This week’s post is a bit of a cheat, since I will be discussing an exhibition that closed over a month ago. But the exhibition was so wonderful, despite being small and tucked in amongst LACMA’s South Asian and Middle Eastern permanent displays, that it absolutely deserves a mention even if it is no longer open.
Back in September when I visited the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) to see both Kimono for a Modern Age and Art Deco Textiles (both of which I reviewed here at Worn Through), I noticed Princely Traditions and Colonial Pursuits in India on the list of exhibitions currently on display. Having done my master’s thesis (dissertation in the UK) on the influence of India on British dress and society, I knew I had to stop in at the exhibition before I left the museum that day.
For my master’s research I was focused on Britain itself, and what the returning nabobs and nabobinas — as they were derisively referred to — brought with them and how it affected their society. LACMA’s exhibition focused on what they collected and commissioned while they were in India, the prologue to my own research, if you will. So needless to say I found the exhibition absolutely fascinating. I learned that many artists and artisans who had previously worked for Indian princes, now offered their services and products to the British colonists, “adjusting their practices to suit the taste of their new patrons.” There was also the influence of European artists who came with the merchants and government officials, as can be seen in the two paintings above: they introduced new genres and aesthetic styles to India.
LACMA does not ignore the fact that many of these officials and merchants were only temporarily posted to India, and also explores the demand for Indian luxury items created by not only Britain’s having this new colony, but more definitely by those returning from India with their collections of Indian art and household goods. One intriguing detail I noted was that the names of the Indian artists were far more often known than those of the European painters. I found myself wondering if India didn’t respect the arts and thus the artists more than Europe did during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
As I have said the exhibition was small, and tucked away amongst the South Asian and Middle Eastern permanent displays. However, it was very rich and the museum managed to communicate much through the use of objects from across museum departments. There were paintings, sculptures, architectural pieces, and, of course, fabric.
This is something I have noted before that LACMA does extremely well: integrate various objects to create context without using often-limited wall text. By placing the objects with other pieces — albeit of a different medium — that they would have been seen with originally, the exhibition gives visitors a better impression of what the “whole picture,” as it were, was for this particular aesthetic movement or trend. It also creates an ambiance that is sometimes lost when an exhibition focuses only on one element. That is not to say that focusing on one element, era, or designer is a bad thing — I would never have been able to appreciate the beauty and artistry of Balenciaga had I seen his work “in context” as it were, whereas seeing it in an exhibition devoted only to him at the de Young museum gave me an understanding of his technique and genius. But it does strike at the heart of museum exhibitions: what are they trying to communicate? And how often then succeed at communicating that message through objects and their arrangement.
This is what I love about LACMA — and many other museums, it was just that this particular exhibition brought the idea home — the work and effort that goes into the exhibitions behind the scenes to make the exhibition and its message seem effortless, whether it is about a single topic, or trying to create as close to the full picture as possible. So much of ‘Domestic Affairs’ focuses on a single topic — whether it is modern kimono or fashion during World War I — it was lovely this time around to focus instead on an entire group of people. And a group of people with whom I discovered I was only half familiar. I thought I was a bit of an expert on the nabobs and nabobinas, but LACMA’s Princely Traditions revealed that I was familiar with only half their lives and opened a new avenue of research to me. Which is exactly what museum exhibitions are supposed to do.
Did any of you see Princely Traditions? What did you think? Are there any exhibitions that have made you stop and appreciate the art of exhibition creation, lately? Do you feel integrated exhibitions are less successful than those with a sole focus, or more? Are there any small museums or exhibitions that didn’t get the press they should have? Please share your thoughts in the comments below. And as always, if you have an announcement or know of an event or exhibition that you want featured here, please either comment below or email me.
Opening image caption: Arthur William Devis Manre Royale d’Aubusson The Hon. William Monson and His Wife, Ann Debonnaire, circa 1786 England 40 1/2 x 51 1/2 in. (102.87 x 130.81 cm) Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Gift of Hearst Magazines (47.29.16) Photo © 2014 Museum Associates/ LACMA