The Making of Modern Art: Thinking Outside the Box

By Research Master Critical Studies in Art & Culture student Efthymis Athanasiadis

Each year, Sven Lütticken teaches a MA course on Art Criticism, in which the students learn how to write critical responses to current exhibitions. This year vuartandculture would like share one of their reviews with you.


Van Abbe Museum – The Making of Modern Art – photo Peter Cox















The typical visitor of an art exhibition or rather, the visitor of a typical art exhibition, expects to see original artworks from the organizing institution’s collection, presented in a specific manner, often juxtaposed with works borrowed by other collections, following more or less some guidelines, always connected by a common theme and usually attempting to convey a message. The Making of Modern Art is likely to take this visitor by surprise since the aforementioned artworks are scarce, and their presence evidently secondary, surrounded and often overshadowed by facsimiles, reproductions, photographs and related historical documents. This is more of an exhibition about exhibitions and its self-reflective qualities may not become evident from its very beginning, but they definitely will once we consider it as a whole. Upon setting up the display, the Museum of American Art, a Berlin-based organization whose founder remains anonymous, seems to have adopted the ‘atmospheric rooms’ approach, a recipe first used in the 1920s by Alexander Dorner, the innovative director of Hannover’s Provinzialmuseum, to whom the exhibition pays tribute on several instances. If we needed to conceive it as a more conventional kind of exhibition, each room could be regarded as constituting a single installation or a small set of installations; this would, however, risk subverting many of its scopes.

In the way they have been designed, the rooms re-enact historical exhibitions of the past or hypothetical ones. Therefore, on a first glance they serve an educational purpose: the viewer walks into a time capsule that takes him or her back to the first decades of the last century, and is enabled to get a taste of what it felt like visiting, for instance, the ‘Kabinett der Abstrakten’ of Dorner’s Provinzialmuseum or the Van Abbemuseum itself, when it first opened. In this sense, Eindhoven’s major art museum has been turned into a history museum that features a series of life-sized dioramas. But there is more than that. One of the display’s intentions is to distance the visitor from the traditional viewer-artwork relationship and its dynamics, and this is explicitly described already in the second room: just as Dorner and his curating practices stripped the religious artefacts from their sacredness and highlighted their artistic value, the MoAA attempts in a similar way to move them away from the artistic sphere and re-evaluate their potential as artefacts. This so-called deartization is partly achieved thanks to the use of the copy, a key element into some of the exhibition’s ideas.

The act of copying and its implications are expressed on various levels: from the re-presentation of the space to the artworks’ hand-drawn reproductions, whose deliberate ‘sketchiness’ makes obvious that there was no effort to be passed for originals: they are ostentatious copies and they are proud of it. Even in the case of paintings as visually plain and easily copyable as Mondrian’s neoplastic works, one can easily tell apart the original from the copy. But the most vigorous expression of this idea is probably the alleged reappearance of Walter Benjamin and his views on the subject as they are manifest in his Recent Writings 1986 – 2013. Macabre yet humorous as it is, the gesture of using extracts from these ‘recent essays’ to accompany the displays – echoing the 1936 essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ by the ‘original’ Frankfurt School philosopher – could not be more spot on for the exhibition’s objective. There have even been occasions in the past were the ‘resurrected’ scholar went as far as serving for MoAA’s ‘technical advisor’, challenging the relevance of notions such as ‘originality’ by inducing them from the inanimate objects to the realms of identity and personhood. If the pertinence of a person’s ideas still stands strong more than 70 years after their death, which they sure do in this case, does it really matter if it is the very same person that reproduces them and adapts them to our contemporary conditions?

Perhaps the most palpable attempt at setting a distance between the viewer and the act of admiring art as such, as well as helping him or her reflect upon what an exhibition is, what it has been and what it may be(come) in the future; is placing a model of a room from ‘Cubism and Abstract Art’ – one of MoMA’s most influential exhibitions, dating back to 1936 – right in the middle of a room that re-enacts the atmosphere of the very same exhibition. And it is not by chance that this room’s walls only feature original paintings. We are put somewhere between the exhibition’s life-sized simulation and its miniature, in what appears to resemble a set of Russian nesting dolls where the model, setting aside its educative and informative value, can act as a map where we can position ourselves and use it not as a navigational aid but rather as an auxiliary means for meta-reflection. This method is not guaranteed to lead to the previous room’s proclaimed deartization but it is definitely a way towards it. Apart from the traditional floor plan’s “you are here”, one can find him- or herself wondering “what am I doing here?” or “why am I here?”.

The need for a re-evaluation of our exhibition practices that includes the deartization of artworks as an integral part of it and may result in the end of the museum altogether, has appeared in the exhibition’s early rooms by exposing the intensity of the western gaze through which non-western artefacts – in this case an Indonesian ritual mask – had been exhibited in the early twentieth century art museums and characterized as ‘primitive’. The potential irrelevance of these practices is further illustrated in one of the last rooms. The atmosphere here is inspired by an interpretation of Thomas More’s Utopia: the display is supposedly set in the imaginary land of the sixteenth-century novel but in today’s time, or possibly in the future. Artworks by the Van Abbe collection from the past hundred years are displayed without some specific narrative and in a non-particular logic; ‘The art of the West speaks to us and it gives us great joy to show all these artworks together, even if we perhaps cannot know whether our organizing reflects how these works would have been shown in Eindhoven’, the Utopian curator informs us. This othering of the western culture reveals our perspective’s subjectivity, something possibly indiscernible until we go through it ourselves – until the westerner has tasted a bit of his own medicine.

The ‘Making of Modern Art’ epitomizes the MoAA’s ideals and has something to give to everyone, regardless of their background; it does not matter how familiar one is with modern art in order to appreciate it. Deprived of the unintelligible jargon that the contemporary exhibition has so often been accused of, it enables even the clueless visitor to have, as promised, an overview of how modern art and the modern exhibition came to be what it is today. And to the more knowledgeable, it offers the opportunity to contemplate all the possibilities that open up if we take a step back and try to think outside the box.

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