How do we present art? And how do we look at it, as museum visitors? Most of us immediately focus our attention on the artwork itself, unaware that how we encounter it has been carefully staged by a designer. In contrast, Art on Display 1949-69 focuses less on the artworks themselves, and more on the way they are presented. The exhibition brings together some of the most progressive post-war exhibition designs by architects in the form of 1:1 reconstructions: a unique opportunity to experience and compare these radical architectural approaches in person. It features displays by Carlo Scarpa, Franco Albini and Franca Helg, Lina Bo Bardi, Aldo van Eyck, and Alison and Peter Smithson. The exhibition was designed by architect Jo Taillieu.
The 1949-1969 period was characterised by the search for a new relationship between art and the public, with fresh roles for art and cultural institutions. Enlightening people and democratising art were among the aims of this new ethos. The chosen case studies translated these ideas into the pursuit of a direct, personal relationship between the visitor and the artwork, simultaneously raising architectural, museological and social issues.
However, the exhibition designs do not provide a single solution. Sometimes, a solitary work is displayed alone in a quiet, focused environment. Other installations aim to achieve a sense of immersion, or confound conventions and expectations to provoke a spontaneous encounter – in a labyrinth, for example. Various displays create an intimate one-on-one encounter with the artwork, while others set the stage for a communal experience.
All the designs selected for Art on Display 1949-69 were created by architects. They demonstrate a special interest in the relationship between art, architecture and people. In their approach to the design brief, architects explore the possibilities of articulating space and materials. In several designs, the artworks are disconnected from the wall or raised off the floor, giving them more status as objects and defining the space in a different way. One of the strategies employed by Lina Bo Bardi, Carlo Scarpa, and partners Franco Albini and Franca Helg, was to present paintings on easels. Scarpa’s and Albini and Helg’s easels emphasised the aura of the individual artworks by evoking a serene and unique experience.
Art on Display 1949-69 also shows 20 glass easels that were part of Bo Bardi’s world-famous exhibition design of 1968. The radical exhibition design for the collection of the Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP) was a grid of more than 100 easels. This form of presentation was intended to rid the museum of its sacred atmosphere. Bo Bardi wanted to present artworks as objects that could be understood and experienced by everyone, including the uninitiated. This arrangement invited visitors to stroll among the works as if in a town square, with the paintings becoming characters like the visitors themselves.
This emphasis on the everyday in exhibition design is also found in the display tactics of Aldo van Eyck and the Smithsons, who were all influential members of Team 10, a group of European architects who focused on everyday urban spaces. Their work was shaped by concepts such as ‘the meeting’, ‘the street’, ‘the square’ and ‘the labyrinth’. These architects wanted to return to the human scale and make people aware of their relationship with their surroundings. Van Eyck and the Smithsons brought visitors in contact with art in unconventional ways, hanging paintings at unusually high or low levels so that they could not be viewed frontally, so creating a physical experience that evoked an emotional rather than intellectual response.
Art on Display 1949-69 features Aldo van Eyck’s designs for the critically acclaimed but controversial CoBrA exhibitions at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam (1949), and the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Liège (1951), as well as part of the pavilion he designed for the open-air sculpture exhibition in Sonsbeek Park in Arnhem (1966). The Sonsbeek Pavilion consisted of six parallel walls made out of concrete blocks, creating a series of streets, with interconnections and semi-circular niches. Van Eyck described the result as an urban space intentionally conceived in opposition to the natural idyll of the 19th-century park, which followed the formal language of the English landscape garden.
The British architects Alison and Peter Smithson described exhibition design as ‘staging the possible’. It gave them an opportunity to try out their experimental ideas, models and proposals for larger projects. Art on Display 1949-69 recreates a fragment of their design for the high-profile exhibition, Painting and Sculpture of a Decade 54-64, held at the Tate Gallery in London in 1964. The Smithsons’ presentational form broke with the museum’s monumental neoclassical architecture, opting for a radical labyrinthine structure coupled with low-placed artificial lighting. Visitors were immersed in a total experience that encouraged them to slow down. This approach to exhibition design stemmed from the Smithsons’ involvement in the Independent Group, a collective of painters, sculptors, architects, writers and critics who were in search for a new approach to art and culture in the 1950s.
Art works from the Gulbenkian collection
The dozens of paintings and sculptures displayed in the reconstructions are from the collections of the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon. Pieces from these collections have never been shown in the Netherlands before. Exhibits include 18th- and 19th- century works from the private collection of the British-Armenian businessman and philanthropist Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian, and works by modern Portuguese and British artists, including Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, Terry Frost and John Hoyland, from the Modern Collection.
While this exhibition was being prepared, the Covid-19 pandemic broke out. Staging the encounter between the visitor and the artworks has – unintentionally – acquired an extra dimension, now that this is determined in part by the rules of the 1.5-metre society and the current regime of social distancing. It has sharpened awareness concerning the spatial and material possibilities and impossibilities of exhibition design.
Art on Display 1949-69 came about thanks to an invitation from the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon to develop the exhibition together. It marks the 50th anniversary of the Gulbenkian Museum, which was initiated in 1949 and opened its doors two decades later (1949-69). From a shared interest in the role of the architect in the museum and the design of exhibitions, the Gulbenkian Museum’s director Penelope Curtis approached Dirk van den Heuvel, head of the Jaap Bakema Study Centre and an expert on the work of Aldo van Eyck and the Smithsons, and Guus Beumer, general and artistic director of Het Nieuwe Instituut. The exhibition in Rotterdam, in contrast to the one in Lisbon, does not take place against the background of the permanent display of a collection, but is part of a multi-year programme about 1:1 reconstructions. Previous exhibitions include 1:1 Sets for Erwin Olaf and 1:1 Period Rooms. The Rotterdam exhibition was designed by architect Jo Taillieu.