Page 11, 16th March 2001

16th March 2001
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Page 11, 16th March 2001 — Are popular exhibitions damaging art?

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Are popular exhibitions damaging art?

Keywords: Royal Academy

Anthony SyMOridS011 Si reviews a book which argues that permanent collections are being depleted and donors' wishes ignored The Ephemeral Museum: Old Master Paintings and the Rise of the Art Exhibition by Francis Haskell. Yale Univer sity Press £16.95 AsS YOU READ THIS, miles above jets speed through the Ides carrying their freight of Titians and Poussins, Van Dycks and Goyas to destinations unimagined by the artists and their patrons. At no time has the exhibition of Old Masters been so popular, nor have museums and galleries devoted so much space and time to them. Pictures from very far away, or lent from impenetrable private collections. or a comparison between pictures, perhaps the re-assembly of a group of them, offer an irresistible attraction. It may be one's last chance, so one goes.

Francis Haskell, who died in January 2000, was Professor of the History of Art at Oxford University and one of the most original and influential art historians of the 20th century. The Ephemeral Museum is his last book and in it he declares serious doubts that exhibitions — despite the illumination granted to countless visitors all over the civilised world — justify the ceaseless growth of a fashion that ultimately is detrimental to art and scholarship. This is a startling idea that many might ftnd unacceptable and it is only Haskell's distinction, and long experience in organising exhi bitions, that gives it authority.

The earliest Old Master exhibitions grew up in 16th century Rome and Florence in association with feast days. Pictures were lent by nobility and placed in the cloisters of churches belonging to confraternities or to foreign communities living in Rome to celebrate the name day of their patron saints. Further exhibitions were held during the last decades of the 18th century in Paris and London. These celebrated the shrewdness of an art dealer or the victories of a military commander but they did not constitute Old Master exhibitions in themselves. Designed to dazzle or entice the public, they lacked thematic coherence.

In 1805 the British Institution for Promoting the Fine Arts in the United Kingdom was founded in premises in Pall Mall. Visitors to Paris from London during the Peace of Amiens in 1802, when the enrichment of the Louvre with confiscated masterpieces was in its early stages, were impressed by the opportunities it offered to artists and art lovers who wished to study Europe's greatest works of art. The Grand Galerie was intended to constitute a permanent museum but it inspired the English to inaugurate temporary exhibitions of borrowed Old Masters. They were very conscious of the absence of such opportunities at home. It was in the galleries of the British Institution that in 1814 a loan exhibition of Old Flemish andDutch Masters was mounted that introduced to England — and eventually to the world — a radical innovation: the Old Master exhibition.

The exhibition, Art Treasures of the United Kingdom, organised by Sir George Scharff in Manchester in 1857, combined German scholarship with connoisseurship. It attracted over a million visitors. In its arrangement it reflected and stimulated some of the major themes of art history: the comparison between schools, the rise and decline of styles and the discovery of techniques. In Germany, an exhibition of Holbein held in Dresden in 1871 brought together the two versions of his celebrated Meyer Madonna and marked a landmark in attributionism. That led to the recognition of a disputed version belonging to the Duke of Hesse as the origlila].

Documentation appeared in the exhibition of Farrarese painting of the Italian Renaissance, mounted in 1894 by the Burlington Fine Arts Club, where 250 specially commissioned photographs were chronologically displayed to deepen an understanding of the pictures hanging on the walls. This reinforced an earlier German challenge to discredit the bland, over optimistic, owner-dictated attributions that were obvious in the spectacular Old Master exhibitions held at the Royal Academy.

An entirely different tendency entered at the end of the 19th century, when European nations sought the roots of their own culture and were inspired by heroic periods in the national history and mythology. Old Masters flaunted national prestige. It was in Amsterdam in 1900 that the "block-buster" was born in an internationally assembled exhibition of Rembrandt to mark the inauguration by Queen WitheImina of The Netherlands. This was followed in 1902 by the exhibition of Flemish primitives in Bruges, followed in the same year in Siena by the most important Old Master exhibition that had yet been seen anywhere in Italy, which exalted the Sienese school.

After the Great War many exhibitions of strong national character were exported to another country. Botticelli was put in the service of Fascism in the staggering exhibition of Italian art mounted at the Royal Academy in 1930. With 600 paintings on view, the show itself was the highlight of the art world in Britain, and one of the finest exhibitions ever held. Attendance broke all Academy records: 538,000 visitors in just over two months. Yet, despite so much trouble, expense and risk, Mussolini's motive for supporting the exhibition was political: the promotion of Italiartita, propaganda and the gain of diplomatic advantage.

0 LD MASTER exhibitions beget Old Master exhibitions. No one could have predicted the change that took place in the second half of the 20th century, when the museums and galleries of the world came to organise or host loan exhibitions. Donors' wishes are flouted, institutions find it difficult to refuse to lend, permanent collections are depleted, the cataloguing of collections is deflected into writing hasty and cumbersome catalogues, works of art are damaged, distortion is encouraged by restricted borrowing, vested interest in the form of private loans and corporate sponsorship stifles critical judgement. This matters. Read this absorbing and persuasive book to discover why.

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