Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Coming of Age – Coming Home to Andover

Posted by Brian T. Allen, The Mary Stripp & R. Crosby Kemper Director

With the Addison construction project nearing its close, so, too, is the Addison’s traveling exhibition, Coming of Age, which features seventy of our greatest paintings and sculptures. The show’s “grand tour” began at the Addison in the fall of 2006 and subsequently traveled to the Meadows Museum in Dallas, the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, and the Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art. The show is currently installed at its final venue, the Museum of Fine Arts in Quebec City, where it closes on September 7th. A richer tour is hard to imagine.

The show was a landmark in so many different ways – as the most visited summer show in Italy last year, the first survey show of American art in Quebec, and the United Kingdom’s first true retrospective of American art made from the mid-nineteenth century through its triumph on the international stage a century later. Coming of Age provided tremendous publicity and visibility for us while our doors in Andover were closed.

Strong reviews for Addison show in LondonOnly a few days after it opened in London, all the major London papers – the Telegraph, the Guardian, the Times, the Financial Times, the Independent (see right) – devoted lavish and positive reviews to the show, some running a full page. This was amazing given all the things happening in the London arts scene. Many of the critics seemed genuinely surprised to find so much that was new and original about American art. Only Brian Sewall, the art critic for the Evening Standard, veered from the consensus that the show was truly wonderful and a revelation. Sewall’s review was so invective-ridden that I found myself chuckling by the time I finished it. He is a notorious contrarian and I suppose he needed to tell the other critics why they were all wrong. Even a bad review has its upside, though, since the full page of illustrations brought even more people to see the show.

The opening in Venice attracted over a thousand peopleIn Venice (see left), though the show ran during the design biennial and the film festival, the audience was not strictly international tourists. The bulk of the visitorship was Italian, and the show’s biggest impact for Italian audiences came from the landscapes and seascapes, especially the Homers, the Hudson River pictures, and the American Impressionists we sent. Many Europeans feel the land and the sea tell the story of the American experience best. This reflects in part a significant difference between Americans and their cultures, which they often consider more consciously urban and more heavily touched by human history.

Italians enjoy the Addison’s treasures in VeniceAnd, I still hear stories when speaking with Addison supporters (see right) who walked into the Peggy Guggenheim Collection not realizing the Addison’s treasures had travelled there as well. They were very surprised indeed!

The show was beautifully installed in every venue. It was great to see our things installed by different curators in different ways, and each installation expressed the vision they saw in the show, different audiences, different spaces, and varying design sensibilities. When the art is great, there are infinite ways to interpret it.

The Addison show was the major summer arts event in Quebec CityI saw the show this past weekend in Quebec City (see left). When I walked toward the museum, I noticed that no more than a hundred feet from the entrance marked the spot where General Wolfe died during the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759, shot moments after hearing that his British troops had routed the French. This battle signaled the defeat of France by Britain in the French and Indian War, and the collapse of the French colonial empire in North America. Inside the museum, the Addison’s objects told a story curiously relevant to the violent events that occurred on what is now a placid park. American art in the nineteenth century is often represented as an idiosyncratic interpretation of British art. This influence is a legacy of Wolfe’s victory over Montcalm in 1759 and the triumph of British culture in eighteenth and nineteenth century North America, much as the Battle of the Plains of Abraham marked a military victory of one colonial power over another. And yet, the Addison show continues to tell the story of America’s reception of the art of other nations as well. A major part of this story is the American embrace of French avant garde art starting with Impressionism in the 1890s and then leading to the very French-inspired movement of American Modernism in the 1920s and beyond. Some might say French culture seems to have gotten the last word after all.

And so the great Homers, Eakinses, Hoppers, the remarkable Pollock, Stella and O’Keeffe will soon be taken off the walls in Quebec, packed and on their way back to Andover, in time to join the other wonderful objects in the Addison’s permanent collection on view at the gallery’s public reopening celebrations next year. I am looking forward to seeing you there!

1 comment:

Gary M said...

We saw the show, and went to the talk by the curators, in the Museum of Art of Fort Lauderdale. It was beautifully presented, and for me, a very emotional reunion with these paintings. Each painting was both a memory, and a revelation. I was seeing them through the eyes of a teenager, as I first saw them, wandering around the second floor of the Addison, in the 1960's; and also as an adult, and parent, seeing them as masterpieces of American Art, in the context of history.

Standing in front of Eight Bells, with my son who started at PA this fall, I understood why this iconic painting has become so loved by so many of us; It shows two sailors, in an wild and endless ocean, working together to learn and use the skills needed to navigate their ship, and their lives. That is us. That is Andover.