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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Early Art Museums

Designed to be impressive, visitors to London's ancient British Museum
today might also find it intimidating.
When we visit art museums today, we step into a cool, clean, uncluttered world of spacious, refined, good taste, near-perfect lighting, and various printed or audio-visual educational enhancements designed to further heighten our aesthetic art encounter. Seldom, if ever, do we stop to realise that our present museum experience dates back only about two hundred years. Two of the earliest museums, the Louvre (1793) and the British National Gallery (1824) are thus both relatively recent (in terms of art history) developments. Before that, fine art was largely the domain of the titled aristocracy and royalty. But as democracy dawned in the western world, art also became democratic. I wrote some time ago about the descent of history painting from its once lofty height in favour of paintings depicting everyday life (genre). This development was one of the direct consequences of the democratization of art. And of course, another was the art museum.

The Gallery of Cornelis van der Geest, 1628, Willem van Haecht, (here depicting a private
collection); it wasn't until the early 20th century that art museums took on the spacious, uncluttered look we know today.
Believe it or not, there were those in London in 1824 who didn't think a national art museum was such a good idea. One was the noted English landscape painter, John Constable. Though a direct beneficiary of the rise in popularity of genre, and especially landscape painting, Constable worried that such an assembly of fine art would encourage copying. His concerns were not unreasonable. In fact at the time, the act of copying great art was considered perhaps the best way for any would-be artist to develop his or her skills. It was no accident that the first facilities of the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square were also shared by the Royal Academy of the Arts. Students routinely set up their easels in the middle of the museums cluttered galleries, with the blessing and guidance of Royal Academy instructors. And there was a lot to copy. Wall space was limited. The art was not. Hung in what we today call "salon style," work ran literally from floor to ceiling in sky lit, windowless after room after room literally overflowing with presumably original masterpieces.

Napoleon Bonaparte,
Benjamin Robert Haydon
Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington,
 1839, Benjamin Robert Haydon
I say "presumably" because, as one might guess, with that kind of learning system, and with the high calibre artists it produced, copies quickly lent themselves to becoming fakes which were often passed off to nouveau-riche industrialists and speculators as the real thing, or at least work by the same artists as hung in the nation's premier art museum. Unscrupulous dealers also commissioned always hard-up artists to copy works which were then "aged" in smoke-filled ovens, then kippered and distressed into new-found antiquities. Add to that as many as twelve-thousand similar works from other countries finding their way to market, and it would come as little surprise that the discriminating art buyer felt safest purchasing work from the artists themselves. But even then they were hardly guaranteed an "original" in that an artist with a "hit painting" might create dozens of copies himself. The history and genre painter, Benjamin Robert Haydon for instance, created no less than 23 versions of his portrait of a brooding Napoleon on St. Helena (above, left), while at the same time shamelessly painting 25 variants on Napoleon's conqueror, Wellington musing on the Field of Waterloo (above, right). Any similarities were purely intentional. With those kinds of numbers in circulation, God only knows how many fakes were painted by other artists!

Though not common today, some museums
still permit artists to copy works from their walls.
Amid that kind of abuse of the system taking place, museums and art academies eventually found it in their best interests to first control, and then gradually eliminate the copying of the art on their premises. Of course one of the problems, especially in England, was that the "premises" never could keep up with the influx of fine art as wealthy collectors died and willed their art, if not the money to house it, to the major museums springing up around the country. Even into the 20th century, the art in many museums was still being hung frame to frame in a maddening montage of styles, shapes, and subject matter.

From the old masters to Impressionism to contemporary art, the spacious, wide-open concept of museums today, though limiting quantity, displays work in a manner allowing
it to "breathe"--to exist in its own space.

It was only with the advent of Modern Art, which looked horrible under such circumstances, that museums began to follow the lead of privately sponsored exhibitions in hanging all work at eye-level with a generous expanse of uninterrupted wall space in between. However, because of this, the problem of more art than walls only worsened. Even with museums sprouting wings at a rate matched only by hospitals, many art institutions today have as much as ten times more art than they can display. As a result, the excess flows into warehouse or basement storage facilities where even now, beyond the watchful eyes of curators, it continues being copied. Of course, with today's high tech authentication procedures, few of these copies are likely to become fakes to be passed off as originals. So presumably, now at least, despite the size and number of art museums abounding today, John Constable is resting easier in his grave.
The White Horse, 1819, John Constable, many imitators, but few copiers.

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