By Elizabeth Cowling
I have always loved curating exhibitions, not least because I am an inveterate exhibition-goer myself, gaining more from them than I generally gain from books.
For me, the best bit by far is the installation period. At the Clark we had about a fortnight—a generous allocation. Direct, intimate engagement with the art one has selected so carefully makes up for all the problems, the anxiety, and the inevitable disappointments endured along the way.
Even though one spends years researching a show and struggling to obtain the loan of key works, and even though the lay-out has been debated and argued over and planned in minute detail, the sense of fresh discovery and sheer excitement as the crates are opened one by one is intoxicating. You can get addicted to it, craving the creative intensity, tension, and energy of the whole experience as soon as it’s come to an end.
Everyone gathers around to watch as the paintings and sculptures are removed extremely slowly and extremely carefully from their layer upon layer of packaging and lifted ever so gently onto specially prepared tables so that they can be examined meticulously by conservators to make sure that nothing has gone wrong in transit and that they really are in the state their owners claim. These works of art are so precious, so valuable and indeed so beloved that the atmosphere is hushed and hallowed as this tender disinterment takes place.
Afterwards, with the work safely unpacked and ready to hang, there is usually quite a lot of enthusiastic exclaiming and uninhibited joking because the tension has been temporarily released.
I love talking to conservators when they are compiling their ‘condition reports’: they point out things that one all too easily misses if one isn’t trained to their degree of eagle-eyed expertise and they tend to express quite strong opinions about the artist’s technique and skill. They can be quite critical, but equally they will go into raptures when they see something really exceptional.
Art handlers are often artists themselves and although their job is to keep unpacking the works according to a well-rehearsed, standardised routine, then to hang them wherever the curator decrees, patiently moving them an inch here, an inch there at the curator’s whim, they too can get charged up.
The team of art handlers at the Clark is excellent. They know each other well and there’s a great spirit of camaraderie. But they were every bit as amazed and childishly delighted as Richard Kendall and me when the plaster of Picasso’s Running Woman came out of its crate and was tenderly placed in its vitrine in the ballet section of the show. We all gasped as it emerged and then burst out laughing because the body of the woman is so outrageously proportioned and she seems to be irreverently spoofing the Degas bronze that is her partner in the show.
Picasso modelled the plaster himself—it isn’t a plaster cast of a figure modelled in clay—and you can see his finger marks and almost follow his gestures and his thinking as he rapidly built the figure up. It’s very, very fragile of course, and, frankly, I’m astonished that we got it at all because original plasters almost never leave their homes. It’s one of the highlights and rarities of the show.
Humor, incidentally, is a strong current throughout and if you find yourself laughing, don’t be surprised or embarrassed. Both of our artists were wits and both had a highly developed sense of the absurd, although Picasso’s humour tends to be broader, not to say coarser than Degas’s. One delightfully comical pair to look out for is of hefty naked ladies, back view, awkwardly clambering out of their bathtubs.
The gallery that gave me the greatest thrill to install is the large, light, open one with the women ironing, bathing, doing their hair, and being pregnant. (The aforesaid naked ladies are exhibited there.) All the works, whatever their medium, seem to interact with each other, and the more you look the more connections between them you notice. It’s almost dizzying, to the point where one forgets who—Picasso or Degas—made what.
We thought we knew exactly where everything would go in that gallery, but we made quite a lot of subtle and not so subtle adjustments when we were actually hanging it. I think everyone working there felt on a high—elated when everything was finally up, but also a little sad because the fun was over and we couldn’t play with our glorious toys anymore.
I’m writing this at my desk in cool, showery Edinburgh and my great regret is that I am not in Williamstown wandering about in the galleries, looking and thinking, and trying to gauge the reaction of visitors. Great works of art are always much more complex, ambiguous and changeable than one is inclined to remember, and they say different things in different circumstances on different days. They are literally alive.
Artists know that of course and that’s why they find the art ‘of the past’ a constant challenge: it isn’t “of the past,” it’s of the present. That’s why Degas in his time looked to so many other artists for inspiration; that’s why Picasso in his time looked for inspiration to Degas (among others), and why he found his dialogue with Degas endlessly stimulating.
Pablo Picasso, Pregnant Woman, 1950. Bronze, first state, height: 104.7 cm. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. Gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn, 1972 (HMSG 72.232) [© 2010 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York / Photo by Ricardo Blanc.
Edgar Degas, Pregnant Woman, c. 1896—1911. Bronze, height: 43.2 cm. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. The Joseph H. Hirshhorn Bequest, 1981 (HMSG 86.1415) / Photo by Lee Stalsworth.