When an announcement from the Museum of Modern Art arrived recently saying “Find serenity in moma’s galleries,” the message was gleefully circulated with a host of ironic comments. Even occasional visitors to Fifty-third Street must have found the pairing of “serenity” and “moma” preposterous. Yet it wasn’t that long ago that museums were spoken of as temples for art, sanctified public spaces that now substituted for cathedrals as places for high-minded experience and uplift—not how we think of most present-day institutions, especially moma, with its jam-packed lobby, crowded galleries, and swarming corridors. (Of course, if we think of medieval cathedrals as bustling civic centers, with shops built into the base and all kinds of activity within, the comparison might not seem so far-fetched.) But those of us over a certain age can remember a time when the idea of finding serenity at moma would not have seemed bitterly funny. Then, the museum did not resemble a busy airport at peak hours. The galleries were never crowded, except for the curved bay with Monet’s Water Lilies, where the conveniently placed bench was always full of enraptured visitors, and just about anyone in the museum was focused on the art and not, it goes without saying, on cell-phone photos. In those admittedly distant days, an art-obsessed teenager could spend an hour after school with Henri Matisse’s Red Studio, exhilarated by discovering the complex visual relationships among all the disparate objects itemized in the painting. There was also the appealing possibility that the nice-looking boy staring at The Piano Lesson might say something—but that’s another matter.

And a long time ago. It’s clearly unlikely that “serenity” and “moma” are going to find equivalence anytime in the foreseeable future. When Elizabeth Diller, one of the architects of the museum’s current expansion, offered a defense of why an institution with a department of architecture and design decided to raze the former American Folk Art Museum, designed by Billie Tsien and Todd Williams, she said that one of her own aims in conceiving of the latest incarnation of moma was to establish “greater connectivity with the street.” That’s one of the chief qualities, I imagine, that most of us look for, when we go to museums.

Museums were spoken of as temples for art.

Today’s crowded galleries are, however, less the result of “connectivity with the street” than of the way just about all museums make huge efforts to broaden their audience and increase attendance. Given today’s steadily rising costs of mounting exhibitions and often diminishing funding, increasing the number of visitors (which can boost much-needed public and corporate funding) is obviously necessary, but it’s clearly problematic when it becomes a primary motivation. Not long ago, the Phillips Collection was offered a retrospective of John Graham, the first show in about four decades to survey the work and life of the elusive Russian-born painter, theorist, private dealer, shaman, and expert on African art, a fascinating artist and an influential figure in the New York art world of the 1930s. Duncan Phillips, founder of the museum, was Graham’s first patron, before they feuded, so the Phillips owns many of his most important early works. The show was declined as not being sufficiently “box-office.” So much for the history of the institution.

New visitors and broader audiences are frequently encouraged by attempts to de-mystify the museum and/or foster the idea of art as entertainment. We can all list, often with discomfort, exhibitions conceived mainly with those aims in mind. Whether we approve or not, the idea seems to be working. A recent poll revealed, alarmingly, that 70 percent of museum visitors go for “a social experience,” while only 60 percent go to look at art. But even serious exhibits, designed for that 60 percent—scholarly efforts with fascinating theses illustrated by impressive loans—are frequently given subtitles designed to attract casual visitors. The magic words, I’m told, are “Impressionists,” “unknown,” “gold,” “Van Gogh,” or, in some circles, “Klimt,” which can be synonymous with gold. Proof of the effectiveness of those buzz-words comes from the Clark Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts. This past summer, it featured “Splendor, Myth, and Vision: Nudes from the Prado.” The show, which focused on the Spanish monarchs Philip II as Titian’s patron and Philip IV as the patron of Peter-Paul Rubens, included more than two dozen significant works by Titian, Tintoretto, Rubens, and Zurbarán, among other masters, including a truly spectacular Guercino, all but four of which had never before been seen in this country; an interesting subtext examined how paintings of the nude were perceived and exhibited in militantly Catholic Spain from the sixteenth century almost to the present. Even on weekends, it was possible to savor the exhibition’s riches in relative tranquility, in contrast to the mobbed galleries of the previous year’s “Van Gogh and Nature,” any day of the week. It’s true that the Van Gogh show included an admirably large selection of excellent works from distinguished sources, but I don’t think that alone accounted for all the difference. Titles, of course, can be misleading. A certain amount of eye-rolling greeted the announcement of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity,” which sounded designed to lure visitors. But the show proved to be a thoughtful, satisfying examination of a crucial aspect of the history of modernism, full of important works of art (and costumes).

There are obviously a great many exciting, visually and intellectually engaging exhibitions organized every season, but there’s also justification for complaining about the present culture of the museum world. If pressed, we can willfully ignore the pleasure of such major recent achievements as—say—moma’s sumptuous survey of Edgar Degas’s monotypes, the Frick’s delightful study of Jean-Antoine Watteau’s images of soldiers, or the Met’s brilliant overview of Valentin de Boulogne and fulminate instead about jargon-laden wall-texts advocating the viewing of works of art “through the lens of” some modish theory. Or we can bemoan trimmed-down programs and exhibitions reduced in ambition because of financial cut-backs.

I don’t think there’s any positive side to the trendier aspects of present-day academic art history, but there have definitely been good things triggered by austerity. Inventive curators have found fresh ways of making use of permanent collections, making unnecessary the difficult, time-consuming, expensive process of selecting widely dispersed works from private collections and distant museums, and persuading lenders to make paintings and sculptures available, along with insuring and shipping the borrowed works, and all the rest of it. Tightly focused, smaller, even miniature exhibits have often taken the place of large blockbusters.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art has excelled in this. “Picasso and the Avant-Garde in Paris” drew heavily on the museum’s own holdings of the period. The heart of the show was a recreation of the 1912 Salon d’Automne, which introduced Cubism to a mass audience, a witty conceit made possible because the pma is rich in works by the so-called “Salon Cubists” who took part in the exhibition, including many of the actual works exhibited in 1912. Jean Metzinger, Albert Gleizes, Henri le Fauconnier, Fernand Léger, and their colleagues in the show were, for the most part, paradoxically conservative vanguardists who aimed, they said, at a more legible version of Cubism. They constructed angular but recognizable images—faceted portraits or women built of geometric solids drinking tea—rather than, as Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso did, shuffling fragmented planes, derived from perception, according to the demands of the painting, rather than the logic of anything preexisting. Braque and Picasso were not represented in the 1912 Salon; their dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler forbade them to exhibit. Kahnweiler wished Cubism to be taken very seriously and feared that the broad exposure of the Salon would provoke ridicule. As it turned out, he was right.

Tightly focused exhibits have often taken the place of large blockbusters.

“Through the Window: Marc Chagall and His Circle,” also at the pma, was built around the museum’s important early Chagall, Half-Past Three (The Poet) (1911). The show included a generous selection of designs for the theater and ballet by Chagall’s contemporaries and colleagues. Drawn from the museum’s own collections but rarely exhibited, they contextualized Chagall’s activity and showed the currency of his own preoccupations of the time. On another occasion, the pma exhibited Thomas Eakins’s masterpiece, Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic) (1875), which it owns jointly with the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The recently cleaned and conserved canvas was set in context by documentary material about the The Gross Clinic’s exhibition history and reception, and related works, including Eakins’s other “medical marvel,” The Clinic of Dr. Agnew (1889, University of Pennsylvania, on loan to the Philadelphia Museum of Art)—another informative exhibition created with minimal effort and expense.

The list of small, illuminating, compelling exhibitions organized by canny museum curators over the past years is long and impressive. The Met, the Frick Collection, the National Gallery, Washington, D.C., the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and even much-maligned moma (but not recently) have all given us convincing illustrations that “less is more.” Intensive research has been presented in the form of installations ranging from a single, spectacular work of art from the museum’s own holdings or elsewhere, to gatherings of a few closely related but otherwise dispersed works, to assemblies of material that create a context for one or more specific works. Among the most spectacular in the single painting approach was the National Gallery’s installation of Titian’s dazzling Danaë (1544–45) from the Capodimonte Museum, Naples. The exhibition consisted solely of the ravishing nude, happily reclining as Zeus, in the form of a cascade of golden coins, descended upon her. Danaë was alone, in a wide hallway near the Italian Renaissance galleries. An absorbing wall text and brochure gave us the interesting history of the painting’s commission by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese and its transformation by Titian, revealed by technical examination, from an equivocal image of a receptive woman to a more acceptable mythological subject; Farnese was a churchman, after all. We were also referred to Titians elsewhere in the museum. The Kimbell Museum of Art, in Fort Worth, Texas, recently placed Titian’s astonishing The Entombment of Christ (1559, Prado, Madrid), with its cascade of mourning figures, its bold, brushy gestures, and its lights pulled up out of darkness, among its own old master holdings. Hailed as a “distinguished visitor” and bathed in the diffuse light of Louis Kahn’s ingenious system of vaults, the Titian probably never looked better.

The Met’s small shows, over the years, have been exemplary: intelligently chosen, revealing examinations of important works from the collection and elsewhere, informed by new scholarship and bolstered by instructive comparisons and the revelations of technical studies. We encounter paintings we’ve often seen countless times, hung with their usual relatives in the Met’s galleries, and soon discover that we pay new, close attention to even the most familiar works, when they are isolated in these concentrated installations, we consider them freshly and, often, differently. Paintings presented in this enlightening way have included the exquisite Duccio Madonna and Child (ca. 1290–1300), with its poignant intimations of the artist’s increasing attention to the world around him and equally poignant evidence of its having been the focus of private devotions—the oddly moving marks of candles having placed too close to the frame by a previous owner. Jan van Eyck’s Crucifixion and Last Judgment panels (ca. 1440–1441) and Andrea del Sarto’s Borgherini Holy Family with the Young Saint John the Baptist (1528 or 1529) have been singled out as well, all enriched by insights derived from technical examination and, sometimes, conservation. We gained new admiration for a vigorously brushed, sketchy but evocative Portrait of a Man (ca. 1630–35), now recognized as an autograph work by Diego Velázquez, after the removal of layers of discolored varnish permitted it to be identified as a study for a figure in his well-known Surrender of Breda (1634–35, Prado, Madrid). The proximity, in the Met’s mini-installation, of works by Velázquez and by his son-in-law assistant allowed us to check the new attribution against our own perceptions. We might have walked by the painting, if we came upon it in one of the Met’s Spanish galleries; now, we looked hard and learned something new.

The Frick has a distinguished record of miniature shows, including celebrations of visits from such elegant women as Raphael’s La Fornarina (ca. 1518, Palazzo Barberini, Rome) and Parmigianino’s La Schiava Turca (1530s, Galleria Nazionale di Parma) and Antea (1530s, Museo di Capodimonte, Naples), along with Van Gogh’s earthy Portrait of a Peasant (Patience Escalier) (1888, Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena). The Frick’s own iconic Giovanni Bellini, St. Francis in the Desert (ca. 1481), and Velázquez’s Portrait of King Philip IV of Spain (1644) received the same kind of star billing after technical examination and conservation revealed new facts about the history and meaning of the paintings. Similarly, the Frick’s allegorical paintings by Paolo Veronese, Wisdom and Strength and Virtue and Vice (both ca. 1565), became the centerpieces of an informative small show when they were grouped with a pair of nude male allegorical figures, painted about the same time, from the Los Angeles County Museum, and the Met’s symbolic Venus and Mars United by Love (1570s). The combination allowed us to concentrate on how the Venetian master embodied abstract concepts with sensuous figures, a rich play of fictive textures, and seductive paint handling.

The Boston mfa has organized several informative mini-shows, one celebrating the achievement of the special elite squad of the Italian Carabinieri, the Cultural Heritage Protection Command, dealing with art theft. Piero della Francesca’s melancholy Senigallia Madonna (1474), stolen from its home in the Palazzo Ducale, Urbino, and recovered in 1975, was the core of the exhibit, complete with a film about the squad’s successes. Even more fascinating was the eye-testing “Visiting Masterpieces: Caravaggio and Connoisseurship.” Two of the four exhibited works, The Fortune Teller (ca. 1594–95, Musei Capitolini Pinacoteca, Rome) and the portrait, Fra Antonio Martelli, Knight Grand Cross of the Order of Malta (ca. 1608, Palazzo Pitti, Florence), were once doubted but are now securely attributed to Caravaggio. The two other included works are still the subject of debate. The exhibition presented arguments both for and against; the jury is still out.

It’s the exhibition equivalent of the Slow Food Movement.

At moma, some years ago, a superb small show brought together all of Édouard Manet’s attempts to exorcise his admiration for Francisco Goya’s searing Third of May 1808 (1814, Prado, Madrid), using the reports of the 1867 execution of Maximilian I, the European puppet Emperor of Mexico, and two of his generals, by Mexican rebels as his starting point for multiple works made between 1867 and 1869. At the center of the exhibition were all the large and small versions, in various media, of Manet’s Goya-inspired staging of the event—a row of soldiers aiming their guns on one side, the victims on the other—brought together from the different collections to which they now belong. Manet’s inspiration was accounted for by published descriptions of the execution, newspaper engravings with different degrees of accuracy (published in France only after an embargo on information was lifted), and clandestinely taken photographs, along with a few related works by the artist. All in all, it was an incisive probing of a group of powerful, obsessive images. Not long afterward, a similar narrow focus was accorded to Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s paintings of the Berlin street-scene, contextualized by works made just before and after his move to the louche metropolis. The self-imposed limits of these exhibits allowed us to concentrate on the works on view with the dedication they deserved.

Such miniature exhibitions, whether motivated by economy or by intense scholarship, are among the great delights of today’s museum practices. Our attention is called to works of art in ways that add greatly to our knowledge, and deepen and intensify our experience. We are shown few enough works at a time that we can study them carefully and over long periods. It’s the exhibition equivalent of the Slow Food Movement. And there’s another benefit, as well. Even when lobbies, special shows, and permanent exhibition galleries are annoyingly crowded, the spaces devoted to mini-installations rarely are. It may be that museum visitors who have paid hefty admission prices feel that they need to get their money’s worth by seeing as much as possible. Whatever the reason, while some casual visitors to micro-shows find themselves captured by what they are presented with, many tend to look quickly, glance at the texts, and move on. That, of course, allows the rest of us more uninterrupted time. It’s a lot like museums used to be.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 4, on page 27
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