Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Great wall text

Picture: Metropolitan Museum of Art
The latest Tate Britain show is dispensing with long labels so that we can find our own meaning, reports AHN.  Phooey, I say.  We can dispense with art history entirely if it's just about finding our own meaning.  The point of wall text is to help us to look out rather than in, to expand our understanding rather than narrow our vision to our internal thoughts.  One museum that does it really well is the Met.  It's quirky, variable and often brilliant.  Here's the text for the picture above:
De Witte's earliest architectural views, like this one, borrow compositional ideas from his fellow Delft artist Gerard Houckgeest (ca. 1600–1661) but treat the Gothic church interior less in terms of solid forms than of space, light, and mood. In stressing these intangible qualities De Witte suggests a spiritual environment and also anticipates the optical approach of Johannes Vermeer.
This breaks a lot of rules.  That first sentence is long and complicated.  It's heavy with art history - how many casual visitors will even have heard of Houckgeest?  But it's packed with useful, interesting information that helps us understand the painting as an aesthetic object and place it in an art historical context.  It resists the temptation to describe the painting.  The most obvious thing to do would be to draw attention to the urinating dog, and talk about the activities taking place in the church.  But anyone can see that; it's not necessary to state the obvious in wall text.  I can imagine one of the trendier British museums writing something like this:
This church is painted white inside because the Dutch protestants have painted over religious images.  The artist, Emanuel De Witte, specialised in painting churches.  These paintings were bought by the middle classes to hang in their houses.  Churches were social places in the 1700s - we can see lots of people hanging out.  Can you see what the dog is doing?
I'm caricaturing a bit, but you can recognise the simplistic anecdotal style.  Of course this has its place, and one of the nice things about the Met is that it seems capable of speaking to different audiences.  They run great docent tours and the wall text speaks with different voices.  It's a refreshing change from the uniform infantilism in some British galleries. 
The text for the Bronzino Drawings exhibition a few years ago was especially memorable; I noted down some of the text:
This study is among a group of drawings dating about 1545-60 that may be attributed with some confidence to Bronzino but are particularly reminiscent of Pontormo's mature figural style at the time he was working on the frescoes (now destroyed) in San Lornezo, Florence; Bronzino, who assisted Pontormo on the project, completed it upon the master's death in 1557.  Unique to Bronzino are the soft yet palpably defined sculptural quality [...], evident in the rubbed, relieflike interior modeling; polished degree of finish; nervous fineness of outline; stylized roundedness of individual muscles; and greater overall naturalism of anatomical structure and detail.  The technique of regular parallel hatching, not usual for Pontromo, was used throughout. [Agnolo Bronzino Standing Male Nude in Three-Quarter-Length Seen from the Rear c. 1545-60, Uffizi 6589F]
The anatomical modeling recalls that of cat. no. 47 [above], but the rendering is more diffused and impressionistic, with the strokes of the chalk more smoothly rubbed in while the contours are not as hard and fine. Bronzino's tendency was to contain forms within marked outlines and to define sculptural forms while rubbing the chalk strokes of the interior modeling into soft, nearly sfumato effects [...] [Agnolo Bronzino Standing Male Nude in Three-Quarter-Length Seen from the Rear c. 1550-60, Uffizi 6606F]
I think this is just brilliant.   It's well-written, and it flatters the viewer by explaining what is at issue in attributing these drawings.  This kind of text isn't a barrier to looking, it encourages us to look more closely and more carefully.  I can't imagine any major British museum daring to write wall text like that. 

1 comment:

  1. May I recommend the approach taken by the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart. Each visitor receives an iPhone and the appropriate caption appears on its screen when standing in front of a work. You can then burrow in further if wanted. The captions and illustrations are then emailed to your address. There are no captions next to the works.