Curating Classicisms

Curating Classicisms

Classicisms is on display through June 11, 2017 at the Smart Museum of Art.

Classicisms co-curators Larry Norman and Anne Leonard answered a few questions about the exhibition and the curatorial process.

Larry Norman is the Frank L. Sulzberger Professor in the Department of Romance Languages & Literatures and the Committee on Theater & Performance Studies. Anne Leonard is the Interim Senior Director of Academic and Curatorial Initiatives and Curator of European Art at the Smart Museum, and Lecturer in the Department of Art History. Classicisms is on display through June 11, 2017 at the Smart Museum of Art.

Why this exhibition? What about the term “classicism” fascinates you and should intrigue others?

LN: This exhibition grew out of wonderful convergence of interest from a broad range of faculty and graduate students in the Humanities. The breadth in areas of specialization in various national traditions and artistic media was matched by an equal range of historical periods.

AL: While the idea to look at classicism from a transhistorical perspective was Larry’s, the Smart Museum was delighted to partner with him to make the Classicisms exhibition a reality.  It’s very much in line with the kinds of faculty-curated projects we’ve done for many years, which support interdisciplinary collaboration and draw on research being done in different domains across the University of Chicago.

LN:  I was first interested in the subject due to its relevance to my own research in early-modern France.  As is usual, there exists a certain “French exception” in regards to classicism, as in most domains of culture.  In French, classicisme refers not to Greece and Rome or its cultural heritage, but instead to the great period of French artistic and literary hegemony over Europe. Needless to say, the rest of Europe eventually resisted this French domination. And the Romantics, in turn, invented the modern notion of Classicism as a foil against which they could define their cause. 

So the “classical” is hardly a timeless and stable notion, but instead one that has its own history, its own birth and winding, surprising life story.  The gallery rooms of our exhibit, and the collected essays in the exhibition, attempt to tell this multi-faceted story anew.

I liked the parts of the exhibit with side-by-side-by-side comparisons. How did you decide on that as the best vehicle for forwarding the exhibition’s message?

LN: Common themes, like the treatment of body and sexuality in the “classical nude,” or the political implications of martial heroism inherited from Greco-Roman art, were found to be treated in vastly disparate ways over time, creating exciting and paradoxical contrasts.  It was then Anne Leonard, my co-curator and the real mastermind behind the exhibition’s layout, who brilliantly translated these scholarly discussions into a stunning gallery experience.

AL: Just as the slide pair is a standard pedagogical tool in art history classes, so side-by-side comparisons in art exhibitions are a powerful way of making a point or suggesting a connection.  Yet what I found in conceiving this exhibition was that sometimes a third term was needed.  From early on in the planning, I envisioned the two trios of sculptures in the front space as a visually powerful introduction to the concept of classicism, one that would transcend simple binaries of “new/old” or “original/copy” and convey something even more complex.

The exhibition is paired with a catalogue of essays about “classicism” in a number of fields. What’s an area that “classicism” affects that people don’t usually think about?

AL: There’s sometimes a perception that modern artists rebelled against the classical to the point of tossing it all out the window—and that modern forms of media, such as film and video, have no use for classical tropes or forms.  The evidence in the catalogue essays suggests just the opposite.  Jennifer Wild (Cinema & Media Studies and Romance Languages and Literatures) shows how stills from a Man Ray film (1929) very consciously mimic, even re-enact, classical statuary with live actors (the image was so powerful that we chose it for the catalogue cover).  And Rebecca Zorach’s (PhD ‘99) essay highlights the use of classical references in contemporary hip-hop videos in a way that is indelibly connected with present-day discourse on race.

LN: I’d highlight the importance of sexuality, which appears in essays by Benjamin Morgan (English) and Glenn Most (Comparative Literature), among others.  The classical can be variously heterosexual and homosexual, sensual and austere, liberating and oppressive; in the most interesting cases, it is all of these at one time! A second crucial undercurrent is that of the political:  here again, the classical is almost perversely malleable: it has been used to propagandize autocracy (a tradition that begins with Augustus and continued through Napoleon) and democracy (from Athens to the Washington DC Mall) as well as such contradictory movements as Fascism and Stalinism.   

How does curating an exhibition compare to researching for a piece you'll publish?

AL: It’s wildly different!  An exhibition is built around a set of objects—a checklist—and in the end, the potential of any exhibition depends on that set of objects.  So it’s an interesting constraint, in a way.  In scholarship, you can pull evidence from such a wide range of sources, call upon geographically disparate examples, and array them in the way that seems most logical and elegant.  In a sense, you have more control.  But you don’t have the thrill of unpacking a crate and seeing the physical work of art materialize before your eyes.

What was your favorite part of the exhibition and why?

AL: I love the Raffaelo Monti Veiled Lady, lent by the Minneapolis Institute of Art.  When we requested the loan, they told us this sculpture always tops visitor surveys of most popular work in the galleries, so I was not at all confident they would part with it for the exhibition. But they agreed, even to display it without a vitrine top, and it’s really a breathtakingly beautiful sculpture.  I would guess it’s never been seen in dialogue with a Joel Peter Witkin photograph, until now.  Another work that was very important to me to get as a loan was the Bouguereau painting of Homer and His Guide, from Milwaukee.  I had always wanted to see this work next to the Smart’s René Ménard painting of Homer.  The two canvases were painted just 10 years apart and were inspired by the same poem, yet each one acts so differently on the viewer and offers such a distinct vision of the classical past.

LN:  I’d hate to give one!

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May 1, 2017