Curators Versus Artists…


Curators Vs Artists

     Last year I visited the Victoria and Albert Museum for a series of lectures.

During my two day experience of the conference at the V & A “Ceramics on show”, it has become quite apparent to me the sometimes different and conflicting views of curators and artists, and the way the work is displayed.

Though mostly both one are as important as the other in the day to day presentation of art, there can be no denying the overriding importance of the artist and his or her concept of their work in their intended context. Indeed without the artist there would be nothing to curate!

            This is particularly pertinent when such an artist is contemporary, as it’s still possible to contact the artist and get a better feel for the idea in mind. However saying this curators come into their own when the artist is deceased. With the imperative research which becomes necessary to be undertaken in order to ensure that the artists pieces continue to be presented in relevant context.

            I was amazed to realise the sheer amount of effort, and research, which is generally carried out by the different curators, and specialists, in these undertakings. None more so than the research, which was undertaken, by Jessica Harrison-Hall of the British Museum, who brought to our attention the elaborate way in which blue and white ceramics have been displayed over the years.

 Sometimes I must admit so very distastefully by collectors, who mostly used such overwhelming arrays of ceramics in order to show their wealth, and obvious position in society. Some such individuals spent veritable fortunes on acquiring vast collections of works fashionable at the time, and paying for architects to draw up intricate designs depicting how such items should be displayed, as pointed out in the presentation by Maureen Cassidy-Geiger.

            Some of the above collectors were so addicted to the acquisition of such pieces that there was a medical condition named after such a display aptly named “Chinamania”. We were lucky enough to have this fever explained to us by Dr Anne Anderson and Dr Scott Anderson.

One such sufferer of this “Maladie de Porcelain”, as it was also called, was King August “the Strong” of Poland, who filled vast palaces in Germany with thousands of displays of such wares.

            Such collections, in their garish mass, can be seen throughout the exhibition at the V & A. Such works contrast greatly with most of the more contemporary works and pieces of the modern artist, and are for the most part easily identifiable and understandable, either as utilitarian functioning ware, or as ornamentation. The more modern art seems to rely and use the space within such an object, or collection of objects, is set. None more so than the works by ceramic artists Anders Ruhwald…

 …and Edmund de Waal, whose pieces rely and interact directly with the space where they are set.

            Some of these pieces or collections rely upon constant and close collaboration between the Artist and Curator, thus ensuring the setting of the exhibition in context with the idea which the artist had in mind. Such experiences bring to mind several others for me, one of which was when I visited the Henry Moore Exhibition, which ran earlier this year at the Tate Britain.

At this exhibition several of the Moore pieces were to be seen presented in a gallery context…

…where they had been intended by the artist to be viewed out of doors…

…and in direct interaction with the surrounding landscape. These pieces I found had therefore lost quite an amount of their powerful expression.

            The artist Aimee Lax at the conference shared her own experience, and communicated with us her frustration of having witnessed at first hand her own work being very badly presented by the curators of a gallery on Bond Street.

            You cannot see from this photo that the ceramic plant… is growing towards the light of a sky-light.

            In my opinion, curators, whether dealing with the works of primitive man, or a contemporary artist, should endeavour to research with the utmost passion and attention to detail the context and expression as such works deserve. Working in close collaboration with the artist where possible, to achieve this, therefore helping the viewer better to understand the works. Works out of context or in disarray can so very easily misrepresent the intentions and feeling of artists, and can leave the onlooker feeling confused as to the meaning of the work.

            In all, I feel, the experience of the two days was successful. I feel as though I now understand, in much greater detail, and appreciate the work of curators and the challenges which they face. The series of speeches, and discussions which followed, tough at times thoroughly “bum numbing”, were educational. One such speech given by Chris Jordan on the collection of Martinware owned by Ernest Marsh was just such a speech. The word fanatic comes to the forefront.

            It was a very interesting experience overall, and gave me a much better understanding of how museums operate behind the scenes. More than 200 curators, designers, researchers and technicians were employed to bring this ceramics exhibition to life.

            However I must remember next time to take a nice soft cushion with me!!

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