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"Eleven French Artists. One Revolutionary Event," screams the headline for Phoenix Art Museum's self-proclaimed blockbuster, "Masterpiece Replayed: Monet, Matisse & More." PAM's current offering is a traveling exhibition of work by easily recognizable 19th-century French masters originated by Baltimore's Walters Art Museum and first shown there in 2007 under the title of "Déjà Vu? Revealing Repetition in French Masterpieces."
Besides sounding like a sale promo for Bed, Bath & Beyond and despite the spin surrounding it, the exhibition, like many of the prepackaged, just-add-water shows imported by PAM, miserably fails to rise to the sacred level of "blockbuster" — a term that's been both bandied about and seriously misused in the art world for the past 40 years or so.
"Masterpiece Replayed," which includes some canonical images by Monet, Matisse, Delacroix, Corot, Davíd, and Degas, among others, examines the phenomenon of repetition in primarily 19th-century and early-20th-century French art. We learn from the slick, iPod-like Acoustiguide, whose use is included in the admission price, that artists actually produced a variety of versions of the same image — all for various reasons.
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Fauvist Henrí Matisse (1869-1954) took photos of his Woman in Blue (1937) at assorted stages to document the creative process involved in achieving his final image. Academic painter Paul Delaroche (1797-1856) cashed in on the popularity of Hémicycle (1841), an ambitious allegorical panorama he painted in oil on a wall of Paris' Ecole des Beaux Artes about the history of art, by making engravings of his wall mural to sell to an admiring public. Impressionist Claude Monet (1840-1926) became obsessed with the subject of stacks of grain as a means of exploring the atmospheric effects of light, time, and season upon a subject, while Neoclassicist Jacques-Louis Davíd (1748-1825), a big fan of the French Revolution, and his army of studio assistants cranked out copies of The Death of Marat as propaganda in support of the revolution's merciless Reign of Terror.
For the most part, it seems as if the art of repetition so popular in 19th-century France was really the art of good, capitalist business practice.
Not unlike the repetition of iconic imagery on display, "Masterpiece Replayed" boils down to the art of repeat business. It comes with the obligatory dedicated Web site and predictable gift shop stocked with exhibition-related ties, French bath salts, lotions and soaps, T-shirts, fridge magnets, and catalog. It's designed to suck the relatively uneducated art consumer into believing this is a magical, one-time-only experience one would be crazy to pass up, in order to keep museum coffers full for the next imported, not-to-be-missed art experience.
Trust me: Just because the show rounds up replicated images from museums here and abroad and displays them all in one place hardly qualifies the event as revolutionary.
The phenomenon of the blockbuster art exhibition began in the late 1960s, when Thomas Hoving, the arrogant and flamboyant director of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, dragged the Met from its dusty, elitist coma into the 21st century. He transformed the museum into a public palace geared to the democratization of art (Hoving is also the author of Art for Dummies).
A veritable ho for publicity, Hoving was responsible (with a little help from President Richard Nixon, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat) for organizing the Met's spectacular 1970s traveling exhibition, "The Treasures of Tutankhamun."
Featuring gold and jewel-encrusted Egyptian pharaonic artifacts belonging to the boy king unearthed by Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon in 1922, the show drew millions of ordinary folk in both London and various U.S. cities, who stood in impossibly long lines to glimpse at treasures that had, until that time, never left Egypt. Following the astounding financial success of "Tut" for both borrowing and lending institutions, just about every museum in the United States, as well as Britain and Australia, jumped on the blockbuster bandwagon, creating a series of "The Treasures of (fill in the blank with any ancient culture or civilization, Eastern or Western)." After those were exhausted, shows featuring European Impressionists, post-Impressionists, and, of course, Picasso started appearing with regularity.
Years later, the fallout is still being analyzed by art historians, curators, museologists and media — and the upshot is not necessarily good for either the public or the average museum.
Blockbusters have created a hungry public monster demanding to be fed "edu-tainment." And such shows have been found to create expectations that every museum show will be one. Long on excruciating media and P.R. hype, they're often very short on groundbreaking scholarship. Real blockbusters are miserable affairs with long lines, ticket scalping, and crowded viewing conditions that make it impossible to enjoy or appreciate the works on display. My less-than-transcendent experience with the Met's 2003 "Leonardo da Vinci: Master Draughtsman" confirms the impossibility of appreciating masterpieces while thousands of people mill around, make noise, and block your view.
Blockbusters also feed into the cult of celebrity, making art stars out of back-in-the-day painters like Monet, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Picasso. They overemphasize masterpieces shipped from across the country or abroad to the tragic neglect of a museum's own collection holdings. Because the cost of bringing a blockbuster to a particular venue is prohibitive, underwriting one now inevitably involves corporate sponsorship. And with corporate involvement lurks the always present threat of censorship through withdrawal of funding support if the sponsor doesn't take kindly to a show's subject matter — something that happened to PAM with its 1996 "Old Glory: The American Flag in Contemporary Art." Inevitably, safe, sanitized and soporific art exhibitions are the result.
In addition to putting enormous demands on a museum staff, imported blockbusters also seem to take away curators' opportunities to mount innovative exhibitions of important new contemporary work by relatively unknown or local artists or new ways of looking at a museum's own holdings.
While "Masterpiece Replayed" is built on solid, often absorbing, scholarly ground, it falls far short of the blockbuster category. Sadly, it reminds me of one of those contests in the back of National Enquirer asking the reader to spot the subtle differences in two almost identical photos. Only with this show, there's not even the chance that you can win a prize.