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: Reinstallation: European 19th- and 20th-Century Galleries Reopen


Lynne Ambrosini



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
If you were one of the people who called the Paintings department this summer, bewildered because you couldn't find a favorite picture in the galleries, take heart. All the 19th-century paintings will be on view again come September 15, 1995, looking better than ever—we think—in their new galleries.Since 1991, the Institute's staff, assisted by architects and designers, has been formulating an ambitious plan to reorganize the museum's interior spaces and collections. The first new galleries, presenting the photography collection and the art of the Americas, opened in stages in March 1992 and November 1994 in the building's West Wing. Next came the second floor of the East Wing; reopened in June 1995, it now houses most of the museum's 20th-century art. Work has continued on that wing during the summer, as the Institute's 19th- and 20th-century European paintings and sculpture have been transported via dollies and carts to their new third-floor location. A public opening on October 1, 1995, will celebrate the East Wing's new look.Changes in these galleries reflect a profound reconsideration of how the building's architecture can best be used to display particular kinds of art. For instance, our oldest European paintings and sculpture have been housed for many years in the modern wing designed by the Japanese architect Kenzo Tange in 1974, while new art has been displayed in the older, classically inspired McKim, Mead, and White building of 1915. With the new installation, the most modern art is, aptly, in the most modern architecture. The result, we expect, will be a greater harmony of container and contents. In early spring of 1996, the Old Masters portion (medieval through 18th century) of the European paintings and sculpture collection will go back on view in the McKim, Mead, and White building.The new installation also represents several years of staff study of how to exhibit art more engagingly. When surveyed, our public has consistently requested more information about art. Consequently, visitors to the new galleries will find more interpretive texts—in the form of succinct wall labels—than before. An introductory panel identifies each gallery by place, date, title, and theme, and extended labels explain about one-quarter to one-third of all individual paintings and sculptures. Our hope is that visitors will encounter each gallery as a mini-exhibition, thereby experiencing greater clarity and coherence.The reinstalled galleries also embody recent ideas in art history. Among them is the concept that objects are more meaningful when studies in the context of their own culture. To help visitors rediscover the original meaning of objects, the new wall texts often discuss the historical and social functions of exhibited works.Similarly, a culture's various media have been integrated in a single gallery whenever possible, in order to provide a context for each other. For instance, the gallery devoted to German and Austrian Expressionism features relevant paintings, sculpture, and decorative-arts objects so viewers can discover interrelationships among them; this would be more difficult if the various media were isolated in separate galleries. In fact, while planning the new installation, the curators were delighted to find intriguing connections we'd never noticed before. For example, Judy Neiswander, associate curator of Decorative Arts, observed that the biomorphic forms of Wendell Castle's Three-Seat Settee are cousins of those in William Baziotes's painting Red Landscape, so we decided to install the two works side by side. The resemblance springs from common artistic sources and goals and the shared tastes of the 1950s and 1960s. In the suite of new galleries, paintings will still predominate, however, reflecting their prominence and numbers in the museum's holdings.Another aspect of the reinstallation reflective of revisionist art history is the new gallery devoted entirely to 19th-century academic art, such as Henri Lehmann's painting Calypso. Talented conservative contemporaries of the Impressionists, academic artists were far more popular in their own time, falling out of favor in the 20th century, when the cult for the avant-garde grew. Like many other museums, the Institute has never before given independent space to the academic painters. But the pendulum of taste has swung back in recent years, and the new installation attests to that reassessment and to a new appreciation of these artists' work.In fact, the opportunity to start over with a veritable blank slate of empty galleries has resulted in a more focused presentation of several other portions of the paintings collection, too. Neoclassical art has its own space for the first time, allowing masterpieces such as Bertel Thorvaldsen's Ganymede and the Eagle and Pierre-Paul Prud'hon's Union of Love and Friendship to be viewed in the same gallery, their classical references reinforced by the adjacent presence of a pair of Italian neoclassical chairs by Palagio Palagi.One gallery is devoted to European Realism, paintings and sculptures created in the 1850s and 1860s that depict contemporary life with relative objectivity. In On the Beach at Trouville of 1864, Eugène Boudin portrayed French rituals of sociability at the resorts on the Normandy coast. Although none of the works in this gallery is new to the Institute, several have been taken out of storage and restored, while others were formerly shown—somewhat out of sequence—with Impressionist art. Seen together, they look excitingly different and evoke a significant historical moment. Much the same could be said of the new gallery dedicated to Symbolism, which showcases a group of intensely subjective paintings and sculptures made between 1890 and 1910.Old favorites continue to receive the affectionate respect they deserve, as is evident in the large gallery, located in a new mezzanine space, that displays the Institute's Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masterpieces. Seen against a lighter wall color and under a mixture of daylight and light cast by new halogen lamps, pictures by such artists as Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne, and Georges Seurat look better than ever. Sculptures of the period are on view both in this space and in the adjacent resting area, which affords a stunning view of the downtown Minneapolis skyline.While renovating the galleries, we also have been busy refurbishing certain dusty or dilapidated items in the collection. Over the past year, conservators have treated 18 paintings and sculptures for the new installation, freeing them of decades of brownish-gray grime and discolored surface coatings. Equally exciting has been the chance to reframe several paintings in ways that enhance their appearance and safety. For example. François-Marius Granet's Choir in the Capuchin Church, Rome, came to the Institute in 1992 in an outsized frame of poor quality. Not only was there a risk of slippage and damage, but the frame also detracted aesthetically from the piece. A new neoclassical frame, commissioned and hand-carved to the museum's specifications by master craftsmen in London, is more appropriate both visually and dimensionally.For a curator, planning and executing the reinstallation have been highly absorbing, from the initial stages of working with the museum director, architects, and designers to locate interior wall colors and writing labels. Perhaps the most engrossing challenge lay in rethinking the overall sequence of galleries—reorganizing the artworks into groupings and subdivisions that would be historically, logically, and aesthetically sound. Virtually the entire museum staff has contributed to this project, and the16 new galleries that open in September mark the culmination of four years of work. We're pleased with the results and hope you will be, too.Lynne Ambrosini is acting curator of the Department of Paintings.Related ImagesThe new German and Austrian Expressionist gallery integrates paintings, sculpture, and decorative arts. Placing contemporaneous works executed in various media side by side in the Institute's reinstalled galleries reveals intriguing visual relationships. William Baziotes
American, 1912-63
Red Landscape, 1957
Oil on canvas
The Julia B. Bigelow FundWendell Castle
American, born 1932
Three-Seat Settee, 1968
Cherry, laminated cherry
Gift of the Decorative Arts CouncilHenri Lehmann
French, 1814-82
Calypso, 1869
Oil on canvas
Gift of Bruce B. DaytonPalagio Palagi
Italian, 1775-1860
Pair of Arm Chairs, about 1835
The John R. Van Derlip Fund
(pictured with previous upholstery) Eugène Boudin
French, 1824-98
On the Beach at Trouville, 1864
Oil on canvas
The William Hood Dunwoody FundPaul Cézanne
French, 1839-1905
Chestnut Trees at Jas de Bouffan, about 1885-87
Oil on canvas
The William Hood Dunwoody FundFrançois-Marius Granet
French, 1775-1849
The Choir in the Capuchin Church, Rome, after 1812
Oil on canvas
The John R. Van Derlip FundThis is how the painting looked in its former frame, which was poorly constructed and too large, allowing for dangerous slippage. Not only does the new frame fit Granet's painting more snugly, but is also enhances the artist's illusionistic effects.
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Source: Lynne Ambrosini, "Reinstallation: European 19th- and 20th-Century Galleries Reopen. Old favorites in new settings encourage visitors to view art from different prespectives," <i>Arts</i> 18, no. 9 (September 1995): 5-7.
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Added to Site: March 10, 2009