Recent encounters…

A Brief Visual Examination of Three Exhibition Spaces:

Van Gogh, Vase with Poppies, Wadsworth Atheneum, (Hartford)

Yale Center for British Art, (New Haven)

BFA Thesis Show at The Joseloff Gallery, (University of Hartford)

I. Office Art at the Wadsworth

Photo by the author, (May 9, 2019)

Walking home from lunch in downtown Hartford, Connecticut, I paused to spend a few minutes at the Wadsworth Athenium Museum of Art to observe the “new” painting by Vincent van Gogh, Vase with Poppies (1886).  Set in an opulent frame and mounted on a singular partition wall, the colorful painting commands center attention in the charcoal grey second story Krieble gallery of 19th century French Art.  Alongside the painting’s panel rests a floor sign entitled “A Van Gogh, Without a Doubt,” a sort of freestanding object label that provides explanation of the context of this tableau and why it currently holds a focal spot in this gallery.  For one thing, it’s a Van Gogh – arguably one of the world’s most popular painters today, vying with Da Vinci and Picasso.  This significant yet humble municipal donor museum already has one Van Gogh, a self-portrait (seen in the above photo, far background) in its rich and veritable collection.  Very few comparable institutions can boast of having two Van Gogh paintings, much less one of singular importance in the artist’s evolving career such as this one.  Moreover, this picture represents a transitional period in the painter’s approach to brushwork, and the subject is unique: it’s his only painting of poppies (he painted many self-portraits).  The painting is so unique in Van Gogh’s oeuvre that a few decades ago one researcher “thought [Poppies] to be an imitation, or perhaps an outright fake,” according to the floor sign.  With its authenticity in doubt, the painting was removed from display and carted off to storage – according to the museum’s publications.  Insiders have told of the work being attached to the wall directly over the desk of an unnamed employee for a number of years.  That a painting by Vincent van Gogh could be subjected to years of unregulated environmental conditions (steam from hot coffee!) is unthinkable, certainly unmentionable.  With newfound significance and the pedigreed blessings of the forensic Van Gogh experts in Amsterdam, the Wadsworth has a hot new tourist destination on its hands, a veritable relic for the most devout pilgrims seeking oil-on-canvas enlightenment.  I expected to see a crowd when I arrived this afternoon…

I wasn’t disappointed.  There were nineteen or twenty people hovering around the canvas, eager to get near this new icon of art history.  What was disappointing – indeed disturbing – was the way some people reacted to the painting: several clamored to take photos (with flash), pausing just long enough in front of the painting to take an autofocused picture – and then turn around and leave.  Others got too close to the picture by backing into it for a frontal photo with the Poppies partially obscured behind them (I was quick to admonish one such woman whose corpulent mane of long curly hair had bunched up against the painting’s frame as she came within centimeters of pressing against it).  Others were quick to display all they knew of Van Gogh by debating each and every brushstroke with gestural, oily fingers swiping left and right mere millimeters above the picture surface.  For all the fanfare rightfully expected with this new attraction, the absence of uniformed security was glaringly obvious.  If nothing else, a well-secured stanchion might compel some well-intentioned but ignorantly reckless visitors to stand back and show some hard-earned respect for this masterpiece.  This Van Gogh has already suffered the humiliation of twenty-years’ imprisonment at Office Art Penitentiary; further indignity transpires when such an exemplary tableau is carelessly exploited, publicly mistreated like a traveling circus curiosity of a bygone era.  Such neglect on the part of an upright institution entrusted to nurture a Vincent van Gogh painting is nothing less than a moral shame.

II. Surprising Ambience with British Art

A mere two days following my introduction to the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven (a tour arranged with a University professor) I happened to open The New York Times and find a story about a new museum near Turin, Italy.  I had paused to read the newspaper article following a review of cellphone photographs and mental annotations on my recent experience in New Haven, and this relevant description and comment caught and held my attention:

“The room is lined with dark red paneling and gold-framed mirrors. The 18th-century Italian furniture is opulently rococo. A sentimental late Renoir painting, “Young Woman with Roses,” hangs in front of shelves filled with finely bound bibliographical volumes. There are gilded knickknacks everywhere. To today’s eyes, used to looking at art in bare interiors, the villa of the reclusive Italian collector Francesco Federico Cerruti, which houses his eclectic belongings, makes for an unusual setting. What would the contemporary art world make of it? “I love it. It’s like an installation by an artist,” said Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, director of the Castello di Rivoli Museum of Contemporary Art, standing in the study of the newly restored villa that was owned by Mr. Cerruti. “Artists can’t stand white cubes any more,” she added. “You have to take the aura of the museum away so art can come alive again.”[1]

The idea of presenting artworks in the context of their originally-intended purpose – home décor, in this case – isn’t entirely new, and three examples of fine arts displayed, more or less, as home décor come to mind – one in the United States, two in France – recollections from my own traveled experience: the Frick Collection, in what was the Henry Clay Frick House on the Upper East Side in Manhattan; the Musée Magnin, set in what was the Magnin family home, a 17th-century hôtel particulier in Dijon; and the Musée Cognacq-Jay, a haphazard recreation of the Samaritaine department store dynasty’s home and fine arts collection in the poorly-repurposed Hôtel Donon in Paris (for good reason, apparently, the mere mention of the Cognacq-Jay rarely escapes controversy around Paris even today, such was the controversial publicity associated with this museum’s relocation).  The New York Times article suggests this Italian mansion-museum is anything but haphazard, and the above quoted remark by museum director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev challenges our notion of audience expectations in regards to fine arts: that good paintings belong on bare walls, set eye-level, and glowing under bright examination light luminescence.  The relative sterility of institutional interiors can, indeed, affect the way a viewer sees art: dead, like a dried butterfly pinned to a board.  Artworks in home interiors, on the other hand, are like living butterflies, floating from one flower to another in the visual cacophony of a windswept country garden.  The museum’s aura determines whether the content artworks can breathe.

Nothing says “Welcome!” quite like grey letters on grey walls under a low, unlit grey ceiling; YCBA, New Haven, CT (photo by author, (May 4, 2019)

If you can find your way inside the Yale Center for British Art, the warm interior aura – the result of profuse expanses of cloth and wooden surfaces applied throughout the galleries – emerges from an apparent apprehension of suffocation.  Overbearing cold cast-in-place concrete slabs and lintels (typical of architect Louis Kahn’s frigid brutalist monuments) bear down with a suffocating weight that cheats open spaces of their full impact.  Grey cement cuts the air like a deep breath only half-inhaled.  The abundant interplay of oak and linen paneling works well (and is, in fact, necessary!) to provide a kind of visual respirator.  The result, as a fine art museum interior, falls somewhere between the unsettled visual tension found in a replicated household and the sterile line-item arrangements of a “white cube” museum.  Overall, however, the combination of towering concrete, wood, and fabric recall (appropriately enough) the high beam and tapestry interiors of old English stone castles – if castles could have skylights and temperature control.

III. BFA Thesis Show at The Joseloff Gallery

            Speaking of white cubes: the Joseloff Gallery at the University of Hartford is a stark and bare-bones space with ample light and little architectural appeal – perfectly suited for the Hartford Art School.  The mix of student workshop products from ceramics and paintings to prints and photographs provides a multiplicity of materials for display, an erratic array of styles and themes, and all are presented less as objects to esteem than as outcomes of study and practice for the simple sake of art education. 

No narrative histories or provenances, accession numbers or repatriation concerns here distract from the objects at hand.  Bright white walls and high wattage floodlights provide a suitable (if jarring) backdrop for objects that are on display for examination and occasionally for sale.   It’s a generic space that doesn’t compete with the works on display, as occasionally the art – masterpiece or not – just needs a little room to speak for itself.

– Frank Gordón-Quiroga, University of Hartford

Joseloff Gallery at University of Hartford, West Hartford, CT – photo by author (May 8, 2019)

[1] Reyburn, Scott. “The Secret Art Collection of a Reclusive Italian Tycoon Is Unveiled.” The New York Times, May 6, 2019. Accessed May 6, 2019.

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