The Kress collection at the El Paso Museum of Art, comprising works roughly from the 14th through the 18th century, is a remarkable treasure and has often quite correctly been called the crown jewel of the museum. Contrary to what some have said it really was rehung some 8 years ago along traditional historically linear lines with each room painted a different color to further emphasize the different time periods on view. This was not all that dramatic a change, but simply neatly divided the work up in historical categories.
Apparently the current administration decided the collection needed a complete reorganization, received a grant from the Kress foundation to do so and hired Dr. Elizabeth Dwyer, who fairly recently received her PhD from the University of Virginia for the task.
She decided to hang the collection thematically and to that end chose to hang the works based on the categories of “Madonna and Child”, “Honored Saints” “Sacred Stories” and the “Rise of Secular Art.”. This latter includes the sections world views, Rococo portraits, Nature’s outlines and grand portraits.
While the section of secular portraits and domestic scenes are fine, it is the art in the first rooms which focus on religious content rather than the treatment of that content and, more appallingly, explanatory notes which are too often mere religious propaganda and proselytizing which makes this current approach extremely troubling.
While individual exhibitions with a limited shelf-life are often created to call attention to content or to some link between different artworks not immediately apparent, more permanent displays, such as this is intended to be generally are designed to call attention to the skill involved or to historically important works. As such the display of religious works of art in public museums has always been universally acceptable precisely because museums, at least good ones, take care to take an objective, non-religious view of the art regardless of the relation individual patrons might have with the content.
The display would perhaps not be quite so objectionable were it not for the accompanying informational cards which too often read like religious propaganda.
One card begins “For two millennia, men and women of remarkable faith, fortitude and virtue have shared in St. Jerome’s desire for eternal salvation.”
In another card concerning St. Francis, someone for whom I have a great deal of respect, the card reads more like a Sunday school catechism class than something appropriate for a museum. There are far too many “Our fathers” and other such verbiage spread about which creates something deeply troubling and ultimately off-putting.
The thing is it didn’t have to be this way. The works themselves are nicely displayed. As in the rest of the museum, the walls have been painted bright white or covered in white wall covering with a vaguely Italianate background,. and whether it is the reflection of the light against the now bright white walls or whether they have intensified the lighting, the effect is that details are more easily seen. This is a little shocking at first as we have lost the more intimate feeling which was provided by dark crimson walls and subdued lighting from before, but does make the fine detail more available. Reminds me of a certain club in Chicago back in the day which turned on all the lights at 5 in the morning when they wanted everyone to leave. You could see every detail-scary in the club, helpful here.
Even with the works displayed to focus on the religiosity of the work, there could have been a more thorough objective discussion. For example a larger discussion of how the portrayal of the Madonna and Child from a purely otherworldly view to a more human one reflected the profound change in thinking resulting in the Renaissance. This was mentioned on one of the cards, but the theme could have been much better developed, along perhaps with a later discussion of how as money began flowing to individuals rather than only to the church, art changed from glorifying religious figures to glorifying wealthy individuals. This would have provided a better bridge to the later works in the show which seem a bit unconnected. There could have been a discussion of gold leaf or the importance of certain colors, or the inclusion of certain patrons within what were exclusively religious works. These religious works were, of course, originally intended as instruction, but art museums have been correctly and fairly scrupulous in avoiding this aspect. Here it seems to be predominant and this is completely unacceptable.
An art museum is a place for everyone, regardless of personal belief, to feel welcome and a close scrutiny of much of this rehung collection does the opposite. Despite a few interesting bits of historical information such as that on a Jacopo del Casentino altarpiece, the misguided choice to focus on theme has led to a display which is too often off-putting, divisive and deeply troubling.-david sokolec