Interview with Professor Roland Recht, member of the Institut de France, commissioner of the exhibition Le grand atelier. Chemin de l’art en Europe Ve-XVIIIe siècle.

Organized in conjunction with Europalia, the exhibition Le grand atelier is a success. We wanted to ask Roland Recht about his choices.

The aim of your exhibition is to show that Europe was created on an artistic level due to the circulation of works and artists. You treated this immense subject in 14 sections, each deserving an exhibition in itself. The choices must have been difficult. How did you and your co-commissioners do this ?

Along with my collaborators, Catheline Périer-d’Ieteren and Pascal Griener, I claim a total subjectivity in the choice of themes. We could of course have selected thirty, or less, or even picked others. They are all subjective, because the circulation of artists, works, and patrons has always existed in almost every period. But I wanted this theme to focus on several subjects which by assembling works of a high artistic level could each provide a universal view of the history of art. If we had presented a sort of anthology, we would have had to overlook less well-known objects that are in fact fascinating. Thus, we made this option because it offers an approach to European art that is both of excellent quality and truly original.

2. Bernardo Buontalenti (1536-1608)
mock-up of the façade of the Duomo in Florence, 1587
Painted wood - 236,3 x 218,5 x 36,1 cm
Florence, Museo Opera Santa Maria del Fiore
Photo : D. Rykner

What other points would you have liked to explore but couldn’t ?

Frankly, there weren’t any. We had the opposite problem. We started out with a more limited selection but in thinking it through, we realized that we had to open it up more. For instance, the section on books came about because we were looking for a way to treat Humanism and the Renaissance. The printed book allowed us to talk about this period by highlighting the enormous importance of printing in spreading knowledge and new forms of social communication. We hadn’t planned on it at first. So we decided to eliminate the section on the Renaissance, which concentrated specifically on art, and develop the idea of books, which is also in fact a leitmotiv in the exhibition and can be found elsewhere. On the other hand, we had to give up parts of some sections. For example, due to lack of space, the one on engravings and decorative arts had to be reduced. In “Europe and the Printed Book”, we also cut a long and very interesting sub-section on the role of books in the reception of Leonardo da Vinci’s work. We preferred to keep the sub-section on Vitruvius thus allowing us to talk about architecture. This is probably the first time that anyone has assembled so many works by and on Vitruvius. We made this book section more “visual” thanks to the mock-up of the façade of the Cathedral in Florence (ill. 1), which of course is not directly related to Vitruvius, but illustrates how orders were implemented by Buontalenti. The piece of furniture displayed in this section also proves how cabinet makers, along with architects, were the first ones to apply Vitruvius’ theories. The beauty of this piece and of the maquette contributes to the success of the staging and their presence is perfectly justified. A section displaying only books would have been a bit austere.

You do not study the XIXth century, although it is one of the great periods of artistic exchange in Europe. Why ?

If we wanted to treat all the periods fairly (and why not the XXth C. as well, after all ?), we would have had to change the problematics of the exhibition. We would have needed to add at least four more sections, and it would have just been too big. Another, major, reason for establishing the boundary at the end of the XVIIIth C. is that collecting, which led to the phenomenon of founding museums in Europe, introduced new ways of circulating works and artists. The museum became an end in itself. So we decided to stop there. Furthermore, the rise of nationalistic tendencies at the beginning of the XIXth C. meant that the issue had to be treated differently. There were too many new parameters and historical data which made the presentation too complex for the museum goer. Highlighting nationalism and treating each country equally would have required another exhibition.

You are opposed (just like The Art Tribune) to such projects as the one for the Louvre in Abu Dhabi. Yet, here too it’s all about “the circulation of art works” ?

This is obviously a legitimate question. Art works have always circulated. The problem is that, until today, a sensible consensus had been reached by which it was agreed that some pieces could no longer travel because, due to their condition, it was too risky and that those that had to would do so only within the scope of a specific scientific project. We did not ask to borrow works which we considered too fragile even though we think that the scientific project for this exhibition was solid enough to justify the loans. Major institutions entrusted important works belonging to their cultural heritage : the British Library, the BnF in Paris, the KHM in Vienna, the museums in Budapest, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, the Bibliothèques and Musées Royaux in Brussels, etc. We should point out for instance that there are loans here from the Louvre, although it also turned down some requests. There is a difference between the circulation that we study in the exhibition and that which exists today. In the XIXth C., we see the creation of museums and the idea of historical monuments. New processes were introduced and art works no longer circulate just any old way as they did before, which in fact often led to a lot of damage.

I was impressed by the number of works from unknown museums in European countries that do not vaunt the cultural legacy of their collections. This choice is noteworthy since we are so used to seeing the same pieces in many exhibitions.

This was obviously a choice on our part. When Europalia contacted me to do the exhibition, I was asked to suggest a theme to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Treaty of Rome. I proposed the subject of the circulation of works and artists in an area which was not yet, but which eventually would become Europe. At that time, in my mind it was very clear that we could not present — nor would it be interesting to do so — in such a short lapse of time, an anthology of European art by just choosing a random sample, without any guiding concept or line, with no other vision than the beauty of the objects. I was very happy to hear that Europalia agreed with me. After that, we hit upon the idea of treating it in 14 sections. Of course, we show works by renowned artists, for example Jan Van Eyck, Leonardo da Vinci, Claude Lorrain, Boucher, El Greco, Rubens and even Spranger but we also present works that are less familiar. Thanks to our persistence, we found pieces in relatively unknown collections — as well as in prominent ones — that are displayed for the first time ever in a large exhibition. But we were also very pleased to show famous works of excellent quality.

3. Domenico Theotokopoulos, known as El Greco (1541-1614)
Musician Angels c. 1608-1614
Huile sur toilet - 112 x 205 cm
Athens, Ethniki Pinakothiki kai Mouseiou Soutzou
Photo : D. Rykner

Among the lesser known and rarely seen paintings, there is for example one by El Greco from Athens (ill. 3).

Yes, it is perhaps his last piece. This work highlights one of the other recurrent ideas of the exhibition which states that art developed following the traditions of Antiquity but also in revolt against it. There is no better example of the complete negation of artistic legacy than some of Spranger’s works and in this extremely troubling painting by El Greco.

There is one section that seems to be a little weaker than the others, both by its size and the quality of the pieces which are almost “naïve” : “a view of the other world”. Couldn’t you have presented more beautiful works, and if not, why include it ?

The purpose of this section was not to display works that were as beautiful as the ones in other sections but to illustrate another point of view, which is not direct but oblique and which tries to capture the world, and its otherness, through aspects that to us seem abnormal. Their way of approaching cross-breeding, the different species, the relations between the elements that compose nature (mineral, vegetable, human) reflects a vision of the objective world which deliberately treats things as objects of curiosity, and not at all as beautiful objects. This is not at all like when something strange is sublimated by the eye as in the case of Gauguin. In this section, the paintings are representations that “document” a vision of the other. There are also objects from faraway lands that were in European collections before the French Revolution and which prove that the taste for collecting was not, at first, only a taste for art. The idea was not to imitate the magnificent exhibition at the Musée du Quai Branly, “D’un regard l’autre”.

Rudolph II is treated extensively, concentrating on Spranger. Why did you choose this artist ?

We wanted to explore the idea of collecting by concentrating on five or six works of a European artist — and there is no better example than Spranger — but one that was unique by his method of subverting classicism. Thanks to the Kusthistoriches Museum in Vienna we were able to obtain three excellent works to form a core, around which we then added other works. This was to illustrate a specific example, a sort of spotlight. We did the same thing with the sculptors of the late XVth C.

Precisely, you decided to illustrate how sculptors circulated at the end of the XVth C. You could have chosen several other topics, for instance the spread of Baroque art in the XVIIth and XVIIIth CC., using the example of Italy and Bernini. Why didn’t you follow up with this subject ? In a general way, your selections were not based on style. You could have done a section on International Gothic, another on Mannerism, Baroque, Neoclassicism...and yet they are only treated on the perimeter.

We think it is more important to abandon these classifications and to help the public to see beyond them : to return to the work itself and not to a category ! There have already been major exhibitions on these styles, organized by the European Council starting in the 1960’s. We didn’t want to do the same thing. Here, the aim was to better explain, by means of one or two paintings, why they were interesting. Seeing how Spranger treated an academic figure, with his outlines, contorsions, his highly erotic “choreography”, in each of the works, is more eloquent. If then, the word Mannerism pops up, why not ? So the idea is to lead the visitor’s eye through the works, with no preexisting categories, because if a section is labelled “Mannerism”, he will be looking at it with blinders on. It makes the visit more difficult, but in my opinion also more interesting and evocative.

5. Hautwillers, near Reims, c. 825-835
Utrecht Psalter
Utrecht, Universiteitsbibliotheek

Of all the sections, which is the one that you think is the most remarkable ?

I have a weakness (that of the Medieval scholar ?) for the second one, devoted to Carolingian art : it is a section with absolutely amazing works. The loan of the Utrecht Psalter is what started it all and then opened all the other doors. When we started developing this part, we faced a lot of problems. I turned to the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris but it was preparing a major exhibition on its Carolingian manuscripts which took place in the spring of this year and for this perfectly legitimate reason it could not spare anything for us in this domain. I almost gave up but given the significance of this period for art and for Europe, I was determined to come up with something. After the loan of the Utrecht Psalter, everyone else followed : the British Library, Trinity College, the British Museum, all of the French public libraries that I contacted, Darmstadt, Saint-Gall... and we succeeded in assembling a very beautiful section. I think that anyone who is interested in Carolingian art will be able to see an exceptional ensemble of works in 2007 thanks to our exhibition and that of the Bibliothèque Nationale. So, in the end, the original problem arising at the BnF turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because we were able to obtain extraordinary loans including other, lesser known works, or which are in any case rarely shown to the public.

In concluding, I would like to ask you a question relating to current events : you organized this exhibition in conjunction with Europalia, in the European capital, Brussels, which is also the capital of a nation which seems, at least when seen from abroad, on the brink of separation for what seem to be anachronistic reasons and which, in my view, run contrary to the very idea of a unified Europe. What do you think about the situation ?

This is a very difficult question, especially for a foreign guest, but I am going to answer it anyway. I would like to say two things. First of all, there is a vitality, an energy in the artistic and intellectual life here in Brussels which is truly remarkable and which qualifies it as a real capital. And this is very stimulating and very positive, as are the visits to its museums and exhibitions. Secondly, the domestic political conflicts are consternating. But, at the same time, when I talk to my Belgian friends, I have the feeling that no one takes these problems too seriously. Most of the people I know in artistic and intellectual circles here in Belgium don’t seem to think that there is anything to worry about, and that it will all be solved in a positive way. It’s unsettling but at the same time people quite obviously have faith in the solidity of their institutions and this keeps me from being too concerned, even if I do have a hard time seeing how the situation can be solved.

Interviewed by Didier Rykner Translated by Mary Jo Brisson

, jeudi 22 novembre 2007

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