Susanna Pettersson, PhD, Museum Director, Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki
September 22, 2016
This autumn the Finnish National Gallery celebrates internationally acknowledged artists such as Mona Hatoum and Amedeo Modigliani. Hatoum has a strong voice in the contemporary art scene. Her political works pinpoint the issues that we all should be aware of. Modigliani, in his turn, is known for his unique paintings and sculptures but also because of his dramatic life story: drugs and poverty combined with the deep passion to create.
Museums are platforms for exhibitions that touch our hearts and souls. However, this has not always been the case. In the 19th century, art museums throughout Europe mainly presented exhibitions of collections according to the schools, such as the Dutch and Flemish, or Renaissance art, rather than focusing on individual artists. Yet the key figures of art history were sculpted, carved, or their names inscribed on museum walls and facades all over Europe, from London to Paris and Helsinki. Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael and Michelangelo were among the most frequently used names in this imaginary hall of fame. It’s somewhat striking that while the value and interest of exceptional artists’ careers were understood, retrospective exhibitions as we understand them today, became increasingly popular only after the mid-19th century.
The interest in exploring the careers of individual artists grew hand in hand with the development of art-historical research. Encyclopaedic art-historical presentations written by Franz Theodor Kugler, Karl Schnaase or Wilhelm Lübke, for example, provided a framework for the discourse in the 19th century. Within the same time frame the first artist monographs were published. They opened up possibilities for the better understanding of art history, and inspired museums to start focusing on exhibitions that explored one artist only. Specific sites and museums dedicated to single artists were opened: among the first were the Thorvaldsen Museum in Copenhagen (1848) Antonio Canova’s Gipsoteca in Possagno, Italy (1853) and the Ingres’ Room (1851/54), now part of the Musée Ingres in Montauban, France.
In Finland the first retrospective exhibition was organised to honour the memory of Werner Holmberg (1830–60) whose blossoming career as a landscape painter was cut short by his untimely death. The exhibition, mounted by the Finnish Art Society, was opened in September 1861 at the grand gallery of the Societetshuset in Helsinki, a venue where the upper class organised large-scale events. This time, there were no real possibilities for any research. That came later in 1890, when Finnish art historian Eliel Aspelin-Haapkylä published the first proper monograph about Werner Holmberg, in connection with the artist’s exhibition at the Ateneum Art Museum in Helsinki.
The link between research and exhibitions is vital. It has always been, and today even more so. This is perhaps something that we should highlight even more: that the best exhibitions are always based on scholarly and ambitious research. Every phenomenon, every artist and even every work has a story to tell. And these stories can lead to life-changing thoughts and experiences.
Featured image: Artists and teachers with their spouses in Düsseldorf in the 1850s. On the left, Werner Holmberg (1830–1860), one of the first Finnish artists to have studied in Düsseldorf. Black-and-white print on paper from the 1890s, reproduction of original print. Finnish National Gallery Archive.