For a long time, the process of creating Backstories was all about projection. I did my best to predict what the installation would look like by using a dollhouse-sized model of the gallery and, later, by working with life-sized models in the actual gallery. But when the works of art themselves took their places in the installation, it became clear that they wouldn’t just make the points I wanted them to make; they have a life of their own (thank goodness), and they say things to each other I couldn’t have predicted. Discovering these surprises has been, for me, one of the most exciting parts of being involved with this show. Let me point out a couple examples.
Early on, I knew I wanted to put Winslow Homer’s The Dinner Horn alongside St. Michael Fighting the Dragon, a woodcut from Albrecht Dürer’s Apocalypse series. Both works have versos printed with text, making it clear that they come from literary contexts (a magazine in one case, a book in the other). I thought, “The dates of these works are more than three centuries apart; it will be striking to reveal that the treatment of the verso has been consistent over such a long period of time.” But, faced with the actual works, I was equally struck by an inconsistency.
The Dürer features a typeface that is visually akin to the image on the front. This suggests the artist coordinated his efforts with those of the typographer. The typeface on the Homer, however, has a severe, mechanical quality that is alien to the (hand-drawn) image. This announces that it was produced under more modern conditions: the artist and the typographer seem to have worked independently on their contributions to the magazine, almost like people on an assembly line. I take away from this “announcement” a heightened sense that Homer’s modernity, relative to his predecessors, is not simply a matter of imagery or style; it is also rooted in the way he relates recto to verso.
The Rodin Man with a Broken Nose also caught me by surprise. I knew, of course, that the head is incomplete. The back part is broken off so viewers can see the sculpture’s hollow interior. I also knew that the sculpture is supposed to be an early example of Rodin’s interest in the aesthetics of fragments, such as Greek and Roman sculptures ravaged by time. But I don’t think I appreciated the strangeness of the sculpture until I was able to consider the back from head on, both at a distance and up close, as one can in this installation. The break doesn’t evoke the “natural” fragmentation of Greek and Roman sculptures. It’s too clean. Also, the break calls our attention to an attribute that appears all along the break: a headband or fillet, such as those that appear in ancient sculptures of victorious athletes.
A number of questions follow from these observations (at least if we assume the break was deliberate). Why would Rodin welcome an allusion to antique sculptures of athletes but not an allusion to antique fragmentation? Why would he evoke ancient sculpture at all when his motif—a day laborer with a broken nose—seems designed to flout the canon of good taste that ancient sculpture embodied? Furthermore, should we understand the smoothness of the break to imply that the back of the sculpture belongs against a wall, or did Rodin want viewers to see that the sculpture was hollow? What would have been at stake in acknowledging this hollowness?
I don’t know if anyone else will be surprised or perplexed by these sorts of things, but I would like other visitors to be surprised and perplexed, too. My hope is that the questions Backstories raises will contain the seeds of future projects shedding even more light on the “hidden” sides of art.