Artwatch UK

Bring on the Clowns (- or, “Italy Loses It”)

Italy has decided to play international museum world catch-up at precisely the wrong moment and with a panicked, plagarising zeal that bodes ill for art lovers and that country’s own cultural well-being.

MR JAMES BRADBURNE LANDS A NEW JOB AND SEMAPHORE’S “CHANGES AHEAD”

Above, James Bradburne in front of “St Mark Preaching in Alexandria” at the Brera, Milan.

We had hoped against hope that the reports were not true. We could not believe that a deranged Italy had engaged in a mass cull of museum directors in hope of a making another of its periodic surges away from itself and into the future.

It was true, of course, and we should not have averted our eyes and stuffed our ears. In a chilling report carried in the travel section of this weekend’s Finanacial Times, Claire Wrathall (“Shaking up Milan’s Pinacoteca di Brera”) anatomises a cultural spasm-in-the-making:

“In January 2015 an advertisement placed by the Italian Ministry of Culture appeared in the Economist seeking directors-general for 20 of Italy’s leading museums…(Existing incumbents had to apply for their own jobs; only one, Anna Coliva of the Galleria Borghese in Rome, was rehired.) As the culture minister, Dario Francheschini, put it, ‘Italian museums should be dynamic. A country with 4,000 museums should see that as a formidable economic resource.'”

Mr Bradburne, a British-Canadian architect and museum expert has landed the directorship of the Brera in Milan (the Pinacotecca di Brera), with, as Ms Wrathall reports, the fatuous governmental brief “to turn one of the world’s greatest collections of Renaissance masterpieces (not to mention works by 20th-century Italian artists such as Modigliani, Morandi and Severini)” into “an outstanding museum.” Since when was the Brera not an outstanding museum? Since when have museums in Italy not been a formidable economic force? Italy can hardly be chasing even more tourists? If Brits are the cat’s pyjamas as curators, how come our own museums are filling up with Germans? (Could this be an EU conspiracy to simulate dynamism in a moribund entity by artificially increasing the velocity of trans-national exchanges?)

POSSIBLE USES FOR MR JAMES BRADBURNE

It seems that Mr Bradburne’s reputation at the Palazzo Strozzi awakened the culture minister to “the need to shake up the nation’s moribund museums”. So, how do you shake a museum blessed with great art and enjoying an ideal natural lighting in which to view paintings? Official Answer: as Mr Bradburne puts it, “When I got here I was shocked by the dull flat approach to lighting which strove to recreate the sort of northern light the artist would have worked in.”

In other words, to shake things up, you obliterate the best and most sympathetic lighting imaginable – the very light in which the work was made. And then you replace it with what? In Mr Bradburne’s own words, you swap old orthodoxy with today’s fashion, “That is an old orthodoxy; the prevailing fashion nowadays is to put things in the spotlight. We speak with light and colour now.” Note the brazen and presumptuous sleight of hand: it is we, the adminstrators, not the art, who now speak. And, “we” may now play pseudo-theatrical games with all the inappropriate and intrusive vulgarity and gusto of interior designers on the loose in a boutique: “By making the walls darker you can make more contrast”.

THE PONG OF ART

As well as changing the light, Bradburne plans to add smells. Oh yes! That’s right, he will add “the smells of the plants that give colours to paints”. Bradburne does not explain how the smells of mineral or insect-derived pigments will be introduced into the galleries or how if the smell of all the pigments in a painting could be captured it would be possible for the vistor to tell them apart. Bradburne does freely admit to one problem: even if he were to succeed in reproducing all the smells, “the difficulty is the scents diffuse very quickly”.
More gimmicks are in train. Labels are to be written not by museum curators but by (non-Italian?) novelists like Julian Barnes, Sarah Dunnant, Ali Smith and Orhan Pamuk.

A MUSEOLOGICAL CURATE’S EGG

Above (top), one of the Bradburne-Refurbished galleries; above, “The Dead Christ and Three Mourners” (1474) by Andrea Mantegna.

A LITTLE CHEER

It has to be said that there are two cheering prospects. Although the glass wall will remain through which visitors can watch restorers nibbling away at the once-gloriously little-touched works (- I well recall being shown round the gallery by Pietro Marani, when Leonardo’s “Last Supper” was part-way through its debilitating restoration and repainting, and he proudly pointed out how well his Cima altarpiece then looked against its counterpart in the National Gallery, London), Bradborne will, at least, be eschewing the Blockbuster Game. That, he well and aptly describes as “cannibalising our collections”. Presently, he notes, “People come and never see the permanent collection”.

Further, one of the most gratuitously offensive pieces of contrived theatrical staging that predates his reign in the museum is to go. That is to say, “the most complained-about display in the museum” – Mantegna’s “Dead Christ”.

Followers of this site will recall Michel Favre-Felix’s shocking post of 13 March 2014 (“Mantegna’s Dead Christ : They Know Not What They Do”): “…the Dead Christ is now housed in a special crypt-like dark room, stripped of His historic frame and visually isolated by spot-lighting, as if now embedded into a monolithic black wall – and at a height of only 67 cm from the ground. This presentation is intended to be permanent and the film-maker, humility notwithstanding, declares ‘This will last: I will fight for it’.” Good riddance to that.

Michael Daley, 2 April 2016

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