Photo by Arad, via Wikimedia Commons

Interdisciplinary Exhibitions at MoMA and the Met

Two recent back-to-back visits to major exhibitions in New York City –  Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925 at MoMA and Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity at the Met – provoked some observations about curatorial trends in major art museums.  Although the two exhibitions were developed in different  institutional contexts, and focused on different artistic themes and time periods, they had telling similarities in their display and interpretation, among them:

  • an emphasis on the social networks behind the art;        
  • interdisciplinary and cross-media perspectives;
  • the inclusion of a number of women artists;
  • equal attention to lesser known images or objects and widely recognized pieces; and
  • extensive interpretive programming.                                                                                                                                                         

La Loge by Pierre August Renoir. 1874. The Courtauld Gallery.
La Loge by Pierre August Renoir. 1874.       The Courtauld Gallery

Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925 was organized at MoMA, under the curatorial direction of Leah Dickerman.The exhibition was on view through April 15, 2013.   Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity was organized by the Art Institute of Chicago in collaboration with the Met and the Musee d’Orsay, Paris.   Susan Alyson Stein was the curator in charge at the Met’s version, which had different garments on display than those seen at the Orsay in the spring of 2012.  The exhibition closed at the Met on May 5, 2013 and was on on view in Chicago, from June 26 to September 9, 2013.  

There have been in-depth reviews of both exhibitions by various publications, including Hal Foster’s review of Inventing Abstraction, At MoMA in the London Review of Books,  Roberta Smith’s The Cross-Dressing of Art and Couture in The New York Times, Peter  Schjeldahl’s Shapes of Things: Birth of the Abstract in the New Yorker,  and Costume Drama by Ariella Budick in the Financial Times.   My observations are different from these and other critical art reviews.  Without focusing on the content or the quality of the exhibitions per se, I aim to examine them through the lens of specific exhibition approaches, and to raise the question: what do these trends imply for future exhibitions and other museums?

Social Networking

The first image that confronts the visitor to Inventing Abstraction is a wall-size diagram depicting the links between the many artists whose early twentieth century work established abstraction as a recognized art form.  They are all there —  Kandinsky, Arp, Sonia and Robert Delauney, Malevich, Mondrian and even the poet Mallarme — and the visualization of their connections across Western Europe and beyond creates a powerful prelude to the exhibition.  Through the chart we begin to fathom how ideas and experiments moved from one café, one studio and one city, to another café and studio and city,  how seemingly different kinds of artists could develop a common conviction regarding the need to move beyond the boundaries of representational art, and how artistic developments are influenced by the social relations between and among the creative individuals in a particular time and cultural sphere.

It was a brilliant curatorial decision to open Inventing Abstraction with this depiction of a vast social/art network.   After all, social networks are all the rage today.  We define our professional identities through Linked In, exchange opinions with friends and others through Twitter, share personal memories and moments via Facebook, and offer pictorial records of our lives through Pinterest.  Networking has morphed from cocktail party chatter to conscious, constant maintenance of distributed digital contacts, both personal and otherwise.  For contemporary visitors, especially younger visitors, the very concept of a network helps to communicate the “invention” of a movement or a style such as abstraction.   I was not surprised to see visitors retracing their steps to return to the chart to in order to situate particular artists in the overall network.

Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity does not have the same diagrammatic opening, but it certainly establishes the extent to which the same kind of networking influenced artistic developments in mid-19th century Paris, when the city was becoming a world center for both art and fashion.  While the exhibit’s explicit goal is to “reveal the vital relationship between fashion and art” in the period 1860-1880, it equally reveals the dense web of personal and professional connections that influenced how art was created, perceived, marketed and consumed.

The importance of networking between the artists themselves is obvious throughout the exhibition.  Through excellent labeling, we learn that some artists encouraged their colleagues, providing suggestions on stylistic development.  Some purchased one another’s works.  Some supported other artists or helped them to gain a place in a favored exhibition. Some even sat for their colleagues, providing fodder for the fashionable portraits that punctuate the show.

Beyond the ties between the artists, there were other crucial relationships in the social-economic web that underlies Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity: connections and inter-connections between artists, artists wives or mistresses, gallery owners, journalists and other writers, collectors, fashion illustrators, milliners, and artists models.  In fact, the influence of models as key connectors in the art and fashion milieu jumps out as one of the exhibition’s sub-themes.  .

None of the three elements of the Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity triad could have occurred in isolation from one another; neither could they have occurred without the extensive social networking of the time.  Just as abstract art  evolved through networking, so did fashion and art in Paris in the early modern years.

Interdisciplinary and Cross-Media Perspectives

As a long-time visitor to both MoMA and the Met, I expect these institutions to approach the exhibition of art from primarily connoisseurship perspectives. By that I mean that they usually focus on images and artifacts in relation to other similar works, and they usually isolate different art forms or media from one another.  Textiles, paintings, decorative arts, musical instruments, photographs and other art forms all have their own departments and cross-cutting exhibitions are not the norm.  In-depth explorations of an artistic trend, medium or artist are more common than interdisciplinary exhibitions.  Contextual exhibitions, i.e. those that engage multiple art forms to illustrate ideas and artistic developments in a particular time and place, are even rarer.

These assumptions explain my surprise and pleasure when I realized that both of these important exhibitions, in two influential art museums, were broadly conceived, richly contextual, and as focused on the connections between different art forms as in the merits of the specific objects themselves.  In fact, both exhibitions are explicit about the interdisciplinary and cross-media objectives in their introductory materials and both reveal the breadth of their curatorial perspectives through their labels, their use of varied images and objects, the essays in the accompanying catalogs, and in their interpretive programming.

While Impressionism, Fashion and Modernit is inherently interdisciplinary, it goes beyond the predictable presentation of exquisite ball gowns and luscious picnic scenes to present social historical details in the form of literary quotes, men’s hats, fashion magazines and society portraits.   These complement the ball gowns and picnic scenes and help viewers to understand the socio-historical context in which they were created.   In fact, watching how people responded to the

Farbstudie Mit Rauten (Color Study with Lozenges) 1913 Stadtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich
Farbstudie Mit Rauten (Color Study with Lozenges) 1913
Stadtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich

exhibition, it was clear to this viewer that the complementary materials were as meaningful as the featured costumes and paintings.

Inventing Abstraction,1910-1925 is even more explicitly interdisciplinary, with an  introduction that describes the show as a “cross media portrait”.   While paintings constitute the spine of the show, it includes samples of poetry, book bindings, displays of musical notations and films of modern dance as examples of the experimentation taking place in all art forms during the movement towards Abstraction.  During one of my visits to MoMA an actor was pacing the galleries, reciting poems by Mallarme and confronting visitors with an immediate, visceral experience that effectively communicated artists’ efforts to reject conventions and break prevailing artistic boundaries.

Inclusion of Women Artists

With the burgeoning of scholarship on women in recent decades, growing recognition that women have been overlooked in past definitions of the artistic canon, and growing numbers of influential contemporary women artists, institutions world-wide are attempting to correct the gender imbalances in their collections and their exhibitions.   More and more art exhibitions that involve multiple artists include at least one or two women artists.   Both Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925  and Impressionism, Fashion and Modernism are excellent examples of exhibitions that include a good number of women artists and acknowledge these artists’ influences on the artistic movements of which they were a part.

Mix of Familiar and Less Familiar Works   

Both Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925 and Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity are made up of block-buster paintings along with paintings and objects that are less familiar.  Renoir is presented alongside Carolus-Duran; Kandinsky alongside Stevens. Thematic exhibits such as these allow for the inclusion of items that may not rank as first rate in terms of their particular style but that enhance understanding of artistic trends and complement the other better known works. These objects round out a visitor’s understanding of the topic or theme while also prompting new appreciation of lesser known works.  This viewer, for instance, was intrigued by the connections between the Italian Futurists, some of whom are not widely known, with the  popular “inventors” of Abstraction featured at MoMA.  Similarly, I found the works by Berthe Morisot  in Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity some of the most interesting paintings in the show, and intend to learn more about her oeuvre.

An unexpected benefit of combining masterpieces with other works, and items from the permanent collections with loaned objects, is the potential to stimulate viewers to search out different areas of the museum.  This viewer, for instance, is now determined to learn more about the Met’s Costume Institute, and to re-examine the galleries of 19th century French and European Art with new eyes.

Interpretive Programming

Most people associate  MoMA and the Met with their buildings, their paintings and the other artifacts that make up their collections.  Few realize the extent to which both institutions are open universities, with assets in the form of experts as well as objects, and with spaces and opportunities for programming that can expand on exhibition viewings and even provoke entirely new perspectives on the works on display.

The interpretive programs developed by both MoMA and the Met to accompany the two exhibitions under discussion is one of the least obvious but most impressive aspects of their presentations.  No brief description can do justice to the array of musical programs, gallery talks, readings, performances, scholarly lectures, tours, films, and classes.  For Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925, MoMA curators put together lectures and gallery discussions, concerts, poetry readings and musical performances that explore multiple dimensions of the exhibition theme as well as its resonance in various art forms today.  As one example, the dancer Fabian Barba presents “A Mary Wigman Dance Evening,” in which he recreates dances by Wigman, a celebrated choreographer of “abstract dances, that she presented in her 1930-31 US tour.

At the Met program curators have been equally inventive, offering panel discussions, regular gallery talks, and free lectures on such topics as “The Corset” and “Skirting the Issue: The Impressionists and Consumerism.”  In addition the Met offers several short courses, including one on “Plein Air Painting,” in which a painting conservator and an art historian provide insights into the materials and techniques used by the Impressionists to paint outdoors.  There is also an in-depth 3-session course that investigates the relationship between fashion and art from 1860 to 1880 in Paris.  Collectively, these programs allow for a deep exploration of the exhibition themes, taking participants into new and unexpected topics and artistic forms. .

Looking Ahead

There are certainly other aspects of these two exhibitions that merit consideration, such as the strength of the concepts on which they are based, the quality of the selections, and technical issues such as lighting and the use of color.  However, the trends identified above seem worthy of attention if only because they may be harbingers of similar practices at MoMA, the Met and other comparable art museums.  Already, it seems, the contextual curatorial approach seems to be in the air.  In October 2013 a major exhibition titled Fernand Leger and the Modern City will open at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  It will be interdisciplinary; it  will relate Leger’s works to “urban spaces,experiences and audiences”: and it will explore the impact of the modern city on the artist.    The Philadelphia Museum’s exhibition description states that Leger’s painting The City:  

“inaugurated for the French artist an intense experimental period that lasted through the mid-1920s, during which he redefined the practice of painting by confronting it with forms of cultural production central to the public life of the modern city, such as graphic and advertising design, theater, film, and architecture.” 

Based on this description, we may expect to have the same kind of cultural immersion experience at the Leger exhibition as visitors have had  at Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925 and at Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity.  In both cases the exhibition curators and their colleagues have extended the boundaries of traditional art exhibition practice and, in so doing, prompted viewers to  think differently and more broadly about the  objects and images on view.  The curatorial approaches have resulted in exhibitions that are visually and intellectually invigorating.  They merit consideration by other curators at MoMA, the Met, and beyond.


I should note that several days after having written the above comments on the exhibition at the Met, including the comments on Social Networking as a sub-them, I obtained the excellent exhibition catalogue — Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity – and was fascinated to read a chapter on the very same topic, Social Networking, by the book’s editor, Gloria Grooms.  Grooms is David and Mary Winton Green Curator of Nineteenth-Century European Painting and Sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago.  She provided essential curatorial perspectives in the creation of the exhibition and has created a model exhibition catalog.  The essays all add important insights and analysis, deepening the intellectual experience for the viewer and challenging traditional assumptions about what is art, what is fashion and how they are inter-related.

The exhibition catalogue for Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925. How A Radical Idea Changed Modern Art., was edited by Curator Leah Dickerman.  It, too, offers extensive analyses of different aspects of the birth of Abstraction, reflecting the same depth of inquiry and interdisciplinary perspective that are visible at MoMA.