Art on Display. Formas de expor 1949-69 at the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, in Lisbon

What is the impact of the ways of exhibiting art on the viewer’s experience? Should this experience be a shock or a comfort? Should it be personal or communal? What is the relationship between temporary and permanent exhibitions? Are solutions designed for some more likely to succeed than those designed for others?

These are some questions from the exhibition Art on Display – Formas de expor 1949-69, curated by Penelope Curtis, director of the Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon, and Dirk van den Heuvel, director of the Jaap Bakema Study Centre at the Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam. This is in connection with the 50th anniversary of the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, where different ways of exhibiting art are presented from the years in which the Museum was conceived.

According to the curators, this exhibition aims to reflect on ways of exhibiting art, alerting the public to a rarely recognised museum practice. Several projects for exhibitions designed by architects after the Second World War marked this practice, with solutions that have lasted through time. They were innovative models, taking into account the relationship between visitor, museum and exhibited works. The public is invited to get to know some of these models partially reconstructed at full scale, 1:1, from the original projects.

The chosen examples are made by architects Franco Albini and Franca Helg, Carlo Scarpa, Aldo van Eyck, Alison and Peter Smithson and Lina Bo Bardi. Through these models, around 80 pieces from the Gulbenkian Museum’s collections, which are normally found in the storerooms, are on display for illustrative purposes – as the exhibition focuses on the modes of display rather than the work of art itself. Their selection took into consideration the authors and the years of the works originally presented in each of the projects on display.

It is also possible to see the different proposals created for the Gulbenkian Museum, in a comparison with the proposals that have been actually materialised. The study focuses on the Museum’s exhibition project. In the archive drawings, there are no authorial references and the research has never been in-depth. According to Penelope Curtis, the Museum’s museography originated in Italy. Everything indicates that the author was Franco Albini, museum consultant for the project, together with Georges Henri Rivière, whose work finds many similarities with the apparatuses designed for the Gulbenkian Museum.

One example is the showcases he conceived, together with Franca Helg, for the Palazzo Rosso. Or the solutions adopted at the Museo del Tesoro della Cattedrale di San Lorenzo, where the objects are installed in showcases adapted to their formal characteristics, similar to the exhibition devices in the galleries of the Gulbenkian Museum. In addition to the project for the Pallazo Rosso, Art on Display – Formas de expor 1949-69 presents the duo’s first project for the Palazzo Bianco. In it, in some situations, frameless paintings are placed on devices that make it possible to move or suspend them through vertical structures or rods. It is no longer necessary to use walls and this brings them closer to the public.

This meets their interest, referred to in the curator’s text for the exhibition catalogue, in “the use of the architectural practice to create a museum experience, and the reconciliation between everyday life and the museum”. And also their perception that “museums may occupy a more relevant place than they once had, (…) being part of community life”.

Contemporary and a friend of Albini’s, Carlo Scarpa conceived, for the Museo Correr in Venice, a unique exhibition solution. He opted to free the pre-existing walls by installing paintings on trestles instead of suspending them. In the exhibition, there were two original trestles, given by the Museo Correr for the occasion, creating an environment that is reminiscent of the studio space.

Aldo Van Eyck and Alison and Peter Smithson belonged to the group formed after the Second World War, known as Team 10. The ideas came from the legacy of CIAM (Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne), where the notion “that an integration or a synthesis between arts and architecture would contribute to the creation of new and relevant urban landscapes and monuments, overcoming the aridity of functionalism and rationalism” was approached. The central point became the daily spaces of the city, streets, squares, etc., instead of the monumentality of urban centres in the modernist period. The socio-spatial notions of encounter, street and labyrinth are one of the group’s innovations, particularly in the work of Smithson and Van Eyck, in an attempt to recover the human scale.

Many of these ideas were explored through exhibition design. According to the Smithson, it was “a unique opportunity to test, on a small scale, ideas, models and proposals for larger projects”. Paraphrasing the text written by Dirk van den Heuvel for the exhibition catalogue, “the visitor ceases to occupy a central and controlling position, becoming a ‘creature’, a ‘body’ (…), immersed in an experience without too many instruments of orientation in space”.

In Art on Display, three exhibition projects by Van Eyck were partially reconstructed. Built with concrete blocks in 1966, the pavilion for the open-air exhibition at the Sonsbeek Park in Arnhem had autonomous walls, which defined the spaces covered by a translucent polyester mesh surface. According to Francis Strauven, it was “a labyrinth of straight and circular, convex and concave paths, intersected by curves and diagonal avenues” where “the sculptures (…) were not arranged with a distant formality, as in a museum; they had abandoned their niches and gone to the street (…). But (…) they all appeared as inhabitants of that small town”. Placed on plinths, they are arranged at the eye level of the observer, approaching him. The empty plinths allow the visitor to sit or assume the position of the sculpture.

According to Dirk van den Heuvel, “this pavilion is one of the testimonies of the “labyrinthine clarity” that Van Eyck proposes for architecture, creating threshold spaces for fortuitous encounters, and interiors that reveal his notion of a transition space between apparent oppositions, such as open-closed, dark-light, small-large”.

The exhibitions between 1949 and 1951, together with the Cobra group, marked the beginning of Van Eyck’s involvement with the world of arts and the importance of cooperation in the interrelationship between the plastic arts he defended. In 1949, at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, he opted to place engravings, drawings and small sculptures on low plinths. In 1951, at the Palais des Beaux-Arts, in Liège, floors filled with coal were the basis for sculptures. These models are now recreated for the exhibition at the Gulbenkian Museum.

Based on principles similar to those of Van Eyck, the exhibition Painting & Sculpture of a Decade 54-64, by Alison & Peter Smithson, wanted to nullify neoclassical architecture and what it represented, at the Tate Gallery, in London. A new flat wall, irregularly arranged, composed of white panels about 3m high, was installed parallel to the gallery walls, creating “a new spatial geometry” to exhibit recent examples of modern international art, illuminated by low tungsten lamps. It was then created, according to Dirk van den Heuvel, “an exhibition space that would also be an educational space through an immersive initiation, a rite of passage, from where we return transformed – like the mythological archetype of the labyrinth”.

Another innovative example is the museological design to install the collection of the Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP) created by Lina Bo Bardi, in 1968, after moving to São Paulo with her husband, the art historian Pietro Maria Bardi, and the future director of the MASP. Her proposal made her famous. Despite clear similarities with the proposal of Franco Albini, with whom she worked in Milan, and Franca Helg for the art exhibition in São Paulo in 1954, Lina Bo Bardi opted for a more radical solution, exhibiting each piece individually. She established a direct, one-to-one interaction with the viewer. The massifying effect was overwhelming, close to a sculptural or installation experience. Unlike Albini, who exposed painting in a private environment, Bo Bardi opted to expose it in a public environment, presenting it as “a work”.

Art on Display is a unique opportunity to experience innovative exhibition models, whose approach is focused on the relationship between the viewer, the museum and the work of art. This would not be possible without the support and research of Rita Albergaria, responsible for the architecture and technical coordination of the exhibition. In April, the exhibition will go to the Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam, coming closer to its goal: “to allow the viewer to reflect on the way in which the exhibition language is positioned between the work of art and the viewer, and on the effect this has on their aesthetic experience”.

Art on Display – Formas de expor 1949-69 until 2 March, at the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon.

Joana Duarte (Lisbon, 1988), architect and curator, lives and works in Lisbon. She concluded her master in architecture at Faculdade de Arquitectura of Universidade de Lisboa in 2011, she attended the Technical University of Eindhoven in the Netherlands and did her professional internship in Shanghai, China. She collaborated with several national and international architects and artists developing a practice between architecture and art. In 2018 she founds her own studio, concludes the postgraduate degree in curatorial studies at Faculdade de Ciências Sociais e Humanas of Universidade Nova de Lisboa and starts collaborating with Umbigo magazine.

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