By Claudia Einecke – Frances B. Bunzl Family Curator of European Art, High Museum of Art
Among a curator’s many responsibilities, installing exhibitions is my favorite. It is the most creative aspect of my job, as my decisions about how paintings and sculptures are arranged in a gallery shape how our visitors experience and understand them.
In most cases, an exhibition’s layout is largely pre-determined by its overarching concept. For instance, if the exhibition is about the unfolding of an artist’s career, or about the succession of painting styles over time, a chronological arrangement will best illustrate the point; if, in contrast, the exhibition is about the meaning of various subjects an artist has depicted over the course of her or his career, the works will most likely be grouped by theme.
In laying out the 65 paintings and sculptures in the High Museum’s current exhibition European Masterworks: The Phillips Collection, I was presented with a special challenge: neither a chronological nor a thematic arrangement seemed to make much sense, conceptually or visually.
Duncan Phillips, who founded The Phillips Collection in Washington, DC as the first US museum dedicated to modern art, never intended to assemble a full survey of the history of modern art. Rather, he collected works that appealed to him personally and that, to his mind, related to one another aesthetically. As a result, many works in the Phillips Collection, and therefore in our exhibition, are one-offs – amazing, beautiful paintings and sculptures that represent various styles and themes but often lack the usual art historical context that would be illuminated by a chronological or thematic hang.
How then was I going to arrange these masterworks so that they made sense? The aha-moment came when I reread some of Duncan Phillips’s extensive writings on art and collecting. One of his tenets was that “art is a universal language” and that “the really good things of all ages and all periods could be brought together… with such delightful results that we recognize the special affinities between artists.” Based on this, Phillips (as the curator of his own collection) liked to make unusual juxtapositions in his gallery installations, often pairing works that at first glance appear to have little in common. His thinking was that viewers who engaged actively with what they saw would discover for themselves visual connections between seemingly disparate works.
Eureka! Adopting this idea, I finally devised a roughly chronological layout that is punctuated here and there by deliberately unorthodox groupings. For example, early on in the trajectory, you find hanging next to each other an Orientalist scene by the Romantic master Eugène Delacroix; Berthe Morisot’s Impressionist picture of two women at their toilette; and an Expressionist landscape with figures by Chaïm Soutine. Chronologically, stylistically, and conceptually these three are far apart, but aesthetically they form a harmonious trio, connected by virtue of their similarly energetic brushwork, color palettes of luminous light blues and greens, and comparable levels of emotional intensity.
Like Duncan Phillips, I hope that our visitors look for other such moments in the exhibition, and that they enjoy “overhearing” the aesthetic conversations among some of the great masterworks of nineteenth- and twentieth-century art.
Claudia Einecke is the Frances B. Bunzl Family Curator of European Art at the High Museum of Art, the leading art museum in the Southeast. European Masterworks: The Phillips Collection is on view at the High until July 14. high.org