The Big Show

Nicholas Penny

  • Henri Matisse: A Retrospective by John Elderfield
    Thames and Hudson, 479 pp, £48.00, September 1992, ISBN 0 500 09231 1
  • Henri Matisse 1904-1917 by Yves-Alain Bois
    Centre Pompidou, 524 pp, frs 220.00, February 1993, ISBN 2 85850 722 8

The visual arts today have two publics. One consists of people who visit, and revisit, churches, cathedrals, museums and galleries – as well as temporary loan exhibitions. The second consists of those whose experience of art is almost entirely of these exhibitions. Temporary loan exhibitions are not a new thing: they were mounted by the British Institution in London before the National Gallery was founded. But the big show – the international loan exhibition with its complex logistics, massive budget and, frequently, a good measure of political prestige – is still a comparatively new phenomenon, although its demise has been repeatedly predicted, chiefly because of rising insurance costs and the anxieties of conservators. It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that what is really threatened is not the big show but the welfare of the museum or gallery which is its host.

Few major galleries can afford not to mount such shows, for the activity and ‘gate’ can be measured as ‘growth’ and shows attract the publicity which convinces both paymasters in government and private benefactors that the gallery deserves further support. The big show attracts a public for the permanent collection. Or so it is claimed. The Parisians who queue to see the new shows at the Grand Palais are seldom to be seen in the Louvre. And the more big shows there are, the less likely it is that those who visit them will feel the need for alternative sustenance.

Many conservators or curators privately concede that they neglect – or postpone – their duties to the permanent collection because of the importunate needs or the irresistible glamour of such shows. Moreover, it is not unusual either in the UK or the USA for part of the permanent collection to be temporarily packed away in order to make room for the big – for the even bigger – show. In Italy some smaller museums now seem to be open only for exhibitions, while the permanent collection remains in store. And in great Italian cities new spaces – often deconsecrated churches – are being opened up for shows, while in the museums and galleries the areas open to the public are contracting.

A museum which builds a new wing or is extensively refurbished can find its permanent collection treated like a show. Several of the VIPs I escorted around the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery when it opened asked me how long the ‘exhibit’ would be on and seemed bewildered when I replied ‘for ever.’ The Tate Gallery has adopted the novel idea of turning its permanent collection into a show by changing much of the display annually. The policy has offended many people, though it can be defended on the grounds that the Tate doesn’t have the space to exhibit all of its major works. It also has the great advantage of discouraging the premature establishment of a canon of modern art, or at least of encouraging less orthodox views, and reappraising neglected artists – a service best performed by small shows put on by large galleries.

Big shows play safe. Monet (more Monet shows are in preparation), Van Gogh, Matisse are the ideal subjects. The Matisse show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which closed in January and can now be seen in abbreviated form at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, has been one of the most successful shows of recent decades. Those who have visited it dwell on the distance they travelled, the long queues they encountered, the attendance figures (reportedly higher than for Picasso). As with Pavarotti in the Park, the experience of high art approximates ever more closely to that of mass spectator sport or the popular pilgrimage.

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