Amid the bustle of a West Coast metropolis, Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) curator J. Patrice Marandel uses his expertise to present "Old Masters" in new ways. Introduced last night as one of "the most important curators in America," Marandel provided the Bowdoin community insight into his work purchasing and exhibiting European art and sculpture.
Marandel's lecture, "To Shop, to Show, and to Grow: The Building, Development, and Presentation of an Old Master Collection," was the first installment of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art's "Distinguished Curator" lecture series.
The series was sparked by a long-term loan of European paintings from the Wadsworth Atheneum, in Hartford, Conn. These 10 Old Master paintings are currently displayed in the Museum's upstairs galleries along with elements of the museum's permanent collection.
Old Master paintings are works by European artists created prior to the 19th century.
Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial Fellow Diane Tuite explained how the presence of the Old Masters at Bowdoin inspired the lecture series.
"We are always eager to give members of the College community and the general public the opportunity to better see behind the scenes, to understand how installations and exhibitions come into existence and appreciate all of the choices made by curatorial staff," said Tuite.
The curator of European art at the Wadsworth Atheneum will speak at the College next year, and the paintings will remain on display until December. The ability of community members to "feel like art insiders" becomes a particularly pertinent end goal when the Old Masters are involved.
Art Museum Director Kevin Salatino, who introduced yesterday's lecture, said "the Old Masters have become more and more difficult to engage with for the museum-going public" as public focus on modern art threatens a "diminution" of art's European heritage.
Said Salatino, "those treasures haven't gone anywhere, they're still there...it's the curators who are responsible for interpreting them and highlighting their 'relevance.'"
Salatino has long been acquainted with Marandel, whom he describes as "unstuffy" despite his numerous accomplishments, including starting his career as a chief curator at the Rhode Island School of Design museum in Providence. Later, Marandel would spend extensive time as curator for European painting and sculpture at the Detroit Institute of Arts before joining the staff of LACMA, where he has remained for the last 18 years.
Marandel's presentation relied heavily on photography. Announcing "this is not a formal lecture," Marandel promised the crowd in Sills Auditorium that his lecture would not follow a format of "and then I bought 'blank', and then I bought 'blank'."
Instead, Marandel offered a personal look at LACMA, beginning with its urban location.
Los Angeles is a "modern city that no one associates with Old Master paintings," the curator began.
He poked fun at the architecture of LACMA.
"The museum can be best described as an assemblage of buildings," he said. "It's not pretty, austere, or inviting" but it is a testament to the "chaotic and diverse nature of Los Angeles" and its architecture, including a building designed by Renzo Piano, who was greatly influenced by the designs of Frank Lloyd Wright.
Marandel applauds a shift from the American way of collecting masterpieces, moving from placing an emphasis on an artist's notoriety to an emphasis on quality. There is a "lively market" for Old Master paintings; Dutch painters are popular in Boston, while French and Italian works are popular in New York City.
"We are in a sophisticated moment," said Marandel. Among his many improvements to the LACMA collection is the addition of more female artists as part of the departure from a standard pool of recognizable artists.
Brunswick resident Philip Hart was interested by the transition from emphasis on "postage stamp" masters to the inclusion of lesser-known masters to "flesh out" exhibits, making the museum experience "much more dynamic."
Marandel harnesses this dynamic to keep the public engaged; LACMA has no endowment and relies completely on donations.
Notable among Marandel's acquisitions for LACMA is a painting titled by Jacques-Louis David titled "Portrait de Jean-Pierre Delahaye."
"When you look at him as intensely as he looks at you, you establish a dialogue," said Marandel. "In this way the painting reveals an element of the 'psychology' of the period in which it was painted."
The curator explains that exhibition layouts run a whole gamut of organizational methods including chronological, by school, even thematic.
Of arrangement by theme Marandel joked, "to have a whole wall of crucifixes is not exactly to my taste," adding that a room of mother and child paintings would be "quite dull."
Instead, Marandel chooses to arrange his galleries in the style of the grand European galleries of previous centuries. Such arrangements integrate sculpture, paintings, and decorative arts as part of the same installation.
The curator showed an example of a baroque painting situated next to a sculpture, in which the attitudinal stance of the painting's subject mirrors that of the sculpted figure.
For Marandel, when it comes to labeling an exhibit, less is more. He said, "if you put a big label on the wall, it's the size of a painting."
"[There] should not be more reading than looking...visual representation says more than pages and pages of explanation," he added.
Marandel showed slides of an exhibit in which the walls are textured by cement, an effect that he says add a complimentary "richness" to the display.
Marandel reflected that the job of a curator is "not just [to] acquire but to share." He concerns himself with "how to tell a story and what story to tell."
He concluded, "you cannot work in a vacuum...the public guides my choices."