typical sheep paintings. It is also illuminating to show how the beautiful rural nature of Western Pennsylvania area migrates into an industrialization giant, as vividly shown from forest scene by George Hetzel to paintings about notorious fire in Pittsburgh which brought financial success for William Coventry Wall, to Aaron Harry Gorson’s explosive paintings of steel mills at night.

It was when I saw “Panther Hollow” by John Kane that I feel the impulse and urgency that the whole galleries should be re-prioritized and re-arranged. It is true that the images of Panther Hollow did bring a certain intimacy associated with a city that I love more and more each day, yet displaying seven works by John Kane, a local self-taught artist, while archiving works by Winslow Homer is an idea too provincial to be regarded as an honorable tribute to Pittsburgh.

About Hui

Wang Hui lived from 1632 - 1717 and followed in the footprints of his great grandfathers, grandfather, father and uncles and learned painting at a very early age. He was later taught by two contemporary masters, Zhang Ke and Wang Shimin, who taught him to work in the tradition of copying famous Chinese paintings. This is most likely the reason why critics claim that his work is conservative and reflects the Yuan and Song traditions. One critic claimed that "his landscape paintings reflect his nostalgic attachment to classical Chinese aesthetics. Along with the other Wangs, Wang Hui helped to perpetuate the tradition of copying the ancient masters rather than creating original work.

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