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Art Historians Discuss Strategies for Dealing with Work by Abusive Artists

San Francisco’s Legion of Honor Museum invited historians to respond to its Casanova exhibit and share ideas for how to reinterpret and display art history.

Jean-Marc Nattier, “Thalia, Muse of Comedy” (1739), oil on canvas, 53 1⁄2 × 49 in. (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum purchase, Mildred Anna Williams Collection, image courtesy the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

SAN FRANCISCO — What’s the best way to diversify our galleries and museums, considering art by white men takes up so much space, crowding out works by people of color and women? Monica Westin, an art writer and fine arts professor at the California College of the Arts has some suggestions, specifically in relation to an exhibit currently at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor Museum about the infamous traveler Casonova, who wrote of having sex with more than 100 women in his 12-volume autobiography.

“The simplest problem to fix is framing his rapes as seductions and Casanova as a kind of sexy scoundrel,” she said. “We can avoid glorifying or censuring and try to imagine if, instead of a wealthy white European man, this story was told through some of the women of the time.”

Casanova: The Seduction of Europe, which describes its protagonist as “colorful” and “cosmopolitan,” uses Casanova’s life as a vehicle to tour us around Europe in the 18th century, with paintings, sculpture, costumes, porcelain, and silver that would have been at the palaces, theaters, opera houses, private homes, cafés, and gambling dens he visited. The exhibit was planned four years ago, and in response to the #MeToo movement and debates in the art world, the museum decided to have the panel to address questions people might have.

Julia Bryan-Wilson, a professor of contemporary art at the University of California, Berkeley and the director of the Arts Research Center there, said that although she doesn’t advocate for the removal of artwork by problematic male artists from museums, she believes it’s useful to imagine what could go in their place.

“I am a historian who is deeply invested in learning from the past,” she said. “I feel ambivalent about calls to remove art — it feels very extreme. I’m not calling for censorship, but for more aggressive rotation. It’s time for new stories.”

Westin and Bryan-Wilson shared these thoughts at a panel, “Reckoning with the Past,” organized by the Legion in mid-May. Museum officials said they wanted to provide a place for dialogue when “many arts institutions are grappling with questions raised in relation to both the subjects of artworks as well as the lives of particular artists, opening up space for critically rethinking how the art historical canon is interpreted and how we view cultural production through different lenses, both past and present.”

The speakers, including Sugata Ray, an assistant professor of South Asian Art at UC Berkeley, and San Francisco State University art history professor Whitney Chadwick, talked about recent events in the art world. These included the Raghubir Singh retrospective at the Met Breuer, which was protested in a performance organized by his former assistant, Jaishri Abichandani, who says he harassed her; a petition asking the Metropolitan Museum of Art to remove a Balthus painting, “Thérèse Dreaming,” (the Met declined to do so) claiming it “romanticizes the sexualization of a child”; the Baltimore Museum of Art selling of some pieces in its collection (including work by Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg), to buy work by women and artists of color; and the firing of curator Helen Molesworth, who organized popular shows such as a solo exhibition of Kerry James Marshall, from Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art.

Artist Jaishri Abichandani leading the #MeToo protest outside the Met Breuer building on Manhattan’s Upper East Side (photo by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

Ray thinks removing artworks has a chilling effect. He pointed to controversies over US artists like Sally Mann and Robert Mapplethorpe. He said at UC Berkeley, a colleague of his had faced enraged parents by showing a female nude in an art class and one in the cinema department had engendered criticism and outrage by showing David Lynch’s Blue Velvet.

“This sort of Twitter activism is one step closer to fascism,” he said. “Rather than removing artworks, we need public debate.”

Balthus, “Thérèse Dreaming” (1938) (via WikiArt)

Ray said he liked what they’d done with labels added in a portrait gallery at the Worchester Art Museum in Massachusetts.

“There were oil portraits of the landed European elite with names of their slaves beside them — it makes visible the wealth acquired through slave labor,” he said. “It’s a way to recontextualize 18th-century art within the context of slavery and rape.”

In her book, Farewell to the Muse: Love, War and the Women of Surrealism, Chadwick wrote about being an ambitious woman in a movement defined by men. At the Legion’s panel, she told the audience that when she’d interviewed English painter Roland Penrose, and asked him about the photographer Lee Miller and poet and collagist Valentine Boué Penrose, both wives of his, he told her not to write about female artists — because in his view, they weren’t artists, but only muses for the men.

We need to change the institutions that define culture and art, Chadwick said, and she thanked the Legion for the panel, saying museums should support dialogue about ways to do that.

Melissa Buron, the curator of Casanova, explained that some things Casanova did were scandalous in his lifetime and illegal now, but that the exhibition wasn’t about judging him, rather about celebrating the art of his time. That said, the title of the exhibition will change when it travels to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in July: it will no longer foreground seduction and instead be Casanova’s Europe: Art, Pleasure, and Power in the 18th Century.

Suit (ca. 1780), France, silk voided velvet embroidered with silk and gold paillettes, glass, and metallic thread (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Elizabeth Day McCormick Collection, image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

Having discussion like this one is a good start, said Westin. There are ways to make change that don’t involve dismantling the whole system, she said, pointing out that all Abichandan was asking for was to be on a panel at the Breuer or for a room at the exhibit with art by South Asian women. Museum boards can also be pressured to change, she said, telling the audience that she was struck when reading that a board member at MOCA had said he was angry that Molesworth didn’t even “pretend” to be interested in his collection when she visited it.

“To him it was her job as the curator of a museum, to, if not be interested in his private collection, to pretend to be interested,” she said. “It’s funny, but it’s terrifying to me the erosion of the curatorial line at museums and as I see places like the Broad popping up where the line between who decides and who buys is ever blurred, I think that is going to be a major issue for the inclusion of women.”

Bryan-Wilson and Ray said they have hope their students will change things. “They’re way beyond us,” said Bryan-Wilson. “They have a hunger for new narratives.” Ray thinks change needs to start with high school textbooks. “They are taught that Picasso is art,” he said. “It’s not enough just to have a show on a woman of color — structural questions about what is art and what is not art need to be addressed, and what is in textbooks will define what happens in museums in 20 years.”

Casanova: The Seduction of Europe continues at the Legion of Honor (100 34th Ave, San Francisco) through May 28. Reckoning with the Past: A Forum took place at the Legion of Honor on May 12.

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