Commodification of "Old Masters"

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sun Dec 31 12:25:56 MST 2000

NY Times Book Review, December 31, 2000

Hanging Up the Past

The Ephemeral Museum: Old Master Paintings and the Rise of the Art Exhibition
Yale University Press

The rise of the art museum hinged on the invention of the 'Old Master.'


The social history of art is one orientation among others in the academic
world, but it's actually hard to see what other kind of history art could
have -- it doesn't grow on trees, after all. Yet the idea that studying the
contexts within which artworks are created and appreciated (or not)
detracts from aesthetic engagement with the works themselves is still alive
and well, and nowhere in better health than at museums -- the central
institution bringing history to art lovers today.

One of the many virtues Francis Haskell practiced in his writing, in
addition to elegance and wit, was his sublime disregard of this prejudice.
His first book, ''Patrons and Painters'' (1963), looked at the influence on
Italian Baroque art of the relations between artists and patrons, from
commissioning popes and aristocrats to wealthy collectors buying from
dealers in something like the modern way. Immediately recognized as a
classic, it illustrated with enormous erudition Haskell's later insight:
every aesthetic system ''is inextricably bound up with a whole series of
forces, religious, political, nationalist, economic, intellectual, which
may appear to have only the remotest relation to art, but which may have to
be violently disrupted before any change in perception becomes possible.''

His last book, ''The Ephemeral Museum,'' which he was preparing for
publication when he died earlier this year, develops that thought in a
short but delightful study of ''the many changes introduced . . . to the
ways that we now look at art'' by exhibitions of Old Master paintings. We
take as a staple of museumgoing the blockbuster presentations of masses of
paintings and drawings by great artists of the past. Museums have come to
rely on these exhibitions as crucial attractors of the hordes of art lovers
whose entrance payments and purchases of catalogs, mugs, posters and
refrigerator magnets are now required to hold budget deficits to tolerable
levels. But like museums themselves, Old Master exhibitions have not always

The concept of the Old Master is traceable to late-16th-century Italy, when
the art of what was then seen as an earlier golden age -- the work of
Raphael, Leonardo and Michelangelo, among others -- was assessed as having
a permanent high value. But the term itself only appeared in the late 18th
century, and ''gradually came to embrace all those artists who had lived
before the French Revolution.'' The Old Master exhibition emerged along
with another 18th-century invention, the museum. They share the feature of
bringing together ''in a clearly defined space works of art (often of the
most varied kinds) that had originally been designed to be seen in wholly
different locations,'' and both helped give flesh to the idea that such
varied works are all examples of a thing called art, with its own history
and its own field of expert study. The modesty of Haskell's tone disguises
the import of his subject matter, which, as in his earlier essay ''The
Painful Birth of the Art Book,'' is ultimately the evolving social practice
of art itself.

Haskell's story begins with temporary exhibitions of works by past masters
in Italian churches and moves on to the dealers' galleries and auction
houses in London and Paris that gave connoisseurs opportunities to see
significant groups of pictures after the French Revolution forced
aristocratic collections on the market. The revolution also produced
unintentionally temporary exhibitions: Napoleon displayed masterpieces
looted from churches and palaces in Flanders, Spain and Italy; Waterloo
spelled their return, for the most part, to their owners.

Finally, in 1815, the first true Old Master show in London presented Dutch
and Flemish pictures, beginning a series that generally attracted crowds
and earned profits for their organizers. They became fashionable scenes;
indeed, Haskell tells us, ''No museum has ever been able to attract such
attention to itself until the promotion, within the last two or three
decades, of chic, money-seeking soirees and dinner parties -- and attention
was certainly needed if the Old Master exhibition was to succeed in
competing with what had always been the glamour associated with displays of
contemporary art.'' Though Haskell does not stress the point, it is evident
that his subject here is part of the story of the displacement of
contemporary art as the primary reference for art appreciators by the art
of the past, and so part of the story of the invention of modernism as an
ideology of the contemporary.

Early exhibition organizers were happy to show painted and cast
reproductions of famous paintings and sculptures. On the other hand, the
development of photography, which first made it possible to document an
artist's complete works, suggested the assembly of a representative
selection of originals. What allowed this to happen over time was the
''radical change'' that took place around 1900 ''in the relationship
between private collectors, museums and exhibitions'': not only did
taxation prove more powerful than revolutions in moving art from private
homes into museums, but ''after 1918 . . . museums began to lend pictures
to international exhibitions on a regular basis,'' eventually producing the
shifting global gallery of the present moment.

Whatever the art-historical ambitions for definitiveness of judgment
enshrined in the catalogs and symposiums that accompany these shows, in
real life ''every Old Master exhibition is the result of a series of
unplanned compromises.'' While pictures may be carefully chosen, just as in
war and politics ''developments in taste and scholarship'' are, as in war
and politics, ''subject to accident,'' dependent on the whims of
collectors, the ambitions of local and national governments and the
financial interests of any number of people.

A fascinating example, to which Haskell devotes a chapter, is the
exhibition of Italian masterworks put on in England in 1930, organized by
Ivy, Lady Chamberlain, wife of Sir Austen Chamberlain, the foreign minister
in the Conservative government. Capitalizing on Mussolini's desire to stay
on good terms with the British government, Ivy got him to force Italian
museums and collectors to supply her with such pictures as Botticelli's
''Birth of Venus.'' Today, the pressure to lend pictures, ''which in the
first half of the 20th century was political,'' more often ''comes from the
demands of publicity and finance from within the museums themselves.'' At
all times, it seems, aesthetic questions cannot in practice be separated
from other social interests.

(Paul Mattick, who teaches philosophy at Adelphi University, is completing
a book of essays on modern art)


Excerpt from the first chapter:

The earliest Old Master exhibitions bearing any relationship to what is
implied by that term today were organised in seventeenth-century Rome.
Their primary purpose was ceremonial and, in this respect, they conformed
to the age-old custom of hanging tapestries from the windows of palaces in
order to celebrate a saint's day or the processional entry of some foreign
embassy into the city — for it was always appreciated (as it still is) that
the public display of luxurious possessions is likely to draw attention to
the wealth and nobility of their owners. None the less, the fact that
paintings, rather than the far more obvious symbols of opulence used in
earlier days, now began to be chosen more and more frequently for this
purpose marks a significant milestone in the social history of art.

The pictures lent to these exhibitions by aristocratic or newly rich
collectors were usually placed in the cloisters of churches belonging to
confraternities or to foreign communities living in Rome who wished to
celebrate the name day of their patron saints, and by the end of the
century four regular exhibitions were held each year — in March, July,
August and December — quite apart from a large number of occasional ones
arranged for special events and more casual affairs spontaneously organised
by a particular patron or artist. Young painters, and others recently
arrived in Rome from abroad, were sometimes keen to take advantage of an
opportunity to make a reputation for themselves and attract patronage, but
in general more prominence was given to famous masters of the past, both
because they would indicate the antiquity or wealth of the families lending
them and because, during the second half of the seventeenth and the first
years of the eighteenth centuries, when the exhibitions were at their peak,
it was generally felt that modern art was no longer in as flourishing a
state as it had been earlier in the century — let alone during the lifetime
of Raphael and his contemporaries. In 1668, for instance. it fell to the
Rospigliosi (the family of the reigning Pope Clement IX) to organise a
particularly splendid exhibition in and around the church of S. Giovanni
Decollato, and they decided to exclude all contemporary work. This provoked
the ambitious Salvator Rosa to organise a band of supporters to go around
Rome to ask people, `Have you seen the Titian, the Correggio, the Paolo
Veronese, the Parmigianino, the Carracci, Domenichino, Guido and Signor
Salvatore? Signor Salvatore is not afraid of Titian, of Guido, of Guercino
or anyone else.' The antagonism felt by Rosa for collectors eager to show
off works by deceased artists at the expense of those who were living was
later to be expressed with much greater bitterness by Hogarth and became
particularly acute when Old Master exhibitions began to be established on a
regular basis in early nineteenth-century England.

Louis Proyect
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