How Not to Review an Art Exhibition

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A Washington Post critic pans a new Smithsonian show for all the wrong reasons

Tenner Jul26 p.jpg

Landscape with Rainbow by Robert S. Duncanson, exhibited in the Smithsonian American Art Museum


Should a museum exhibition review stick to what visitors will see or fold in copy from the catalog? A case in point is the Washington Post's art critic Philip Kennicott's analysis of The Great American Hall of Wonders at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American Art.

After praising the scholarly intelligence of the guest curator, Claire Perry, and the initial part of the exhibition, Mr. Kennicott proceeds to attack most of her selection and judgment. The trouble is that he often quotes not from the actual wall labels of the exhibition, which he purports to review, but from the catalog or perhaps the audio recordings on the exhibition's website.

Of Frederick Church's 1857 depiction of Niagara Falls, he writes:

The painting presents the magnificently rendered falls just at the point at which the water tumbles over the precipice, which, Perry argues, "is no coincidence." Church focuses his painting "at the edge of an abyss" because the United States would plunge into the Civil War four years later.

But the actual wall text, at least according to the museum's site, reads:

Frederic Church was the United States' leading artist at midcentury. His landscapes encompassed a moral and scientific vision of nature. Word spread in 1856 that Church was at Niagara making studies for an important painting, and audiences nationwide waited with keen expectation. This lithograph reproduces in small scale the grand painting the artist completed in 1857. Church pared out almost all but water from the scene, leaving only a sliver of landscape in the distance as a life raft for the eye. The picture shows the view across Horseshoe Falls, beneath which a treacherous ledge awaited visitors brave enough to attempt to cross it. Church casts the viewer on the waters an instant before the plunge into the chasm below, creating a lover's leap that unmoors the sense of an individual self. One reviewer summed up the country's intensely patriotic response to Church's Niagara when he praised it as a "true development of the American mind; the result of democracy, of individuality . . . of the liberty allowed to all."

Nothing about the Dred Scott decision or the Civil War here. As for the museum's use of an "uninspiring chromolithograph," as Mr. Kennicott puts it, he might have noted that the original is within two or three Metro stops at the Corcoran Gallery, and that round-trip of packing, transportation, and unpacking an an over 42 x 90 inch masterpiece would serve neither conservation nor the Federal budget.

Continuing to review the printed catalog rather than the works and commentary on display at the museum, Mr. Kennicott continues:

In the catalog, she says that Winslow Homer's 1871 "Old Mill (The Morning Bell)" represents a female factory worker "commanded by a tolling" that exemplifies "the despotism of the new" industrial order. In fact, the bell is rather small, the scene quiet and the women represented in the distinctly bucolic landscape under no visible duress at all.

I've seen neither book nor exhibition, but the wall text refers to a different image, New England Factory Life—"Bell Time":

In 1868, Winslow Homer took up the subject of people who worked in textile mills. Mill operatives' activities were organized by bells that rang throughout the day. Before mid-century, Americans viewed factories as places where respectable folk—mostly women—could earn a decent income and make a contribution to the nation's industrial transformation. By the time Homer created his picture, native-born farmwives and their daughters had long been absent from the mills. Recent immigrants and the desperately poor replaced them at the looms, the only takers for work that offered the barest sustenance.

See the original 1871 painting, to which Kennicott's quotation refers, on the Yale Art Gallery website and make up your own mind. Kennicott makes one valid factual criticism, evidently of the catalog, that the valley depicted by Albert Bierstadt in The Last of the Buffalo (1888) is "verdant," not "desolate," but the official wall caption doesn't characterize the landscape at all.

Ms. Perry's voice commentaries occasionally do go overboard, as when she says on the exhibition web site that the artist Lilly Martin Spencer, painter of Listening to Father's Watch, "straddles a precarious dichotomy." Oy. But the wall text is unexceptionable:

Lilly Martin Spencer, a prominent Ohio artist and mother of thirteen children, knew a thing or two about time management. The income from the sale of her paintings was the primary means of support for her family while her husband moved through a series of occupations. The Spencer household was highly unconventional in a period when middle-class women did not have careers. Spencer often used her husband and children as models for canvases like this one. By working for a living she questioned the prevalent mores that compelled women to devote their time to the domestic sphere.

To me, the web site and published wall text suggest a coherent balance of aesthetic, environmental, ethnic, social, and political concerns, avoiding excesses of chauvinism and political correctness with as much attention to the heroic as to the tragic side of the nineteenth-century American enterprise. If the objects "all too often lack visual appeal," it's because nineteenth-century people lived in a different graphic world, mediated by technologies like wood engravings and chromolithographs, which shouldn't be judged anachronistically by 21st-century art critics. Anyway the formerly despised chromos are now subjects of serious scholarly attention. Likewise if Mr. Kennicott had paid more attention to the exhibition's technological themes, he would have seen that the idea of "democratic time" had a very concrete sense: U.S. innovations in the production of timepieces. During the period of the exhibition, for example, an American introduced factory watch production to Switzerland. As a wall text notes:

Wherever we have been in Kentucky, in Indiana, in Illinois, in Missouri, and . . . in every dell of Arkansas, and in cabins where there was not a chair to sit on, there was to be sure a Connecticut clock
.
---George Featherstonhaugh, 1844

 It is Mr. Kennicott, all the way to his concluding swipe at Ken Burns and PBS, who has missed the opportunity -- to review the exhibition on its own terms, as an exploration of themes, rather than hunt for a "thesis," and to stick to the objects and labels on actual display. I'm planning to see the exhibition this fall and to write more about it.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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