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Exhibition review:
The Slovak National Gallery’s Non-Permanent Exhibition | posted September 14, 2017

Magdalena Łanuszka

[1] Usually, when a gallery needs reconstruction, exhibitions are closed, but when the reconstruction is planned to go on for a longer time, the galleries tend to organise temporary exhibitions of the highlights of the permanent collection. The curators of the Slovak National Gallery Old Masters, Katarína Chmelinová and Dušan Buran, have decided to do something else instead. They have created an amazing “Non-Permanent” exhibition that shows the Gothic and Baroque collection in a brand new perspective. The reconstruction of the Slovak National Gallery building in Bratislava started in 2014, and since then the art pieces of the fourteenth to eighteenth centuries have been displayed in the aforementioned temporary exhibition in Esterházyho Palác in Bratislava.

[2] It is difficult to exhibit the artwork of so called ‘Old Masters’ in the traditional way in a modern context. We would like to see the paintings and sculptures in the environment they were designed for, but that environment simply does not exist anymore. Even if the piece of art is still in situ – in the church or in a palace – this environment is not exactly as it used to be hundreds of years ago. Even if all the furniture and decoration were intact, which is very unlikely, we would now look at it with the eyes of a twenty-first-century viewer: our eyes are not used to the darkness and we can’t imagine any interior without electric light. How then can we best exhibit those pieces of art in the artificial environment of a museum? The most popular way is to just place them against a neutral background, a “white cube”. This method is certainly good for the art historians who seek the opportunity to examine all the details of the painting, preferably in the lab-like circumstances, but is this useful for the non-professional viewer? In my opinion it is not only boring, but it also violates the artist’s vision: the Old Masters did not design their pieces as something to be displayed in a “white cube”. Do we ever really think about the fact that those paintings were designed to be in the altarpieces surrounded by the candles in the dark interiors? Can we imagine the effect of the chiaroscuro contrasts of those paintings in such circumstances? Even the natural daylight, surely considered by the Old Masters in their works, is now often overlooked, as the artificial light is usually used even in the churches and palaces all day long. Nowadays, almost no-one cares about the different angles of the sunlight during the different days of the year. Of course, making “fake” historical interiors for the purposes of the exhibition would not be a very good idea either. Our eyes are used to different light anyway – we will never see things as our ancestors did hundreds of years ago.

[3] What should we do then? Well, we should not pretend anything, but rather start a dialogue with the artworks. Beginning with the question “what was the effect supposed to be”, we can move towards creating the effect in our own modern way. The revolutionary concept of the Slovak National Gallery curators was to give the task of designing the exhibition directly to the architects (Igor Marko, Martin Jančok, Aleš Šedivec). This meant that the presentation of the artworks was not planned by art historians, but by people who think about the objects and the space in a very different, modern way. Architects were free to think about the space without considering chronology and academic descriptions. They used very few presentation cases. The works of art are as close to the viewers as possible. If you want to sit down, you can get a chair and sit in front of any piece of art you like – there are no fixed museum couches either, but the chairs are available all around. As a result, the viewers may exercise the freedom to enjoy any piece they like, and in the most convenient way. Fixed couches provide the message: ‘Sit here, this is the most important work of art in this room and you should watch it from this particular distance’. With the portable chairs viewers can decide for themselves which piece is the one they want to stop by, and how closely they want to watch it.

[4] Please note that I have decided that in this review I will not refer to publications on the theory and methodology of designing the exhibitions, nor will I name the artists and the masterpieces that are shown at this exhibition. If anyone wants to know further details about each piece of art from this exhibition, it is all available in the brochures and in the catalogue with some information online.

 [5] The first part of the exhibition is called “Expression and Emotion” – it contains Gothic and Baroque religious paintings and sculptures, juxtaposed against each other and suddenly showing surprising similarities in spite of the fact that they represent different styles. The black curtains create a stage-like environment which emphasises the theatricality of the old religious art. It stresses the fact that back in the past the liturgy had more dramatic elements and the altarpieces served as the scenery. “Emotion” and “expression” are present not only in the faces of the depicted characters, but also in their gestures and dynamic folds of their clothes – in that aspect the Gothic and Baroque are not that different from each other. Discovering their similarities is possible thanks to the unusual, non-chronological arrangement of the pieces of art – it leads to the conclusion that certain ways of expressing emotions are timeless and present in European art throughout the centuries.

[6] Similar conclusions may be developed by visiting another part of the exhibition, called “Body and Gesture”. It corresponds well with young viewers; the generation of the Internet apparently discovered that there are very “modern” emotions hidden in the artworks of the Old Masters. We may see that for example in popular memes created by adding inscriptions to the reproductions of the famous masterpieces, revealing a surprising fact that people depicted in those paintings are showing emotions that may be placed in a modern context. In fact there is a beautiful truth behind this: human experience has not changed over the centuries and that we can find the old masterpieces surprisingly familiar if only we reject the distance created by the fact that they are so old and precious. This exhibition helps us to appreciate the Old Masters’ art exactly in this way.

[7] The next room of the exhibition, entitled “Type and Individual”, collects both religious works of art (like figures of the saints) and secular portraits. We think of portraits as images of the individuals: particular people with their own unique features. On the other hand, on a stage-like platform we will see a group of saints in this room: medieval sculptures of the Virgin with Child represent “types” that were repeated over the centuries. Interestingly, they are grouped together in a way that creates an illusion that they walk towards the viewer, who suddenly discovers that each of them is still individual, despite being examples of ‘type’. Being theatrically gathered, the “types” surprisingly become a group of “individuals”, not less unique in their features then the sitters in the portraits on the other wall of the room. After all, each artist probably used someone as a model, even for the most typical image of the Virgin and a Child.

[8] The “Life and Death” room contains the most surprising installation of art: works are placed against a wooden construction painted in a vivid blue colour. The depictions of Nativity are juxtaposed with the images of Lamentation over the body of dead Christ and completed with secular post-mortem portraits. It suddenly becomes clear that once upon a time death was as present in everyday life as any other aspect of human existence. Nowadays death is pushed away, hidden somewhere in the hospitals and cut out of the image of joyful life, promoted by the present visual pop-culture. A few centuries ago people looked at the depictions of the dead Christ and considered them not symbolic, but realistic – they were familiar with the idea of the dead body and with the concept of depicting it, also in the form of post-mortem portraits of their loved-ones. Accepting death as a natural part of life makes it less serious and depressing; perhaps because of that those images look powerful against a vivid blue background. Prior to the nineteenth century, it is fair to say that art and architecture was colourful– certainly those paintings were never intended to be placed on black or white surface. The Old Masters’ images of births and deaths become alive and natural in this unusual and extravagant arrangement. They would not work so well in a “white cube”, mentioned earlier, as they were not intended to be presented in it in the first place.

Non-Permanent Exposition at the Slovak National Gallery in Bratislava. Curator: Dušan Buran, Katarína Chmelinová. Photo: Archive SNG, Martin Deko

[9] In the room called “Space and Illusion” the viewers get the unique opportunity to look at the paintings from the both sides. Some of them, such as the gothic altar-wings, were designed to be viewed like this and were painted on both sides. But most of the paintings contain the image only on one side, yet in many cases extremely important things can be spotted on the painting’s back. Sometimes one may find an inscription (for example, with the painting’s title, date or the name of the painter), and sometimes there are labels documenting the exhibitions that the painting was shown at. We may also find labels or stencil marks from particular auction houses, as well as the inscriptions or the seals of the past owners, which helps reconstruct the painting’s history. Finally, looking at the verso side of the paintings enables the viewers to discover the technical differences between various supports such as canvas and panel.

[10] Every exhibition is supposed to be educational – that is what we were always told – but I feel that a good exhibition should also be stimulating and fun! Viewers should not feel that going to the gallery is some kind of boring activity, obligatory for their education – that is unfortunately a common mistake, especially with children who later avoid museums when they grow up. The galleries should not be for the art historians. They should attract everyone else – the art historian will come anyway. In fact, an exhibition attractive for non-professional viewer is still valuable for the specialist; you can study the details of works of art no matter if they are displayed chronologically or not. For me this exhibition was particularly interesting, as it emphasised how timeless human emotions are and how similar, in spite of all the stylistic differences, was their expression in art throughout the centuries.

Non-Permanent Exposition at the Slovak National Gallery in Bratislava. Curator: Dušan Buran, Katarína Chmelinová. Photo: Archive SNG, Martin Deko

[11] We assume that an exhibition should contain both the artworks and labels that would give us all the necessary information: attribution, dating, provenance etc. That is indeed helpful when you study art history. But for the non-professional viewer those labels often create a distance: they contain information that may seem hermetic or even difficult to understand. The labels communicate to the viewer that the work of art belongs to a secret world of the past and that it is so precious and serious that in fact it should only be analysed by the professionals. The paradox here is that the information given in the labels not so much educates the viewers as it makes them feel incompetent. By giving all the scholarly information on the artwork we deter people from interpreting it by themselves. In this exhibition there are no labels – the only information given “on the walls” are the introductions to each room; in fact in my opinion they could be even shorter, limited to only few sentences (or maybe questions) that would stimulate the viewers to interpret each part of the exhibition in their own way. Of course, if you need the information, you can still have it: the displayed artworks are numbered and you can check their descriptions in the leaflet provided by the museum.

[12] Certainly this temporary exhibition in the Slovak National Gallery shows their collection in a new perspective. It also raises the question about how permanent any exhibition should be nowadays. Works of old art may be interpreted in many ways and on many levels; re-arranging them and placing them in a new context may change their reception. The Bratislava exhibition of the Old Masters is designed to be combined with temporary “interventions” of the contemporary art, but that’s a separate issue. This exhibition enables a modern viewer to touch the old art in a new way and to emotionally connect with it. I would definitely recommend that you go to Bratislava and experience it for yourself.

Magdalena Łanuszka (PhD, Jagiellonian University, Cracow) is an art historian specialising in late medieval painting. As a researcher she has worked in the National Inventory Research Project, examining pre-1900 European paintings in the collection of York Art Gallery (UK), and more recently in the PAUart project (digitalisation of print and photograph collections of Polish Academy of Arts and Sciences, http://www.pauart.pl/). As an academic teacher she has cooperated mainly with the Jagiellonian University (Cracow, Poland). Her personal website (including her blog on art history) can be found at http://en.posztukiwania.pl/

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