Curators painting themselves into a corner

Art apologists tell us what to think but not how to look when they label controversial collections.

A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, 1882, by Édouard Manet.
A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, 1882, by Édouard Manet. Credit: GL Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

I’ve always admired Édouard Manet’s painting A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. It hangs in London’s Courtauld Gallery, which reopened last November following a three-year renovation. When I was a Master’s student at the Courtauld Institute next door, I’d often pop in and visit Manet’s lady, with her bowl of clementines and bottles of champagne, and wonder what it was she was thinking. Her look is the great enigma of the picture. Is she happy? Who can say?

The curators of the Courtauld, apparently. Their decision to insert a new label next to the painting has caused some consternation. ‘The barmaid appears as just another item in the enticing array on offer in the foreground,’ the label says, before describing her facial expression as ‘unsettling, especially as she appears to be interacting with a male customer’. The man’s reflection is caught in a mirror at the top right of the painting. The insinuation that he is in some way responsible for the barmaid’s ‘unsettling’ look has not gone down well with certain viewers, who point out that it detracts from the subject of the painting, which is her, not him.

The trend for foisting bizarre opinions on people with gallery labels is intensifying. The Courtauld example is very mild compared to the extraordinary collection of wacky ideas pinned up by Tate Britain in its Hogarth and Europe exhibition earlier this year. Here, one label described, in what must be said was a rather generalising way, ‘Dissolute White people’ corresponding with ‘shiny white objects’ in a painting featuring objects imported from Asia. The label beside one of Hogarth’s self-portraits, meanwhile, drew attention to the ‘American colonial style chair’ the artist sat on in the belief that it was ‘made from timbers shipped from the colonies’ and might, therefore, stand in for ‘all those unnamed black and brown people enabling the society that supports [Hogarth’s] vigorous creativity’.

Far from telling us about style, or technique, or the artist’s influence, or anything else of that nature that would be interesting to know, today’s labellers far prefer to zero in on isolated passages of paintings which just might, through modern eyes, unsettle or offend. The interpretations given are often tedious. Perilously little thought is given to artistic intention. Highly selective readings serve to blind, not to guide, and too often suck all joy out of the art itself.

Few members of the public believe that it is the responsibility of gallery staff to apologise for attitudes displayed in historic works in their collection. Who are we, besides, to be so high and mighty about what was wrong and right? You can imagine the sort of thing that could be applied to the art of today: ‘The artist of this piece contributed to the deforestation of rainforests through his consumption of palm oil.’ Or, more seriously: ‘The sculptor benefited from oil from Russia during the war with Ukraine.’

Whatever happened to simply giving gallery goers the facts? Title, artist, date, medium. Most of us would be happy with that. I haven’t been to as many European galleries over the past two years as usual, but as far as I’ve seen, the bare details still form the basis of most labels there. Britain, and to a lesser degree America, is leading the way as a nation of art apologists. If curators insist that we need a hand in interpreting what’s in front of us, they could at least ensure that they themselves know how to read the picture, instead of taking the opportunity to test a theory and offer a morality lesson. ‘Here’s what to think,’ they seem to say, not ‘Here’s how to look’.

The focus on potential controversies arising out of the art is now as intense as the focus on the morality of the artists themselves. For years now, the question of whether an artist’s private life ought to impinge on the display of their work has rattled curators. The art of Gauguin is exhibited increasingly tentatively in light of the fact that the artist had affairs with numerous Tahitian girls. Mention Balthus or Egon Schiele and many will flinch. Mention Eric Gill and you’ll receive a lecture.

Just a few weeks ago, in fact, auction house Christie’s announced that it would no longer deal in work by Gill. The early twentieth-century artist is known to have committed incest with his sister and sexually abused his daughters, as well as his dog. Earlier this year, a man scaled Broadcasting House in London to hack away at Gill’s 1931 sculpture of Prospero and Ariel, presumably in outrage that the work of a sexual predator should still be displayed at such a prominent corner of the capital. Complaints have been made for decades. The campaign for Gill’s Stations of the Cross to be removed from Westminster Cathedral began as early as 1998.

Gill sits at the extreme of the scale. Even the most open-minded viewers of his art would admit that it’s difficult to look at sculptures of his daughters in the same way after reading about what he did to them. On the other hand, many of us will use the fonts he created, such as ‘Gill Sans’ and ‘Perpetua’, without giving the man a second thought (the BBC, incidentally, dropped the use of Gill Sans as its main font last year). His art should certainly not be hidden away. Each of us will process what we see differently. That’s what art is made to encourage us to do. We must be allowed to react as individuals without being steered one way or the other. We must be allowed to make up our own minds.

The old question of whether artists ought to be judged by their art should also remain open-ended. Few would disagree with the Tate’s decision to remove images of Graham Ovenden’s art from its website in 2013 following his conviction for child sex offences. A small number of his landscapes were subsequently reinstated in the collection in 2015. But many would stand up in defence of keeping Gill’s work in the public eye on the grounds of its quality and the fact that he is no longer alive.

There can be no blanket rule for what to do with art and artists when there are so many permutations by which they might offend. Even something as innocuous looking as Myron’s ancient Greek sculpture of the Discus Thrower could be flung on a forbidden pile for being idolised by Adolf Hitler. In doing such a thing, of course, we would be following in the footsteps of the Nazis themselves.

When it comes to art, the best we can do is to stop over thinking, over policing and over explaining, and just look. Leave it to novelists to explore the moral codes of painters and to think up stories behind their works. It is one thing for a fictious character to find ‘apprehension’ in the eyes of one of Gauguin’s Tahitian girls, or to admit that the enigma of the Folies-Bergère barmaid bothers her, as the protagonist of Chloë Ashby’s recent novelWet Paint, does. It is quite another for a curator to force an unsupported opinion upon a viewer in a public gallery. We could all do with some space to think.


Daisy Dunn