Thursday, 28 May 2009

Public vs Private in art history

Many thanks to Vellum for carrying the blog while I was otherwise occupied. However, now the questions of a PhD program in the fall and worthwhile employment have been resolved (no to the former, emphatic yes to the latter), and I hope to be a tad more reliable now.

No promises.

Today's musings pertain to the boundaries of history/art history. My new job is at a small museum where I am responsible for taking visitors through the exhibit and discussing the artists, their techniques, etc. The environment is very much to my taste, being more concerned with the conditions which produce art and less with the composition, color, and "quality" of the art. Thus, I have spent the last week cramming facts and biographical details (as this museum is not medieval, and, in fact, is just about as far from medieval as you can get). Which has led to an interesting problem which I haven't ever considered.

As a medievalist, I deal with long dead issues. Most scandals and questionable dealings are dealt with from a purely academic perspective. Everyone involved has been dead for centuries, and it's generally quite difficult to find descendants to be offended on behalf of their predecessors.

Not so with history from the turn of the last century. One of my only instructions regarding the nature of my tours of the museum was to not mention a very well-known love affair between a certain prominent artist and one of his models. My response was to stare blankly at the board member, who didn't seem to think this was an odd request. "She was a local girl, and her family still lives here. Some of them come in from time to time," he explained. Well, yes, but that's no excuse to whitewash the artist's entire history. For said model was the artist's model in just about every painting he did for 20 years. And he lived with her for nearly 50 years. And it's quite likely that his relationship with her was the influence for most of his work, and the major decisions he made regarding his work.

And I'm not allowed to talk about it?

Fortunately, I'm in such a position that no one is really able to tell me what to say or not to say. So I will certainly be discussing this artist's life and the people in it. Simply because the truth might be uncomfortable for a few people doesn't give me the right to gloss over it or whitewash it for something prettier. However, I readily admit to understanding where the concern is coming from.

Said prominent artist lived long enough that there are still plenty of people about who knew him, and the woman was alive practically into my lifetime. These are still people remembered as individuals, rather than as historical figures. His children have all passed on, but there's still plenty of family about. They, understandably, want to protect and defend their predecessor's (or grandfather's) memory. Not to mention his cashbox. But I have to tell you:

If hearing stories about Grandpa and wandering down memory lane involves going to a museum, you've lost the right to decide what's public knowledge and what's private.

To be honest, this particular battle was fought and lost some time ago. A book was published on this relationship two decades ago, and the many accusations of slander have long since passed. This is established history now, and to not discuss it at a museum partially devoted to the artist.... well, it's just silly, isn't it?

But it does raise the question of where the line between public history and private falls. Despite his fame, this artist never wanted to be a public figure, and his model certainly didn't - not for having an affair with a married man. It's tempting to then say that he's allowed his privacy, even after his death. However, his art is significant, and an important part of art history; so too are his experiences which resulted in this art. That's ultimately what art history comes down to - and even history. Without understanding the experiences, the art is practically meaningless.

The artist's son was quite open about his life and his father, so much so that when he insisted that something not be mentioned in a book on his father, it wasn't mentioned. Again, I understand his desire to keep what had been family secrets private, but all it served to do was cover up the truth. Were it not for a particularly nosy and observant historian, none of this would have ever seen the light of day. Which is probably where a handful of people prefer it had been left. But if we leave everything buried that ought to be buried, what will we put in our history books?


No comments: