WHY WE LIKE COMPARING OLD ARTISTS WITH NEW
Art History more than any other discipline has chopped and packaged history into distinct categories that we know as Art movements. From the Renaissance to Cubism, artists are slotted decisively into each movement and such boundaries are rarely crossed.
When we do intersect art from across space and time, such as in the new Royal Academy exhibition Tracey Emin / Edvard Munch: The Loneliness of the Soul, exciting and informative parallels occur. What are the benefits to the discipline and wider society in comparing contemporary artists to the famous names of Art History and are there any dangers in such a pursuit? What is gained and what is lost?
Think about the last time you visited a gallery or museum (however long ago that may have been) and consider how the art was displayed. Was it in chronological order? In all likelihood it was, if it was a museum’s permanent collection. Tate Britain encourages you to start at the beginning of British art in the 1500s and physically travel through the centuries as you walk from room to room and arrive, unscaved, in the 20th Century. It is the easiest and most complete way to display art, but it begs the question of how permanent collections can stay relevant to an ever-changing society, one that is increasingly overloaded with visual stimuli through social media.
The Royal Academy does not have the burden (or luxury) of a permanent collection like Tate Britain or the National Gallery. This allows them to be more diverse and experimental with their exhibitions. Bringing together the household names of Emin and Munch will be a huge success for the gallery when it reopens post-lockdown. Emin has personally selected a series of works by the Norwegian Expressionist, revealing how Munch was a great source of inspiration for the artist of the Young British Artist generation.
A strong sense of connection can be found between their work. More than just inspiration, they seem to share a similar existence and express their loneliness through the medium of paint. This commonality extends across time and space and reveals to us that artists have been tackling similar themes for centuries. Mental health and fragility is acknowledged by both artists. The exhibition allows us to recognise how such themes are both common and have developed and improved from the early 20th century to the present day.
One of Emin’s YBA contemporaries is the great painter Cecily Brown, whose recent exhibition at the historic Blenheim Palace similarly placed her contemporary work alongside the Great Masters of Art. Brown’s new series juxtaposed Sir Joshua Reynolds and Sir Anthony Van Dyck: tour-de-forces of the British portrait tradition from the 17th and 18th centuries. Her large canvases of abstract colour stand-out against these naturalistic, yet highly decorative paintings.
And their smooth, pristine brushstrokes contrast greatly with Brown’s emotive, frantic application of paint. Here the dangers of juxtaposition become apparent. Such dramatic contrast can sometimes lead to use choosing between the two styles. Blenheim Palace has turned itself into a battleground between old and new art. Those who favour the Old Masters see Brown’s highly abstracted art as less-developed, even child-like in comparison. Whilst others may see contemporary art as more real and Reynold’s portraits in comparison as frivolous, even unsightly in their ostentation and display of aristocratic wealth. Neither artist comes off very well.
It is natural for humans to pit one against the other. This is why comparison between old and new art, not to mention Western and Non-Western art must proceed with caution to avoid contention. The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis may have found a solution. Their exhibition Five Ways In: Themes from the Collection, is a four-year long initiative that encourages new engagement with their permanent collection. Their collection is re-hung on a rolling basis in order to sit alongside new acquisitions.
To keep the exhibition accessible, the art is organised into five themes described as ‘entry points’ for viewers. The Walker wants to dispel often-held preconceptions that contemporary art is confusing and impenetrable. Instead of pitting one artwork against the other, these pieces are brought ‘in conversation’ with one another. This is a great way for the gallery and their collection to remain relevant in this ever-changing world.
Art History is a fluid thing. There are no right or wrong answers, and ideas about certain art or artists thought to be set in stone are not. Comparison between the old masters and contemporary art can illuminate our understanding of art in new and exciting ways. It shows us that Art’s appeal is not just about its beauty, but also its ability to connect us as humans across space and time.
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