Desecrating versus consecrating. A museum where artworks are not exhibited as distant, inaccessible icons, radiating such an aura that they are not supposed to be enjoyed by visitors, but merely revered in silence, according to guidelines that weere predetermined by those who know, understand, administrate, curate, and who have nothing but contempt for the unlearned visitor, barely worthy of seeing the art from up close. A museum that is not a temple, far from the elitist tradition that imposes its rule in France and elsewhere –the prerogative of narrow-minded conservators and so-called defenders of cultural heritage that are allergic to any kind of modernity, of democratization (it is no surprise that the catalogue mentions how Michel Laclotte, then director of the Louvre, hated the museum; although I don’t know what to think of the fact that Elizabeth II liked it a lot).
When the São Paulo Museum of Art moved to its current location in 1968 –a bold construction, sober in its esthetics–, the architect, Lina Bo Bardi (whose husband, Pietro Maria, ran the Museum until 1996), decided to revolutionize the scenography of the Museum collections on the second floor. In a large room made of concrete with glass walls opening on the city, she chose to avoid dividing up the space, or creating spaces dedicated to such and such movement. She chose to present the 110-120 artworks on “easels” made of concrete and crystal (in fact, toughened glass). Thus, the paintings seem to be floating in mid-air, and the eye can embrace several at the same time. This arrangement was implemented from 1968 to 1996, and then was replaced with a more traditional layout (rooms and walls) for almost twenty years. It is now back to the original.
Several things catch the attention of the visitor. First, it is the visitor who’s in charge: deciding on his/her own path, creating his/her own experience, connections, and contrasts. A visitor that is, in one word, “emancipated”, as Rancière would put it. Seventeen rows, 119 artworks currently (90% are paintings), presented in exact chronological order –without conforming to schools or country of provenance. Therefore, a hieratic and Métis painting by Cuoco (Nossa Señora de los Remedios) can stand next to a self-portrait by Rembrandt, and Max Ernst next to Djanira da Motta e Silva naive work –an outlier for official art history. Of course, this constitutes a political rebuke of Eurocentric perspectives, and an endeavor to present side by side artworks from Europe, the Americas and Africa, from the North and the South, from “noble” and “popular” genres. But, more importantly, this constitutes an encouragement to look at things differently, to free oneself from constraints and preconceptions, even if they are backed by science and history. This is the opposite of museums where you are led like a child from one room to the other (like the Tate, for instance), instructed to look at this and that, and fed with predigested –validated but bland– knowledge.
In this scenography, artworks are not windows on the world anymore, or ethereal revelations, or luxury articles. They are first and foremost objects, crafted by an artist at work. We are not in a White Cube anymore (Brian O’Doherty’s book was published eight years later), but at the heart of a reality principle. When Victor Stoichita wrote L’instauration du tableau in 1993, he chose Cornelius Norbertus Gijsbrechts’s painting representing the back of a painting for the book’s cover. Here in São Paulo, we can see the back, the planks of wood, the labels and tags, all this “hyper-text” that comes with the painted image. We can turn around the painting, and truly experience the actual size of the artwork, beyond the eidetic image. What’s more is that the labels are located on the back of the artworks: this undoes the pernicious automatism of reading the name of the painter before looking at the artwork, which predetermines our opinion before any contemplation. This unfamiliar protocol puts us in front of the artwork before giving us any information or insight, before confirming our intuitions or making us realize the scope of our ignorance or prejudice (“…but I would have sworn it was a Cézanne…”).
So this is a truly revolutionary take on what is a museum, a few years before a fairly traditional museography dulled the innovative nature of the Centre Pompidou’s architecture, and forty years before the Louvre-Lens adopted a similar layout –much to the chagrin of the usual pedantic reactionaries. A couple historians make reference to anterior examples of radically different museography (such as El Lissitzky’s 1927 room in Hanover, or the Italian Rationalists’ proposals), but the critical and political dimensions of the São Paulo Museum of Art are really groundbreaking in 1968. It is destabilizing, disorienting, deterritorializing, and producing a new, free, nomadic –and even “rhizomatic”– perspective. Its being reinstated in its original presentation constitutes a claim and a statement, in a country that is currently riddled with doubt.
Sure, it could be more imaginative and less orderly, with, with diagonals rather than linear paths, with askance easels rather than carefully aligned ones, with some gaps, in fact. As for the artworks, they range from an Hellenistic marble of the goddess Hygieia (sister of Panacea) from the 4th century BCE to Tempo suspendo de um estado provisório [Suspended Time of a Provisory State] (2014), by Marcelo Cidade, a Brazilian born in 1979, which consists in two bullet impacts on a sheet of toughened glass reminiscent of the crystal easels. In this collection that mixes together European masterpieces, distinguished and popular Brazilian art, and Yoruba sculptures, the only oddity is the almost total lack of abstract art. The Bardi, who were extremely well read, seem to have considered that abstract art was nothing but the product of a US imperialist plot to rule the world. Even if there might be some truth to this theory, this opinion remains very simplistic and shortsighted. But that should not spoil the pleasure of visiting this singular museum.
Photos 3 & 6 by Lunettes Rouges.
Original publication date by Lunettes Rouges: April 23, 2016.
Translation by Lucas Faugère