Commentary: New works, repurposed galleries create new vision at Art Museum
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 5, 2012 - As the St. Louis Art Museum's prepared to break ground on the David Chipperfield designed expansion, it closed or repurposed the galleries whose stability was impacted by the construction. When that happened, the art on display was reduced to "highlights of the collection."
But construction on the exterior of the new East Building is drawing to a close; and in the iconic Cass Gilbert building, 275 paintings have recently been reinstalled in 18 galleries. More than a step toward returning to business as usual, these art-works represent what is being called "the new vision."
In reshuffling, reorganizing and reinstalling artwork, the staff is considering what story the galleries have to tell. Curator Simon Kelly emphasizes this point, "There is a clear emphasis on increasing the visitor's interaction with art as well as the understanding of art and how it has changed over time. This is a major reason galleries are arranged broadly chronologically and, for the first time, with coherent themes within that chronology." Some excellent examples of this new approach are on display in the American galleries (on the third floor) and many of the European galleries.
The American Galleries
Now that the permanent collection is starting to get its legroom back, curatorial staff like Janeen Turk, senior curatorial assistant, have the opportunity to re-think what themes are important to highlight. As Turk walks through the four newly reinstalled American galleries, she points out how they reflect prominent issues in American history.
In gallery 334, a tension exists between the virtual travel posters for manifest destiny associated with Hudson River School landscapes and the portrait of frontier society captured by George Caleb Bingham. In Bingham's "Jolly Flatboatmen in Port," Turk points out, the carefree, portrayal actually "sanitizes the reputation of these figures in contrast to their depiction in the popular literature of the time."
The European Galleries
The reinstallation adds a new coherence to the European collection. On display are all three of SLAM's Courbets, and according to Research Assistant Christian Naffziger the most important neo-classical painting in North America, "Arria and Paetus" by Fransois-Andre Vincent. This is among 12 works that had not been displayed at the museum prior to the reinstallation. Some galleries are arranged conventionally by school: Romanticism, Rocco, etc. Others are arranged by theme, religious art or more originally a glimpse into upper class 18th century daily life (in Gallery 202 and 203).
The most important of the new galleries is the Max Beckmann gallery. The St. Louis Art Museum has the world's largest collection of work by the German artist. Of these 39 paintings, the large gallery displays 14 paintings from all phases of the artist's career, including when he was a professor of art at Washington University.
German Expressionism, a movement contemporaneous with Beckmann, is also a particular strength of the permanent collection. Curator Elizabeth Wyckoff explains that, after the trauma of World War I, Expressionists divided into two schools: those who reveled in anonymity of the crowded cities and those who sought refuge from it. The two Expressionist Galleries are dominated by still nudes and energetic landscape paintings. For a period born out of post-war disillusionment, Curator Kelly has brought out something that feels more idealistic than the unsettling color of these Expressionist works might suggest.
The two Impressionist galleries and the two Expressionist galleries are both divided by landscape and portrait/figure paintings. Both emphasize relationships among these dynamic periods by including works influential of or influenced by the movements.
With the return of the museum gift shop to its former space, and the return of 45 works that haven't been on display in a decade or more, there is a new freshness and energy palpable at the St. Louis Art Museum. To appreciate "the new vision," there are expanded museum plaques, daily tours and weekly gallery talks. And the museum has put together a website that offers a sample of this exciting transformation and allows museum visitors to keep track of future changes. The arrangement of the reinstallation is an invitation to eavesdrop on the conversations created by the thoughtful combination of these artworks.
Drew Davis is a freelance writer.