​So Long, Serota: Another Art Museum Returns To Reason

With the stepping down of Sir Nicholas Serota, after a thirty-year effort to turn the Tate Gallery from a dull if respectable art museum into a schizophrenic, self-congratulatory fashion brand, the art world has been relieved of one of the most overrated talents to strut upon the world stage since Herodias persuaded her daughter to commit murder through striptease.

Although he was not the first person to implement it, one of Serota’s most influential legacies was the thematic “re-hang”, which was adopted by many collections around the world. This involves the rearranging of works in a museum’s permanent collection to more resemble temporary, thematic exhibitions. The resulting juxtapositions are based not on the chronological and stylistic developments which provide a logical framework for the study of art history, but rather on an attempt to explore idiosyncratic subjects or even personal feelings, often as selected by a particular curator.

To be fair, there are merits in not always sticking to a strictly linear timeline in the display of art, at least in certain circumstances. Historic homes are one instance; temporary exhibitions exploring particular subjects are another. For the most part however, at least before Serota et al, public institutions usually stuck with logically-assembled displays for the works in their permanent collections. Thus, if you visit the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Egyptian art collection is – surprise – displayed in the Egyptian galleries, while the French Impressionists are not.

Like all fads however, the a-historical display of art seems to be headed to the clearance racks. Regular readers will recall that a couple of years back, I reported on how Tate Britain, which was the original nucleus of Serota’s powerbase, rejected his policies and went back to its role as a preserver and educator on the subject of British art history. About a year later, I applauded the new chairman of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts at The Met, who rejected the idea of turning the public art museum into something “mushy”.  

Now the Art Newspaper is reporting that, a little more than a decade after The Getty “Serota-ized” itself, the powerhouse Los Angeles museum is going back to an historically-grounded display of its permanent collection:

The Australian director of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Timothy Potts, proposed the rehang when he was first recruited to lead the Los Angeles institution in 2012. Themed galleries are “fine as a social history of art”, says Potts, who is a specialist in ancient art. But chronology, he says, is “the only way you can understand the direction of stylistic change”.

The Getty’s return to chronology is part of a wider trend in US museums. The National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, reopened its East Building last September with a clear historical narrative of Modern art. In New York, the Museum of Modern Art recently closed a year-long presentation of works from the 1960s, installed by year across nine galleries.

Hopefully even more institutions will be following suit, now that Serota is gone, and the teachings of his disciples have been anathematized by more traditional cultural institutions. I could care less what happens in museums of contemporary art, of course. But it would be nice if the leadership of traditional art institutions such as The Prado, a museum whose re-hang becomes a more painful experience every time I visit, would realize that it is time to abandon the faddish, and return to the serious study and presentation of the works entrusted to their care.

What Lies Beneath: Technology Reveals Hidden Art Treasure

In a study published today in the journal Applied Physics A, scientists have revealed some fascinating discoveries concerning a work by the great Dutch artist Rembrandt von Riijn (1606-1669) – revealing a painting which has not seen the light of day for nearly 400 years.

Art researchers were long aware that underneath The Getty’s portrait, “An Old Man in Military Costume”, painted circa 1630-1631, another portrait existed. The image was first perceived in the 1960’s through x-rays of the panel, but until now only a ghostly idea of the appearance of the original painting was known. Forty years later, using a number of modern imaging techniques, scientists have been able to digitally reconstruct what remains of the original image, which is reproduced below.   

This is not the first time a Rembrandt has been perceived to lie beneath a Rembrandt. If you’ve seen – and if you’ve not, you should – the very interesting Frederick Wiseman documentary, “National Gallery”, about London’s finest art museum, you’ll recall that as a result of cleaning and study of Rembrandt’s equestrian portrait of Frederick Rihel (c. 1663), another painting by Rembrandt was discovered. Not only did the artist re-use the painting itself, but he incorporated a few elements of the first image into the image we see today. Strangely, this was possible even though in doing so, Rembrandt rotated the canvas 90 degrees, from a horizontal to a vertical orientation.

Rembrandt was not the only artist to use old paintings as the base for new ones. In addition to which, museums have been x-raying pictures for decades now, trying to understand their composition and oftentimes determine their authorship, through close examination against known examples by the same artist. Yet because of the possibilities offered by high resolution scanners and the like, more and more researchers are finding themselves having to reconsider what they thought they knew about artists whom they have spent their entire careers studying.

The first point to be made about this, quite naturally, is an easy one: ain’t modern times grand? Technology has advanced to the point where, without invasive techniques, scientists are able to go about their work without irreparably damaging what it is that they are studying. In archaeology for example, until comparatively recently the only way to tell whether anything was inside a tomb was by excavating it. Now, in one of the most intriguing theories in contemporary Egyptology, there is serious discussion about using ground-penetrating radar to determine whether Queen Nefertiti, purported mother of King Tut – i.e., the Pharaoh Tutankhamun  – is buried in a hitherto unknown sealed chamber next to his burial in the Valley of the Kings. This latest theory regarding the final resting place of the most famous of all Egyptian beauties, as it happens, only came to light through the use of modern technological analysis of the tomb, in combination with existing research on architecture of the period.

Now for those who are not particularly interested in art or archaeology, these advancements with regard to perceiving things which we cannot perceive with the naked eye can be of tremendous personal benefit. For example, if you have undergone a sonogram to examine the health of your unborn baby, you know that catching potential problems early can make a tremendous difference in the outcome of your health, as well as that of your child. Not to mention, of course, that you will be able to carry around a photographic still from the sonogram to show family and friends.

For those who *are* interested in the arts however, the use of technology to gain greater insight into the means and methods by which great works of art were created, and ancient buildings constructed, is only going to improve over time. One suspects that more museums and galleries are going to seek analysis of their paintings, to try to figure out what is sitting in front of them, covered by a thin veil of paint. Perhaps it will even be possible, one day, to remove the top layer of paint on a molecular level and transfer it to canvas, and for the curator to suddenly find himself the proud caretaker of not one, but two Old Master paintings.

Admittedly, that might be going a bit far, but who knows? Fifty years ago, no one knew that the Getty Rembrandt was painted over another Rembrandt. It took forty years to be able to “see” that earlier Rembrandt properly. We have no idea what the next forty or fifty years will bring.

image