“Masterworks from the Hirshhorn Collection”: An Inaccessible Highlights Reel

“Masterworks from the Hirshhorn Collection”: An Inaccessible Highlights Reel

by Emily Peikin

Last weekend, I visited the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden for Dr. Bellow’s Museums and Society course. Our assignment for the week asked us to critically examine how art museums convey the significance and value of their permanent collections to visitors. Since our readings for the week discussed two examples of collectors’ museums—the Frick Collection and the Freer—the Hirshhorn Museum served as a good case study. Although the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden is part of the Smithsonian Institution, it originated as the collection of Joseph Hirshhorn. A block of informational wall text outside of the entrance to the exhibition “Masterworks from the Hirshhorn Collection,” which presents a small but impressive sampling of the institution’s holdings, informs visitors that Hirshhorn “was a passionate and knowledgeable collector” who “amassed art by some of the greatest figures of modernism, from Auguste Rodin to Willem de Kooning.” Visitors subsequently learn that the collection includes works that “are considered masterpieces by art historians.” This ensures that even if they lack knowledge of modern and contemporary art, they will feel obligated to be impressed by what they see. This introductory information primes visitors to view the art they are about to encounter in a positive light by invoking the discerning eye of an individual collector and the approval of an unnamed body of experts. Furthermore, its verbosity contrasts with the sparse wall labels displayed next to individual works. It is also important to note that there is no audio guide for this exhibition, which would have made its contents more understandable to the general public.

When one enters the galleries of this exhibition, the first major display is a selection of works by Willem de Kooning and Alberto Giacometti. This gallery presents narratives of individual greatness, including the greatness of Hirshhorn as a collector and the greatness of de Kooning and Giacometti as artists. In addition, the works throughout the galleries of this exhibition are all spaced far apart from one another, and many of the sculptures are displayed on pedestals or within glass vitrines. This emphasizes their individual significance and presents them as objects worthy of contemplation. Most of the wall labels in the galleries contain little descriptive information. Instead, they include the artist’s name, his or her nationality, his or her years of birth and death, the title of the work, the year(s) of its creation, the medium, and the work’s origin, which is often listed as “Gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn.” There are one or two works within each gallery that have extensive wall text, but their selection seems completely arbitrary. This series of galleries combines works that Hirshhorn himself acquired with ones that the museum has recently added to its collection, and this juxtaposition suggests that the museum continues to pursue Hirshhorn’s original vision.

One architectural element that encourages visitors to consider the importance of the collection is the shape of the building itself. The galleries on each floor connect to form a large ring, which forces visitors to circumambulate in an almost devotional manner. This is a striking example of scholar Carol Duncan’s model of the museum as a ritual space and site of secular devotion. This configuration also engenders feelings of suspense and excitement; the visitor is unable to see the contents of the next gallery due to the fact that it is not immediately ahead of him or her, nor is it framed by a doorway. Ultimately, the exhibition “Masterworks from the Hirshhorn Collection” presents a uniquely temporary arrangement of a mere sliver of the museum’s holdings. An exhibition like “Masterworks” is thereby far from representative of the institution’s holdings as a whole, but instead presents a shiny and sanitized “highlights reel” of sorts. However, the overall lack of informational materials arguably renders this exhibition incomprehensible to individuals with little background in art history.



Alberto Giacometti, Dog, 1951

Commercial Culture in the Museum

As part of Dr. Bellow’s Museums and Society course this semester, students are asked to write a short weekly response paper in which they think critically about the musuem as a physical space, a cultural institution, and as a political, economic, and social entity. Below, first year MA student Samantha Rhodes shares her analysis of commercial culture in the National Gallery of Art and the Louvre:

The National Gallery has been the sight of many joyful and encouraging visits, however, one aspect has always been a little unsettling. The location of the Museum Cafe, also known as the Garden Cafe, within the middle of the museum is an interesting, yet somewhat problematic feature. Leanne McTavish’s essay “Shopping in the Museum? Consumer spaces and the Redefinition of the Louvre”, which analyzes the relation between the Louvre museum and the underground shopping mall Carrousel de Louvre, gave me some tools to analyze my previous experience at the National Gallery. As she points out the Carrousel de Louvre is located on the lower level of the museum under the galleries. By noting the lower level and separation, McTavish analyzes the tension between ideal attendees associated with the exhibitions, and the other attendees, who are associated with the more physical pleasures of consumerism. Essentially her argument assumes a class distinction and ideal viewership between the two areas located within the Louvre. After reading McTavish’s analysis, I began critically thinking about not only the Garden Cafe located in the NGA, but the Cascade Cafe, which is a glorified title for a general food court. Although I do not have much of an issue with food spaces within a museum, there is a question of the differences between the Garden Cafe and the general food court. I would argue that there are social distinctions between the two spaces. The Garden Cafe is located on the Western side of the museum and is tucked in the middle of exhibits. A viewer who enters through the 7th Street side of the building must also pass the cafe on the way to the East Wing and the general food court. The prices of the Garden Cafe run high, with entrees being above 20 dollars. While in the food court prices are more economical. Not only do the soaring prices denote a difference, but the location of the Garden Cafe amidst, not separated from, the rest of the museum recalls similar questions found in the McTavish article.

The Carrousel du Louvre (the food court and shopping center) was separated from the rest of the museum on a lower level, thus signifying the status of the structure in comparison to a more “civilized” culture located in the exhibitions on the upper levels. The National Gallery has made this observation even more obvious. The Garden Cafe not only caters to more elite individuals, but it is also located close in proximity to the exhibits. Thus one can have a pleasant, expensive meal while also being encouraged by the general splendor of the NGA. The Cascade Cafe, or the food court, was built for a mass amount of people, thus the architecture is not as grand, nor are the reproductions of pantings that feature food products. These paintings were situated on simple columns, and their quality is less than ideal, thus adding even more of an inferior air when compared to the pristine Garden Cafe. McTavish makes an argument that there is tension between two museum ideals, one that is meant to attract a more diverse public, and one that worries that this public will consist of people that museum officials have long sought to exclude. (184) Although the argument does not directly translate to my observation, I do believe the tension between the two cafes exist, and I believe this tension is noted by numerous guests to the museum. Even upon my first visit to the NGA, I was disturbed by the location of the Garden Cafe, it was as if the visitors having lunch were themselves a spectacle, an ideal to live up to. Until that ideal is fulfilled, I must go to a lower level where food is more affordable and the exhibits are far away. The intriguing tension between consumer and exhibition space proved an interesting analysis inspired by McTavish’s example from the Louvre in Paris.


First year MA student, Samantha Rhodes, poses in front of Frederic Church’s Niagara.

Faculty Focus: Andrea Pearson presents her research in Belgium.

Over the semester break, Dr. Pearson presented aspects of her project on Netherlandish besloten hofjes (enclosed gardens, in triptych form) at a three-day international conference called “Imaging Utopia: New Perspectives on Northern Renaissance Art.” The conference took place in Belgium. It brought scholars together to discuss varieties of utopianism in celebration of the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s Utopia, the initial printing of which was achieved in Leuven. The first day of the conference focused exclusively on besloten hofjes; attendance was approximately 200. Dr. Pearson’s presentation explored utopianism in a hofje (illustrated) from a hospital in Mechelen, then the governmental seat of Margaret of Austria, regent of the Netherlands. Dr. Pearson argued that the work helped to mediate contentious positions on female and male monastic enclosure that were taken up by the hospital’s personnel. This hofje is among seven works of the kind that are undergoing conservation after their designation as Vlaamse Topstukken (Flemish Masterpieces), a term that designates works of the highest artistic and cultural value for Belgium (Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece is also on the list). Dr. Pearson’s presentation led to an invitation to contribute to a major publication celebrating the conservation project and the permanent reinstallation of the hofjes in the newly renovated Hof van Busleyden in Mechelen in March of 2018.

In a forthcoming article Dr. Pearson argues that another hofje from the Mechelen hospital was commissioned by the parents of a blind nun, with whom they are portrayed in its painted wings. The hofje asserted meritorious status in piety that claimed salvation for all three members of the familial triad, by invoking pious practices tied not to sight but to the other senses. Such assertions were crucial, for the daughter’s visual impairment rendered her and her parents spiritually suspect. The essay, therefore, redefines sensory piety as socially persuasive. This approach departs from previous investigations on religion and the senses in this period, which focus primarily on interiority. Check out the article after its publication online this spring, in the Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art (www.jhna.org)!


Mechelen, Crucifixion Hofje, ca. 1525-28, polychromed wood, silk, paper, bone, wire, paint, and other materials in a wood case, 42.9 x 35.3 x 7.7 inches. Musea & Erfgoed Mechelen, inv. BH/3, on long-term loan from the Augustinian Sisters of Mechelen.



Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Juliet Bellow to give two presentations in London in the upcoming week.

Dr. Juliet Bellow will be giving two presentations in London this upcoming week. On Monday, January 23rd, Dr. Bellow will give a paper for a study day at the Courtauld Gallery titled “Hand Dance: Drawing as Choreography in Rodin’s Cambodian Dancers.” This paper follows the approaching closing of the Courtauld Gallery’s recent exhibition “Rodin and Dance: The Essence of Movement.” Dr. Juliet Bellow’s previous catalogue essay for the Courtauld Gallery exhibition was called “groundbreaking” by Apollo Magazine, citing her suggestion that Rodin’s admiration for dance dovetailed ‘with the most radical dimensions of Rodin’s sculptural practice.’

On Tuesday January  24th, Dr. Bellow will give a talk at the Center for the Study of Dance at the University of Roehampton.  In this paper, titled “Beware of plaster: Auguste Rodin’s drawings of the Cambodian Royal Ballet,” Dr. Bellow considers why Rodin chose to privilege the pencil over the chisel to convey his perceptions of the Cambodian Royal Ballet, and how that choice affected Rodin’s carefully constructed public image.

Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Joanne Allen travels to Rome to present a joint paper with colleague Dr. Michael Gromotka of Freie Universität, Berlin.

Dr. Joanne Allen and her colleague, Dr. Michael Gromotka of Freie Universität, Berlin, presented their joint paper “Crowdsourcing the past: The Society for the Study of the Church Interior collaborative online research database,” on November 3rd 2016 at the Ècole Française De Rome.

Dr. Allen is interested in the nature of the relationship between recurring church reform movements and architectural space and how the usage of church buildings change in response to new liturgical norms. In order to understand these broad questions, a large amount of data is needed.

This paper introduced the Society for the Study of the Church Interior and their collaborative database project which seeks to collect the still scattered data regarding the development of spatial dispositions and aesthetic treatments of walls and other surfaces in churches. This paper also discussed the issue of terminology within this database. For example, how many different types of rood screen are there and what should we call them? Should terms discovered in historical sources be used? How many subtly different types of ‘alteration’ were applied to church furnishings (e.g. ‘partially demolished’; ‘remake proposed’)? Lastly, this paper discussed underlying tensions between devising an accurate, workable list of terms and subjecting the information to modern, interpretative judgments.

Another exiting aspect of this paper was that Dr. Allen and Dr. Gromotka encouraged the involvement of potential participants in this ongoing database project.

Congratulations and well done to Dr. Allen, we look forward to further information on this exciting collaborative project!

Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Helen Langa presents her paper “Framing Justice. Modernism and Social Advocacy in American Visual Arts and Dance, 1929-1945.”

Dr. Helen Langa presented a paper in October at a symposium in Chicago titled “Framing Justice. Modernism and Social Advocacy in American Visual Arts and Dance, 1929-1945.” The Symposium was held at Loyola University in Chicago.

There were three panels with pairs of presenters that responded to issues of racial oppression, gender oppression, and economic oppression. Dr. Langa’s talk was in the session on racial oppression; it was  titled “Respect and Resistance: The NAACP, the CPUSA, and Modernist Artists’ Contributions to the Struggle for ‘Negro’ Rights, 1929 to 1945”.

She focused on the roles that two organizations, the NAACP and the CPUSA, played in influencing visual artists to take up themes that resisted white racism, promoted black equality, and affirmed a positivist vision of black individuals and their contributions to American history. She argued that artists used a diverse array of realist and modernist styles to portray contemporary individuals and issues.  While the NAACP emphasized works that promoted respect for African Americans, both white and some black artists drew on Communist ideals to create works that explored contemporary resistance to racism and support for racially-integrated solutions in political and workplace organizing.

Student Spotlight: Danielle Grega, Recipient of a Segnan Award and a College of Arts and Sciences Mellon Award

Danielle Grega, a second year Master’s Student in the Art History program, received a Segnan Award and a CAS Mellon Award to support international travel for her research trip to Edinburgh, Scotland. Below, Danielle shares her experience with us:

“While in Edinburgh I was able to view a group of nineteenth-century paintings concerning Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, the subject of my master’s thesis. I was able to take detailed photos of Sir William Allan’s The Murder of David Riccio (1833), the principal painting my thesis will focus on. I was also able to view and photograph James Drummond’s The Return of Mary Queen of Scots to Edinburgh (1870). Existing photographs of these paintings fail to convey accurate formal techniques and color palette, and I am extremely grateful to American University for aiding me in conducting the most precise research possible. I focus on these particular works because they depict specific, well-documented moments in Mary Stuart’s history, thus allowing me to analyze how and why they transform the Queen from a historical figure into an ideal archetype of the Scottish nation. The visit to the Scottish National Gallery and to Holyrood Palace—the actual site of the murder Sir William Allan’s painting depicts—helped me to better understand the art of nineteenth century Scotland and how closely Scottish national identity is tied to it.”