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Thursday, February 28, 2013

Travels to DC and Williamsburg: Friday

For the past four years (and really at the suggestion of Amelia Peck), I have been taking the students to the Williamsburg Antique Forum in order that they might get a sense of the field, hear about recent developments in scholarship, and expand their networks by interacting with collectors, other students, and professionals.  This year we made a quick stop in Washington DC on the way there--this breaks up the train ride, allows us a chance to see major pieces in collections, and makes the budget go a bit further so that we can include more travel in the program.  Some of you may have noticed that I have been posting less about the earlier trips this year; I admit this is true.  Frankly, it seemed a bit strange to essentially tell the same stories of who we met, what we saw, and where we went.  Since the principal differences would have been names and images of students, I trust those interested will scroll back through the posts to get a sense of what we do en route to Boston, Charleston, and Delaware.

That being said, one of the great things about the Antiques Forum is that it changes each year.  It presents a roster of experts in the field, a glimpse into an exceptional collection, and gives the students a chance to have extended discussions with peers, colleagues, and each other.  Perhaps more than any other field study we do, Williamsburg allows the students to break out of the insular nature of the program (and the travel we do) and make connections, learn both formally and informally, and discuss their own work.  As always, I remain grateful for those colleagues and friends whose generosity to the students and willingness to engage with them makes this an exceptional opportunity.   In particular I'd like to mention Ron Bourgeault of Northeast Auctions, Brandy Culp of Historic Charleston, Robert Leath and Daniel Ackerman of MESDA, Tom Savage of Winterthur, Nick Vincent from the Met, Alexandra Kirtley from the PMA, and Ralph Harvard.

I should mention too that DC changes too, and we were fortunate to have a chance to see the Renwick Gallery, The Corcoran, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum on Friday.  The Renwick is a jewel and if you haven't been recently, I'd suggest going soon.  I'd suggest planning your visit to coincide with the exhibition Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color (it runs from April 12 through July 28, 2013).  The strength of the collection is the survey of craft it presents and the opportunity to teach students in front of the objects.  My only complaint is that with so much strong work in the collection, there is more I want to see.  If it were up to me (and I admit that few things are), I would remove all of the paintings and get more of the collection on view.  That being said, there are pieces not to be missed, and Kim Schmahmann's Bureau of Bureaucracy (1993-9) is high on my list.

While a few students found the accompanying video explanation of the work a bit tedious, everyone marveled at his craftsmanship and I think related to the object because that sense of craft, the elegance of line, and the joy one takes in seeing something well made are qualities that transcend specific eras.  Having learned to admire and appreciate the craftsmanship of a Townsend-Goddard high chest, or the carving of a Philadelphia chair it gives a whole new lens through which to understand Schmahmann's work.  In my mind the quotations and layers of historical references in the choice of materials and forms         (not the narrative elements introduced) provide richer connections that enhance and complicate the narrative in significant ways.  The piece requires time and multiple engagements--it is richly layered, complicated, and retains an elusive subtlety that churns below the overtly didactic elements.  

From there we made our way to lunch, then the Corcoran Gallery.  I love the Corcoran and stop in every time I am in Washington in order to see Church's masterpiece--Niagara.  Unfortunately--for me, but likely not for the painting--Niagara is undergoing conservation and was not on view.  The frame, however, remains in place, and while it is a beautiful frame, its presence seems only to underscore the absence of the painting.  The gallery without Niagara undoubtedly will present a void for visitors, but the frame seems to emphasize this void, calling attention to what the gallery is missing and distracting from the other pieces in the gallery.  I took no pictures while I was there this time--I think the missing Niagara unsettled and unfocused me--but soon we were on our way over to the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Yes, we did stop in front of the White House and take a picture.  There's a certain sentimentality which overtakes the group as we head into second semester, and perhaps this explains the desire for pictures.  For me, I like to have good pictures of what I see, and to me that always suffices to remind me of the trip and experience.  Perhaps that's the result of often traveling alone?  Enough about my habits of remembrance and memorial, I'll get back to the art.

At the Smithsonian American Art Museum, we saw the exhibition titled the Civil War and American Art, an exhibition whose images I like very much, but whose narratives and catalog I have some issues with.  First, the exhibition presents a narrow view of American Art which seems to have excluded sculpture for the most part, ignores portraiture (which causes problems I'll address later on), and seems to gloss over some of the interesting points of disagreement within the field.  In addition, I couldn't help but think that rather than expand and explore the discourse about the war--about remembrance, and about the manner in which the south's defeat led to some very disturbing and still relevant attitudes that continue to permeate scholarship in the fine and decorative arts--the exhibition avoided them.  It presented a victor's view of the war and missed a great opportunity to challenge persistent notions and to demonstrate why exhibitions, art history, and scholarship is about more than just pictures, that it allows us to broaden discussions and has increasing relevance to everyone.

I love Martin Johnson Heade, and I particularly like seeing his Approaching Thunderstorm, but I’m not entirely convinced that it necessarily had a lot to do with the Civil War either for him, for the audience, or for Noah Hunt Schenck who owned it.  I do think that the persistence of the Thunderstorm throughout his oeuvre—almost to his death—raises serious questions about the viability of this interpretation proposed in Sara Cash’s excellent catalog, as Barbara Novak and John Updike have noted.  Although it didn’t surprise me that people continue to agree with Cash’s argument, I was kind of stunned that nowhere in the text or notes was there any sense that this was an issue with more than one side.  The presentation of this view as a fact rather than one side of a complex issue oversimplifies the issue and missed the opportunity to present these sides to a broader audience and public.

I found the exhibition's and catalog's use of photography to be problematic as well.  Despite highlighting the fact that photographers wanted to be treated the same as artists during the period, the catalog and exhibit separated the photographers and treated them differently. In addition, the focus on Brady, O'Sullivan, Gardener, and Barnard at the expense of Cook and other Southern photographers reinforced the northern bias of the show.  I thought too that the discussion of Barnard's images of Charleston deserved more attention--although presented as destruction caused by the war, certainly there are parts of images that document the destruction caused by the fire of December 1861. It would have been useful to explore how the conflation of these incidents impacted understanding of the war or reception of these images.

The decision not to include portraiture in the exhibit missed an opportunity to explore the imagery created in the South to create its own history and reinforced the northern bias of the works and artists presented.  GPA Healy's portrait of Beauregard would have been a useful inclusion here as it was a northern, Boston born painter working in the South.  At the end of the day, I found myself glad to see the images in person, yet left feeling (as I had after reading the catalog) that there were missed opportunities to expand the discourse about the war, art, and American culture.

The delight for me was seeing a room of Victorian collages like the one seen above.  I don't recall seeing them before and they're strange, delightful, and visually appealing.  I tried to convince one of my students that this could be a thesis--exploring the sources for these, thinking about the visual strategies employed, and the use of different materials.  I may the only one convinced that this is a great topic, but I'll keep you posted.  

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