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– Spring 2015

Notes Towards a History of the Solo Exhibition

João Ribas

Honoré Daumier, Connoisseurs, c.1862—64, black chalk with watercolour, 24.7 x 18.1cm


The ongoing history of exhibitions amends traditional art historical methodologies — including categories of genre, style or period — by directly engaging the experiential, scenographic and epistemic dimensions of exhibition-making. This history, however, only began to be written in the early 1980s, appearing, in a sense, as the repressed of art history.1

Yet there is also a repressed within this history of exhibitions and curating, for it is a history largely written around a single typology, that of the ‘paradigm-shifting’ group exhibition. In the voluminous literature on curatorial practice and exhibitions produced since the early 80s, the solo exhibition has been surprisingly, and rather conspicuously, overlooked.2 As a typology, it is given scant attention compared with group shows or biennials. There seems to be no comprehensive empirical history of the solo exhibition as a form, and important examples of such exhibitions — once tellingly referred to as ‘one-man shows’ — have not been presented as central within exhibition histories. The discursive presence of the form seems entirely compressed into the biographical and chronological focus of art historical writing on the one hand and art criticism on the other.

The general place of the solo exhibition within curatorial discourse was tersely expressed by

Footnotes
  1. Mary Anne Staniszewski, for example, writes of the ‘history of the exhibition as culturally repressed’. M.A. Staniszewski, The Power of Display: A History of Exhibition Installations at the Museum of Modern Art, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2001, p.xxi.

  2. Exceptions include the discussion of solo exhibitions by William Blake (1809) and Joshua Reynolds (1813) in issue 14 of Tate Papers (Autumn 2010), as well as Robert Jensen’s study of the retrospective in late-nineteenth-century France in Marketing Modernism in Fin-de-Siècle Europe (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994).

  3. Rob Bowman, ‘First Person Singular’, The Exhibitionist, no.1, 2010, pp.35—38.

  4. One interesting point to note in relation to this valuation of labour is how the typology is central to the work of female curators such as Lynne Cooke and Beatrix Ruf.

  5. Exceptions include ‘John Smith: Solo Show’, organised by the Curating Contemporary Art graduating students at the Royal College of Art in London in 2010. The exhibition was accompanied by a two-part publication consisting of the titles John Smith: Solo Show and Solo Show (London: Royal College of Art, 2010); the second volume reflected on the solo show as an exhibition format.

  6. Robert Storr discusses some of the assumptions, strategies and shortcomings of the retrospective solo exhibition as practiced in contemporary curating in his essay ‘Show and Tell’, though he does not address its history or development. See R. Storr, ‘Show and Tell’, in Paula Marincola (ed.), What Makes a Great Exhibition?, Philadelphia: Philadelphia Center for Arts and Heritage, 2006, pp.14—32.

  7. ‘Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev and Liam Gillick in Conversation; Chaired by Susan Hiller’, in Susan Hiller and Sarah Martin (ed.), The Producers: Contemporary Curators in Conversation, vol.4, Gateshead: Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, 2002, p.17.

  8. Raymond Geuss, ‘Nietzsche and Genealogy’, European Journal of Philosophy, vol.2, no.3, December 1994, p.282. I am referring here specifically to Friedrich Nietzsche’s historiographic model of genealogy, and its elaboration in the work of Michel Foucault.

  9. See Kenneth W. Luckhurst, The Story of Exhibitions, New York: Studio Publications, 1951, p.53. Konstantinos Stefanis argues that Hone’s exhibition is ‘the first retrospective known to have been staged by an artist’. See K. Stefanis, ‘Reasoned Exhibitions: Blake in 1809 and Reynolds in 1813’, Tate Papers, issue 14, Autumn 2010, available at http://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/reasoned-exhibitions-blake-1809-and-reynolds-1813 (last accessed on 24 October 2014). See also Graham Reynolds and Katharine Baetjer, European Miniatures in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1996, p.128.

  10. Julia Clara Pitt Byrne, Gossip of the Century: Personal and Traditional Memories, Volume 2, London: Ward and Downey, 1892, p.488.

  11. John Thomas Smith, Nollekens and His Times, London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1895, p.134.

  12. Amelia Faye Rauser, Caricature Unmasked: Irony, Authenticity, and Individualism in Eighteenth-Century English Prints, Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 2008, p.58.

  13. Original catalogue for Nathaniel Hone’s exhibition, quoted in J.T. Smith, Nollekens and His Times, op. cit., p.135.

  14. Quoted in ibid.

  15. See K.W. Luckhurst, The Story of Exhibitions, op. cit., pp.54—55.

  16. Richard Dorment, ‘The Great Room of Art’, The New York Review of Books, 13 June 2003, available at http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2002/jun/13/the-great-room-of-art/ (last accessed on 24 October 2014).

  17. Ibid.

  18. Thomas Gainsborough, quoted in Richard Redgrave and Samuel Redgrave, A Century of British Painters, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981, p.73.

  19. See K. Stefanis, ‘Reasoned Exhibitions: Blake in 1809 and Reynolds in 1813’, op. cit.; and Philippa Simpson, ‘Lost in the Crowd: Blake and London in 1809’, Tate Papers, issue 14, Autumn 2010, available at http://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/lost-crowd-blake-and-london-1809 (last accessed on 24 October 2014).

  20. W. Hauptman, ‘Juries, Protests, and Counter-Exhibitions Before 1850’, The Art Bulletin, vol.67, no.1, March 1985, p.105. See also Patricia Mainardi, ‘Courbet’s Exhibitionism’, Gazette des Beaux-Arts, no.118, December 1991, p.256.

  21. See Ross King, The Judgment of Paris, New York: Walker & Co., 2006, p.17.

  22. Ibid., p.44. See also Marci Regan, ‘Paul Durand-Ruel and the Market for Early Modernism’, unpublished master’s thesis, Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University, 1997, p.3.

  23. Julius Meier-Graefe, ‘The Medium of Art, Past, and Present’ (1904), in Charles Harrison and Paul J. Wood (ed.), Art in Theory, New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 1993, p.89.

  24. See P. Mainardi, ‘Courbet’s Exhibitionism’, op. cit., p.255.

  25. Louis Peisse, quoted in ibid., p.257.

  26. W. Hauptman, ‘Juries, Protests, and Counter-Exhibitions Before 1850’, op. cit., p.97.

  27. Ibid., p.98.

  28. See R. Jensen, Marketing Modernism in Fin-de-Siècle Europe, op. cit., p.23.

  29. William Blake, quoted in David Blayney Brown and Martin Myrone, ‘William Blake’s 1809 Exhibition’, Tate Papers, issue 14, Autumn 2010, available at http://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/william-blakes-1809-exhibition#footnote12_ep9xtun (last accessed on 24 October 2014).

  30. P. Simpson, ‘Lost in the Crowd: Blake and London in 1809’, op. cit.

  31. See John Stephen Hallam, Paris Salon Exhibitions: 1667—1880 [website], available at https://sites.google.com/a/plu.edu/paris-salon-exhibitions-1667-1880/salon-de-1800 (last accessed on 24 October 2014).

  32. Jacques-Louis David, quoted in P. Mainardi, ‘Courbet’s Exhibitionism’, op. cit., p.258.

  33. See W. Hauptman, ‘Juries, Protests, and Counter-Exhibitions Before 1850’, op. cit., p.97; and Carol Armstrong, Manet Manette, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002, p.4.

  34. ‘Horace Vernet’s Brethren of Joseph at Goupil & Co.’s Gallery’, Putnam’s Magazine, May 1855, reprinted in Putnam's Magazine: Original Papers on Literature, Science, Art and National Interests, vol.5, New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1855, p.555.

  35. Charles Blanc, Histoire des peintres de toutes les écoles: École française, Paris: 1865, III, p.8; cited in W. Hauptman, ‘Juries, Protests, and Counter-Exhibitions Before 1850’, op. cit., p.97. Translation the author’s.

  36. See ibid., p.97.

  37. See P. Mainardi, ‘Courbet’s Exhibitionism’, op. cit., p.255.

  38. Petra ten-Doesschate Chu (ed.), Letters of Gustave Courbet, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992, p.139. The paintings referred to in the letter are Un enterrement à Ornans (A Burial at Ornans, 1849—50) and L'Atelier du peintre: Allégorie réelle déterminant une phase de sept années de ma vie artistique et morale (The Artist’s Studio: A real allegory summing up seven years of my artistic and moral life, 1854—55).

  39. Charles Perrier, ‘Du Réalisme, Lettre à M. le Directeur de l'Artiste’, L'Artiste, 14 October 1855, cited in P. Mainardi, ‘Courbet’s Exhibitionism’, op. cit., p.259.

  40. See P. Mainardi, ‘Courbet’s Exhibitionism’, op. cit., p.255.

  41. Ibid., p.254.

  42. P. ten-Doesschate Chu (ed.), Letters of Gustave Courbet, op. cit., p.140.

  43. For a detailed discussion of the role of commercial galleries in the organisation of retrospectives in the late nineteenth century, see R. Jensen, Marketing Modernism in Fin-de-Siècle Europe, op. cit., pp.110, 131; and R. King, The Judgment of Paris, op. cit., pp.48—51, 147.

  44. For more on Whistler’s exhibition practice, see David Park Curry, James McNeill Whistler: Uneasy Pieces, Richmond, VA: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 2005; R. Jensen, Marketing Modernism in Fin-de-Siècle Europe, op. cit., pp.43—44, 123; James McNeill Whistler, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, New York: Dover, 1967; and Colleen Denney, At the Temple of Art: The Grosvenor Gallery, 1877—1890, Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2000, p.220. Some of Whistler’s exhibition designs were recently re-staged as part of the 2014 Liverpool Biennial in an exhibition at the Bluecoat curated by Mai Abu ElDahab and Rosie Cooper, on view from 5 July until 26 October 2014.

  45. Henry Blackburn, quoted in Joyce Hill Stoner, ‘Whistler’s Views on the Restoration and Display of his Paintings’, Studies in Conservation, vol.42, no.2, 1997, p.111.

  46. J. McNeill Whistler, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, op. cit., p.48.

  47. J. McNeill Whistler, quoted in Arthur Jerome Eddy, Recollections and Impressions of James McNeill Whistler, Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1904, p.138.

  48. As Park Curry writes, ‘Many of today’s familiar exhibition design techniques and museum practices were introduced to London a hundred years ago in one-man and group shows partially or entirely arranged by Whistler. These techniques include indirect lighting, colour-coordinated walls, uniform framing, elegant spacing, large banners outside the exhibition space, the sale of specially designed catalogues and photographic reproductions of art, elaborate evening openings and admission charges for temporary exhibitions.’ D. Park Curry, ‘Total Control: Whistler at an Exhibition’, James McNeill Whistler: A Re-examination, Washington DC: National Gallery of Art, 1987, pp.67—82.

  49. Germano Celant, ‘A Visual Machine: Art Installation and its Modern Archetypes’, in Thinking about Exhibitions, London: Routledge, 2010, p.374.

  50. See Debora J. Meijers, ‘The Places of Painting: The Survival of Mnemotechnics in Christian von Mechel’s Gallery Arrangement in Vienna (1778—81)’, in Wessel Reinink and Jeroen Stumpel (ed.), Memory and Oblivion: Proceedings of the XXIXth International Congress of the History of Art held in Amsterdam, 1—7 September 1996, Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1999.

  51. See Mary Tompkins Lewis (ed.), Critical Readings in Impressionism and Post-Impressionism: An Anthology, Berkeley: Ahmanson-Murphy, 2007, p.65. According to Walter Grasskamp’s scholarship on the history of exhibitions, the convention of hanging works in a single row was established in German museums. See Dorothee Richter, ‘A Brief Outline of the History of Exhibition Making’, On Curating.org [online journal], issue 06, available at http://www.on-curating.org/index.php/issue-6.html#.VG4We0smV4M (last accessed on 24 October 2014).

  52. See R. Jensen, Marketing Modernism in Fin-de-Siècle Europe, p.112.

  53. See G. Celant, ‘A Visual Machine’, op. cit., p.374. Celant speculates that ‘perhaps it is with the advent of the first world’s fairs, and in particular with the specific pavilions for Courbet and Manet at the 1867 fair, that the expository method becomes more refined’.

  54. Charles Baudelaire, Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays (ed. and trans. Jonathan Mayne), New York: Da Capo Press, 1986, p.42.

  55. Ibid., p.47.

  56. See Martha Ward, ‘What’s important about the history of modern art exhibitions?’, op. cit., p.458; and R. Jensen, Marketing Modernism in Fin-de-Siècle Europe, op. cit., p.113.