Reflections on the Art Scene during 2020
By Ed Voves
World War II lasted five years and one day. For almost the entire span of that terrible time, the collection of the National Gallery in London was stored in a disused slate mine, located at Manod in Wales. When the worst of the German air bombardment of London had abated in 1942, one picture per month was brought from Manod and placed on display in the museum.
The first "Picture of the Month" at the National Gallery was Titian's Noli Me Tangere, painted around 1514.
The First Picture of the Month at the National Gallery, London, 1942
The title of Titian's masterpiece comes from the command of Jesus to Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection. "Do not touch me," Jesus said and these words were fortunately reflected by the wartime turn of events. No shrapnel fragments from a German bomb "touched" Titian's masterpiece nor any of the other works of art shown to culture-starved Londoners during the war years.
This past year has seen challenges which recall the empty exhibition spaces at the National Gallery during World War II - and the tragic toll of human suffering, as well. The Covid-19 Pandemic has touched the lives of the entire human family and has affected every sphere of life, including the ways in which we appreciate art during times of crisis.
Normally, the Art Eyewitness "year in review" addresses positive trends and hopeful developments in the visual arts. Also shared are parting thoughts on the great exhibitions and new books which we have been fortunate to review. There will certainly be a few such comments in this essay. Since the Covid-19 museum closings began in March 2020, however, the opportunities to behold great works of art in person have been extremely limited. That has been - and continues to be - the big art story of 2020.
To introduce my reflections on the art scene during 2020, I am going to take a page from the National Gallery in London and present a "picture of the year." This work of art will, I hope, testify to the experience of art during the past year.
My choice wasn't difficult to make. Thomas Eakin's The Agnew Clinic, painted in 1889, is a work devoted to health care, in keeping with our thoughts on Covid-19. Created on an epic scale, the painting honors the noted surgeon at Philadelphia's Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. D. Hayes Agnew.
Eakins depicted Dr. Agnew lecturing to medical students as he and his team performed a mastectomy on a young woman patient. In a master stroke, Eakins complemented the heroic figure of Dr. Agnew and the vulnerable body of the patient by placing the operating room nurse, Mary V. Clymer, in a prominent position, anchoring the right-hand side of the painting.
Mary Clymer was a dedicated and self-sacrificing member of the American medical profession. Born in 1861 to a working-class family, she enrolled in the recently-established nursing school at the University of Pennsylvania. She graduated in 1889, the year that Eakins painted The Agnew Clinic, receiving the Nightingale Medal for her outstanding achievements.
Miss Clymer's student notes have been preserved and one of the entries underscores the look of caring and empathy which Eakins captured with such remarkable feeling and insight.
“We must always be dignified & grave," Clymer noted on the mode of conduct expected of a nurse during a surgery, "never forgetting that all we are trying to do is for the good of the patient.”
Dignity and concern for the good of the patient - these attributes are etched on Mary Clymer's face. The value of great art works like The Agnew Clinic is to remind us of the dedication of people in the caring professions, past and present.
By extension, we need to acknowledge the inspiring efforts of museum workers, curators, digital support staff and public relations specialists. These gifted professionals launched an amazing array of "virtual" programs and educational initiatives to provide access to their collections and special exhibitions when the museum doors were closed by the Covid-19 quarantine.
All the great art museums responded to the Covid crisis by opening the digital portals to their institutions. But this remarkable 360 degree "tour" of the Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art will serve as an exemplar for the outstanding work by America's art museums, coast-to-coast, during 2020.
Sadly, I am going to miss Making the Met, because of the continued difficulty of travelling to New York. However, I was able to make it to the Smithsonian American Art Museum for the spectacular Alexander von Humboldt and the United States exhibition. Originally scheduled to begin on March 14, 2020, the Humboldt exhibit opened for a short run, September 18 - November 22, 2020.
As I wrote in a recent post, the Humboldt exhibit was splendid. The life of Alexander von Humboldt, the great German scientist of the early 1800's, was highlighted by art and artifacts from his epic journeys in Latin America and by art works inspired by his legacy.
The center piece of the Humboldt exhibition was the magnificent skeleton of a prehistoric mastodon, "exhumed" in 1801 in Newburgh, New York. Later purchased for a German collection, the mighty mastodon made its first return to its native shores during the Humboldt exhibition.
To see the mastodon and the other treasures of the Humboldt exhibit was something of a "peak" experience for me. But more than a tinge of sadness colored my visit to the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) for this "once-in-a-lifetime" exhibition. The SAAM staff had prepared a wonderful range of interactive videos and activities aimed at school age children. When I visited, however, there were no kids, no school groups. I suspect that few young people managed to see this exhibit before its run was cut-short, six weeks early in late November.
One of the pictures on view in Humboldt and the United States was George Catlin's painting of Native American hunters, clad in wolf skins, sneaking up on a herd of grazing buffalo. This is among the earliest pictures which I can remember, from the Indians and the Old West volume of The Golden Library of Knowledge, which I received as a Christmas gift. It was very moving to see the original.
Childhood reading, museum visits, school trips, etc., leave their mark on young lives, generally in a very positive manner. The Covid-19 lockdown is depriving children all over the world of such formative experiences. Whatever the physical dangers which Covid-19 poses to children, the emotional and intellectual damage is only beginning to be felt. The full extent will not be known for many years and it is almost certain to be devastating.
The outreach efforts of museums will help deal with some of the baneful social consequences of Covid-19. But the shift from museums as public institutions to "virtual" platforms raises some justified fears. An example from the past when privatization prevailed over a more expansive model of society is instructive.
During 2020, I had occasion to consult an old favorite from my book shelves, Mark Girouard's Life in the English Country House. I started to re-read this classic book from 1978 and as I did so, the theme seemed to shift from a splendid commentary on architecture to an investigation of social trends. Somehow, I hadn't noticed that before.
With perceptive insight, Girouard traced the change in function of the great English rural estates. During the Middle Ages and Elizabethan times, the country estates were crowded with a host of retainers, servants, guests and travelers seeking shelter. The layout of rooms reflected the social function of these palatial "houses."
A key illustration in the book, the Portrait of Sir Henry Unton, painted in 1596, documents the traditional country house lifestyle. Unton, a prominent Elizabethan diplomat, is depicted hosting a theatrical masque at his estate, Wadley House, in one of the episodes of this unusual work of art. Providing lavish entertainments such as this was an expected feature of country house etiquette.
As the centuries passed, the country houses with their great halls open to multitudes changed due to an ever-growing demand for privacy. The tradition of "old English hospitality" for the many faded away. By the mid-1700's, it was gone, though the rise of public institutions like the British Museum, founded in 1759, took on the role of providing for learning and enjoyment open to all.
Museums in the United States served in like fashion and continue to do so. As society changes, museums have successfully served as forums for a democratic, pluralistic society. As in the medieval-era country houses, people of diverse backgrounds come together in the shared space of the museum to embrace life.
In last year's Art Scene reflections, I was very upbeat on the role of museums in society. A few short months later, the situation changed dramatically - and for the worse. Covid-19 has dealt a devastating blow to art museums as the bastions for an open society.
It is very difficult to find positive trends or developments- at least in the short term - upon which to base hope for museums, when the doors of these public institutions are locked.
A survey of 750 museum directors, conducted by the American Alliance of Museums in June 2020, makes for some very sobering reading. The key points are excerpted below:
1. One-third (33%) of museum directors surveyed confirmed there was a “significant risk” of closing permanently by next fall, or they “didn’t know” if they would survive.
2. The vast majority (87%) of museums have only 12 months or less of financial operating reserves remaining, with 56% having less than six months left to cover operations.
3. During the pandemic, 75% of museums stepped into their pivotal role as educators providing virtual educational programs, experiences, and curricula to students, parents, and teachers.
4, Two-thirds (64%) of directors predicted cuts in education, programming, or other public services due to significant budget cuts.
In the place of thriving forums of learning and public discourse, we currently have empty galleries. Like the paintings of the National Gallery, stacked in the mine shafts at Manod, the works of art are safe - but beyond our reach when we so desperately need inspiration.
Thomas Eakins (American, 1844–1916) Portrait of Dr. Hayes Agnew (The Agnew Clinic), 1889. Oil on canvas: On loan from the University of Pennsylvania Art Collection to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.