Five Eighteenth-Century Exhibitions at McMaster University

Posted in exhibitions by Editor on September 7, 2011

From The McMaster Museum of Art in Hamilton, Ontario:

This fall, explore 18th-century art and its ongoing influence in five concurrent exhibitions of historical and contemporary art. Rising to the Occasion is mounted in conjunction with and as a complement to the McMaster University John Douglas Taylor Conference The Immaterial Eighteen Century, October 27-29.

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Rising to the Occasion: The Long 18th Century
The McMaster Museum of Art, Hamilton, Ontario, 3 September — 5 November 2011

Rising to the Occasion: The Long 18th Century is the governing title for exhibition-episodes that explore facets of culture and society in the 18th century—ideas, rather than attempts to tell the story of art as history. But art has a value in a historical reckoning—it does rise to the occasion, and allows both a mirror and lens perspective.

The choice of exhibition works interweaves the historical and the contemporary in order to open up different discussions—the legacies of the 18th century—enlightenment, empiricism, revolution and innovation and the instability of these ideas, as they speak to our unstable time. The keynote episode is borrowed directly from the title of Rebecca Belmore’s Rising to the Occasion. The original occasion was Belmore’s response to the Duke and Duchess of York’s official visit to Canada in 1987; she cobbled together and wore a hybrid-material dress in the manner and style of the 19th century. The new context is the inclusion of John Verelst’s so-described “Four Indian Kings” paintingswhich were commissioned by Queen Anne in 1710. The now disembodied Belmore dress as object-artifact has a resonance with Jean-Antoine Houdon’s 1767 life-sized plaster flayed figure—sculpted to show the body muscles—and in turn George Romney’s portrait with an écorché figure.

Paintings by Jean-Joseph Taillasson and Angelica Kauffmann, draw their subject matter from the classical world to send messages to their “18th-century present.” Taillasson’s audience was the new social order of post-Revolutionary France; for Kauffmann, a subject that could appeal to the heroic—in the wake of the first “global” Seven Years War—and her metatext on the role of women. A contemporary counterpoint is Tony Scherman’s monumental Napoleon painting, from his About 1789 series, which Scherman describes as a forensic portrait. Likewise, John Massey’s 1985 photo-collage serigraph Versailles is another forensic moment and constructed embodiment; an arm of collaged gold that cannot rise, gripped by the arm of the artist. Angela Grauerholz’s black and white photograph Voltaire’s Study (Voltaire was one of the great writer and humanists of the 18th century) has a subtle counterpoint in Taillasson’s painting, as Jiri Ladocha’s suite of Voltaire portraits have with the Houdon figure. Ladocha worked with a mould from Houdon’s Voltaire portrait bust, reconstructed as if it were a Cubist vision—the deep past, the historical modern, and the present.

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Jinny Yu and Don Andrus: Cadenza
The McMaster Museum of Art, Hamilton, Ontario, 3 September — 5 November 2011

Cadenza is a collaborative artist project. Jinny Yu and Don Andrus agreed upon the starting point, an early, major mural The Brazen Serpent, by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (Italian, 1696-1770), and to work to the original dimensions, 164 x 1365 cm. The Brazen Serpent, is based on a biblical story of Moses and commissioned for the SS. Cosma e Damiano church in Venice. As a consequence of Napoleon’s invasion of Italy in 1797, and the suppression of the church, the mural was removed and taken to Castelfranco, 40 km away. It was left rolled up until the end of the 19th century when it was reinstalled at the Galleria dell’Accademia in Venice, a museum dedicated to Venetian painting from the Byzantine era to the 18th century.

The why of Tiepolo, and this mural, is different for the two artists. For Jinny Yu—working with oil on aluminium panels and a grisaille (monochromatic) technique—it was the condition of the work, the striations and loss of painting that occurred during its history, that opened up “modern questions.”

Yu wrote:
I am fascinated by the pictorial tension that is present due to the co-existence of illusional space Tiepolo created and the cracks on the surface of the painting left by years of bad conservation. I “express” these cracks on the surface of my work to emphasize a receding space—to explore the boundary between illusion and reality in painting.

For Andrus, it was the challenge of working figuratively, and at the same time, understanding and admiring Tiepolo’s contribution as one of the great colourists of the 18th century. He decided to “extract” twelve heads/portraits from the Tiepolo mural, but based eleven of them on individuals on Prince Edward Island—the twelfth is Jinny Yu. As he also commented on the importance and value in mining art history as if a geological undertaking, thereby revealing something below the surface.

The title Cadenza is apt, a term in music referring to improvisations within a scored piece of music. It was chosen as a reference to their intention in creating their own particular variation on Tiepolo’s mural.

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A Glimpse of China in the 18th Century
The McMaster Museum of Art, Hamilton, Ontario, 23 August 2011 — 7 January 2012

Curated by Angela Sheng

The 18th century in China witnessed the reign periods of three important Manchu emperors of the last imperial Qing (pronounced as ch’ing) dynasty (1644-1911): Emperor Kangxi (r. 1662-1722), Emperor Yongzheng (r. 1723-1735), and Emperor Qianlong (r. 1736-1795). Both Emperor Kangxi and his grandson, Emperor Qianlong, were intensely interested in other cultures. They emulated the scholarly elite of the Han majority whom they ruled, for example, composing poems and writing them in calligraphy and displaying them in many forms. Similarly, they showed much curiosity about the west. During these three prosperous reigns, the arts flourished at court with far-reaching implications for innovation. In this exhibition, with works from the McMaster Museum of Art, and private collections, we present a mere glimpse of the rippling effects as contrast to that which highlighted the 18th century in the West.

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The ‘Floating’ Urbanities of Utamaro and Hogarth: Pictures for Women?
The McMaster Museum of Art, Hamilton, Ontario, 23 August 2011 — 7 January 2012

Curated by Mark A. Cheetham

The famous printmakers and painters William Hogarth (1697-1764) and Kitagawa Utamaro (c.1753-1806) lived worlds apart. What little Hogarth knew of Asian art fell under the broad heading of Chinoiserie: lacquer, porcelain, and figurines popular in Britain since the East India Company traded out of Hirado, Japan c.1613-23. As late as the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London—almost a century after Hogarth’s death—the specific qualities of Japanese art remained officially a subset of Chinese achievement. Utamaro was equally unaware of European art.

Art historians like to see verifiable aesthetic influence of the sort Japanese art so powerfully exercised on British artists beginning in the 1860s. That wasn’t the relationship between Utamaro and Hogarth, but their remoteness can free us to consider connections other than those of cause and effect. Hogarth and Utamaro were strategically involved with the thriving commerce in prints in their respective metropolises and societies. Both struggled against competition and state censorship. We can also witness the unstable vicissitudes of two of the 18th century’s most vibrant visual cultures in these artists’ signature trade in images of women.

Both artists offered the many viewers of their prints infinitely intricate typologies of women and their activities. Hogarth mirrored the shifting social sands of London through endless anecdote. Utamaro construed Edo’s visual culture of women more simply and subtly but with no less purpose. Seeing this work together, we may productively reverse common opinion that would contrast Utamaro’s connoisseurial appreciation of women with Hogarth’s overt moralizing.

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First Contact? Artists of the Cook Voyages
The McMaster Museum of Art, Hamilton, Ontario, 26 August 2011 — 7 January 2012

As Australian art historian Bernard Smith wrote, the three voyages of Captain Cook (between 1768 and 1780) greatly enhanced the economic and political power of Europe in the Pacific, and added appreciably to a body of knowledge in the areas of botany, meteorology and a “nascent science of ethnography.”

The Cook voyages were not the absolute first contact, but they represented the first encyclopaedic and rigorous scientific exploration and documentation of the Pacific Rim and Antipodes. To this end, Cook was astute in enlisting professional artists to record plants, land, “effects” and people, and placed unprecedented demands on their skills and inventive responses, underscored by the instructions he gave; “to observe the Genius, Temper and Disposition…of the Natives and Inhabitants.” While this visual record is rarely considered within art history, Smith argued forcefully that it made a significant contribution to European empiricism of the 18th century. He proposed that it characterized a new respect and appreciation for drawing in the 18th century.

First Contact? is drawn from the collections of the Library and Archives Canada and the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, including 2nd and 3rd voyage drawings by artists William Hodges and John Webber, and related works by Nathaniel Dance, James Basire, John Keyse Shirwin, and William Woollett. A complement component, from the McMaster Museum of Art collection, are works on paper by François Boucher, John Flaxman, Thomas Gainsborough, James Jeffreys and Giovanni Battista Tiepolo.

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