Exhibition Design – the 19th Century Galleries

Time of visit: Evening, extended hours. Friday February 1st, 2013.

Entry via Gallery 800, the long hall. This hall is built to impress. I’m not convinced it’s built for this particular exhibit, but it is certainly beautiful. It seems to have been scaled for the sculptures which are strong, beautiful black or white pieces. The paintings on the walls quite literally pale in comparison – many seem faded, with only a few pops of color from the later works. Honestly, only the Joan of Arc and the Salome really stands up to the rest of the room. And the Joan of Arc’s naturalist style looks bizarrely out of place behind the sculptures.
There was no real introduction to this gallery. No main statement. You walk into all these great rough Rodins and then some smoother busts and things in completely different styles. The “Madame X” bust was a funny story (“Hmph! The nose displeases me, throw it away”), one which I wish were in some way highlighted – we’re too used to sculptures that represent ideals, and not really people. When I see a bust of someone’s head I want to know who they were.
I walked from the main hall right into the Monet gallery, which was packed with famous images sitting in the dark. I understand some pigments are light sensitive, but the dim lighting and dark walls made the paintings just seem to sink into the shadows. And the Van Gogh gallery nearby had some faded pieces with fugitive pigment* showed in perfectly good lighting.
Was it a lighting malfunction? I’m not clear why the wall color was chosen because the largest pieces are not complemented by it at all. And there are plenty more Monets in cream-colored rooms with better lighting.

*Regarding the fading of colors – I would love a mini image or augmented reality app that showed an image in the colors it originally had. The Van Gogh flowers would have had a much different impact with their red tones intact.

It must be incredibly difficult to balance a room by theme, painting size, content, artist, symmetry, and then find a color that sets off each image. I have the utmost respect for whoever hung the pieces, as the shape balance in each room was exceptional. But I’m confused about the choices of wall color (Why were some rooms so red? Not all of them had paintings with red tones), lighting, and seating. There was very little seating. I can handle the walking but my parents cannot – they would have stayed in rooms with benches. There was no bench in front of Van Gogh’s “Self Portrait with Straw Hat” which I simply cannot understand.

(There were a few paintings whose inclusion in a particular gallery seemed like odd choices, which I will post later.)

There seemed to be several different designers for different groups of rooms. Some rooms had simple info plaques sitting on the molding below the paintings. Others (apparently the newer ones) had more information mounted on the wall beside their works. Only one, the gallery full of John Wolfe’s collection, had a large overall explanation plaque. It made that room much more interesting to me knowing what paintings were once together, separated, and now united. Or which were commissioned and which were personally motivated by the artist. This is particularly true of the Rousseau “Forest in Winter at Sunset” which on its own is a vast and depressing piece. It means more to me, to know that it was his last great attempt to get something accepted to a Salon, but he died before he could complete it. You can see in the curling tree branches and shadows a bittersweet hope and despair – but perhaps the finished piece would have gotten a brighter, and we would never have seen this mournful undercoat. I thought the goal was the darkness but since it is unfinished (noted only on the plaque) the painting remains a mystery. One I would have completely walked by, but that was one of the few rooms with a bench, so I sat and considered it long enough to read the information.

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