Visions of Order and Chaos: The Enlightened Eye
In his late, short book St. Mark’s Rest (1877), John Ruskin says that nations compose their autobiographies in three ways: in “the book of their deeds, the book of their words, and the book of their art.” How, then, do you tell the history of a century filled with dramatic change—1750 to 1850—marked in Europe by the end of the old regime, the birth of modern democracy, and the promise of Enlightenment liberation?
On ViewCarnegie Museum of Art
March 3 – June 24, 2018
Intellectual historians tell this story in written narratives; Visions of Order and Chaos presents it visually, using about two hundred objects, almost all from the Carnegie Museum’s permanent collection. There are some paintings and sculptures, but also architectural models, coins, earthen wares, fans, illustrated books, miniatures, photographs, porcelain dishes, portrait medallions, pottery, and many works on paper. Some written histories are organized chronologically, while others focus on different geographic regions. Using these objects, extensive wall labels frame three overarching questions from the Enlightenment and its aftermath in a three-part visual narrative: Where do ideas come from—from nature or from other artworks? Are humans perfectible? Can empires survive? The distinctive colors of the high gallery walls explicitly demarcate the three parts of the narrative. In part one, a light terracotta alludes to the classical world; in part two, emerald green walls connote the damask-hung galleries of the traditional museum; and in the third part, an azure blue opens us to a wider world of risk and promise. In part one, a Roman marble, Sleeping Hermaphrodite, is juxtaposed with an English mezzotint showing a woman sleeping; a nineteenth-century drawing of the Parthenon is set alongside an American drawing of a museum of art and architecture, modeled on the Parthenon; and an Italian copy of a Leonardo da Vinci depiction of a man’s head is placed adjacent to drawings of heads by Thomas Rowlandson. In part two, we get painted portraits by George Romney, Sir Henry Raeburn, and other British painters. And part three includes ancient and eighteenth-century portrait medallions, French and German pictures of Italy, and a lithograph and engravings showing Native American culture. Here, we find the challenge of the new explorations, industry, and change. Thus George Washington’s stance in his portrait here is not unlike that of Louis XVI, but where the French king stands for the old regime, Washington is a ruler from the new, modernist world. Risk and challenges are the new factors.
When Andrew Carnegie founded his museum in Pittsburgh in 1896 he didn’t establish a permanent collection. He wanted to use the Internationals—group shows just of contemporary works held annually at first, and then irregularly after 1950—to bring the art of the world to the city. Since then, the museum has purchased award-winning art from these shows, and has also assembled a smaller permanent collection of old master and early modernist art. Because the focus has been on these Internationals, the Carnegie has only a relatively modest display of pre-modern art. And so, while many grand survey exhibitions are built around some selection of recognized masterpieces; to be realistic, that’s not an option right now at this museum. Apart from the marvelous Chardin still life from the permanent collection and a great Canaletto on loan, which shows the Venetian lagoon, there are no such paintings in Visions of Order and Chaos. There are, to be sure, a number of works here that will attract the art lover—the woodcut print by Caspar David Friedrich and John Constable’s tiny The Washing Line are examples.
St. Mark’s Rest uses a selection of art in Venice, converting that city into a museum, to narrate a history of that city. Visions of Order and Chaos, employing a collection of works in the Carnegie, shows how both nature and art from Roman antiquity are sources of ideas; illustrates how eighteenth-century portrait painters idealized their subjects; and looks at the history of the relationship between European colonists and Native Americans. Whereas Ruskin tells a story that had ended with the Fall of Venice, this show describes events still very much in progress today. Some exhibitions are great because they present artistic masterpieces; this great show, a truly virtuostic performance by Louise Lippincott, curator of fine art, demonstrates what can be done with limited resources. This sweeping show should be an inspiration for other museums in similar situations.