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Picasso & McQueen


by N.F. Karlins
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What’s a “blockbuster” exhibition? The answer is important, especially now when money is tight.

I’ve been musing about this question since I saw “Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The show debuted in Paris at the Louvre, and appears soon at the Detroit Institute of Arts, opening Nov. 20, 2011.

In Philadelphia, a single adult timed-admission ticket cost $25, and entitled you to an audio guide.  

The exhibition features seven small panel portraits of a man, probably a Spanish Jew who lived in Rembrandt’s neighborhood, made anywhere from ca. 1647 to the early 1650s. These “faces of Jesus” were used by Rembrandt and his studio as models for religious paintings, and are contextualized in the exhibition by about 60 other works. A few earlier paintings set the stage.

It was the first big Rembrandt exhibition to come to the Philadelphia Museum and it was the first time that the seven panels, called “tronies,” or heads of a type, rather than portraits, were united and studied. It was a major undertaking.

The show boasted only a few major Rembrandt paintings, along with some excellent drawings, and a few superb prints. And at the end of the exhibition, I was disappointed.

If this is a blockbuster, I thought, where is the charisma, the excitement?

I had been hoping for more works by Rembrandt, and I missed a broader historical sweep. Italian artists, notably Leonardo and Caravaggio, used ordinary citizens as models for heroic paintings, including Biblical scenes.

The focus on religious themes made for a certain sameness, too. As one of the people I overheard in the gift shop said, “It was a very brown show.” True, the religious subject matter is moving. Rembrandt can do that.

But “Rembrandt and the Faces of Jesus” is no blockbuster. It’s a solid exhibition, but plenty of tickets were available the day I went without prior booking being necessary.

For $25, a blockbuster needs some variety, some stretch and color. It can't be narrow and didactic.

So my first rule for a blockbuster is charisma -- an offering of works that are rarely available, unusual, and exciting, often having some breadth in style.

Second is quality and quantity -- a large number of good to great works, especially top loans that are fresh to the eye.

Third is installation -- a new slant can make a show feel special.

The most spectacular of recent blockbusters was “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” at the Metropolitan Museum. The differences between it and the Rembrandt show couldn’t be more dramatic. In "Savage Beauty," the charisma and breadth, the creativity of the garments, and a spectacularly inventive installation all served to turn the show into a blockbuster.

I admit, blockbuster chemistry can be mysterious and complicated. The Brooklyn Museum’s recent “Vishnu: Hinduism’s Blue-Skinned Savior” was exhilarating, and felt like a blockbuster. But it was never crowded when I visited. Would a few more reviews and some publicity have helped?

The Metropolitan Museum’s “Wonder of the Age: Master Painters of India, 1100-1900,” which remains on view through Jan. 8, 2012, also feels like a blockbuster. The superb quality of the works immediately engages the esthetic sense, and the way that Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic and sometimes western influences morph and intertwine over time is fascinating. "Wonder of the Age" certainly deserves to be a blockbuster, but so far its light is staying under that bushel basket.

The Frick Collection seems to be making its own modest bid for blockbusterhood with “Picasso’s Drawings, 1890-1921, Reinventing Tradition,” an exhibition of about 60 drawings, including four huge pastels of pneumatic women made after a summer visit to Fountainbleau in 1921.

From a drawing of a statue that the artist made at age nine to superb examples of his Cubist and Neo-Classical works, these little-seen drawings have the ingredients to become a blockbuster. But will it? The show is up through Jan. 8, 2012.

N.F. KARLINS is a New York art historian and critic.