DIA: A Grand Tour

Ed.'s Note: The holidays are a great time to soak in the revamped Detroit Institute of Arts, and spend some time discovering, or rediscovering as it were, the galleries.

Model D writer Lucy Ament spent some time with the curators of three major collections — the European, African and Native American galleries — to discuss the innovative ways they've chosen to display the museum's finery.

From Europe, With Love

In the 18th century, the education of Europe's aristocracy required several steamer trunks and lots and lots of money. From England, Germany, Russia and other corners of the Continent, gentlemen's sons with entourages of servants would descend on France and Italy, where they would spend anywhere from six months to three years studying the edifices, monuments and ruins of nearly 20 centuries. Meanwhile, letters of introduction they had scrupulously solicited before leaving home gained them entry into the homes of French and Italian noblemen, which — public museums being a mere plebian dream — housed the paintings and sculptures that any man pretending to a place in society was expected to see firsthand.

It's a singular example of the Detroit Institute of Arts' innovative thinking that, when reorganizing its permanent collection after a years-long renovation and expansion project, it decided to use a suite of rooms in its European galleries to educate the American public about the phenomenon that came to be known as the "Grand Tour." To the extent that these long trips shaped the tastes of the social class that could afford art and brought a degree of homogeneity to Western aesthetics, the Grand Tour should be a staple of the public's art education. But few if any museums have made this history lesson as tangible or coherent as the DIA, which has decked out rooms with sumptuous period furniture and paintings and sculpture to simulate for museum-goers the experience these wealthy young men had visiting estates replete with priceless art in the cities of Venice, Florence, Naples and Rome. Visitors will even be encouraged to sit at a table and write postcards to friends as a grand tourist would.

According to George Keyes, who is both chief curator and curator of European art for the DIA, the "Grand Tour" suite demonstrates perfectly what the museum has attempted to bring to every work in its collection: context. Rather than seeing furniture and art in isolation, the public can see how these worked together in real homes. The museum has even given the experience a human face by hanging Thomas Gainsborough portraits of Edward and Sir John Edward Swinburne, English brothers who each made a Grand Tour in the 18th century, at the beginning of the exhibit.

"It's been said that curators in the past were only preparing exhibits for other curators," says Keyes, noting that the modern curriculum of education in America, while more useful than in decades past, is now much less rigorous with respect to the arts. Consequently, Keyes says, "You can't assume that someone comes to the museum with a certain prescribed body of knowledge. We want people to discover something about themselves in the art, and that's a huge sea change."

The Grand Tour of Italy inspired a few other rooms in the European galleries, including one decorated like the "saloon" of an English country house, which was a room often designed specifically for the art work grand tourists brought back with them to their native shore. Two other rooms are devoted to Peter Paul Rubens and Nicolas Poussin, who according to DIA chief curator George Keyes were the artists most profoundly affected by their lengthy studies abroad.

Elsewhere in the galleries, visitors can check out a six-room suite showcasing the lifestyle of European aristocrats in the late 18th century. The average day, which included an hours-long morning toilette and three-to-nine-course evening meals, seems rather tedious for all its opulence, but oh! the accessories! Only ascetics will be able to resist the complete French toilette set (one of only five surviving) and the mountains of richly colored Sèvres china on display.

Explore Africa

There's certainly plenty to discover in the museum's African galleries, which according to curator Nii Quarcoopome have much greater elegance and accessibility thanks to the DIA's new thematic approach to exhibition. Here, visitors can see a rich collection that most museums would covet.

"A lot of people envy us because the DIA got into the game very early" with respect to collecting African art, says Quarcoopome, adding that its pieces have been displayed "to make the educational experience very enlightening to visitors."

Their tour begins in a room called "Cultural and Historical Perspectives," which gives a 10,000-meter view of the diversity of African cultures and the history of African art. Upon entering the space, visitors come face to face with one of the oldest sculptures in the collection, a terracotta statue of a male with plump facial features, almond eyes, and high, arced eyebrows. The statue, which may date anywhere from 500 BC to 200 AD, is from a 100 km-by-300 km archeological site in Northern Nigeria that has turned up several similar pieces, all of unknown use and origin. But what excites experts, says Quarcoopome, is that they may have been made by different groups of people, all of which used the same approach to representing the human face. This would indicate that different African communities shared at an early date the same "aesthetic ideology," much as artists in the West have at different times been swept up in impressionism, regionalism, and other artistic schools of thought.

Next up, a 19th century saddle from the Tuareg culture creates an organizational "bridge" between Northern and Sub-Saharan Africa, simultaneously introducing the visitor to the subjects of Islam and the Gold Trade (implements of which are displayed nearby). The viewer then moves to works that testify to the cultural interplay between Europe and Africa that enriched both continents for centuries before the advent of colonialism in the late 1800s. These include an African chair atop striding lions with curled tails (a common symbol in European heraldry), a statue of an African male dressed in a loincloth and European waistcoat, and an ivory knife case from the Kongo culture (in modern-day Democratic Republic of Congo) that was commissioned by a wealthy Portuguese. (Those who enjoy these pieces can look forward to 2010, when the DIA explores the relationship of parity between Europe and Africa in a special exhibit entitled: "Through African Eyes: The European in African Art, 1500 - Present.")

The next gallery, "Leadership and Status Symbols," deals with the relationship between politics and art, as well as how art projects an individual's social status. Visitors will learn the importance of brass, bronze, beads, ivory, coral, wood, and other materials in African culture, and see breathtaking examples of how they reflect power. Particularly noteworthy objects are an enormous serving bowl and a bas-relief palace door, both carved in the early 20th century by master woodworker Olówè of Isè, and a bronze "Horse and Rider" sculpture, which was created as an altarpiece and is the best preserved of just three in existence.

Closer to Home: Native American Art

The DIA's new thematic organization of art is particularly striking in the museum's Native American galleries, which arguably boasts the best collections of Great Lakes and Plains Indians art and artifacts of any large, encyclopedic art museum in the United States. Visitors' instruction in Native American culture includes a section on clothing as art and identity, which is particularly interesting in that it explores how Indian American garb grew bolder as tribes grew more fragmented and oppressed in the Manifest Destiny delirium of mid-18th century. While the trend may seem counterintuitive, Native American curator David Penney explains that the adoption of dramatic clothing constituted "a strategy for cultural assertiveness" for American Indians, who had control over little more than their clothing and rituals as they were pushed westward in the wake of the Indian Removal Act of 1830.

Visitors can also check out a gallery on "transforming traditions," which shows how Native Americans have passed on skills from generation to generation. Penney says the DIA was careful to put an emphasis on the work of present day Native Americans, who repeatedly asserted their relevance as the DIA conducted research on reorganization.

"We spoke with many Native Americans who said to us, 'Don't put us in the past. We're part of the fabric of America right now,'" Penney says. Viewers will see a number of objects demonstrating the preservation of craft construction in Indian cultures. Hung side by side in one room, for example, are a 20th century Navajo carpet and a Navajo blanket from 1850, both demonstrating the same weaving techniques. (By the way, fans of Antiques Roadshow will recognize the blanket from the 2002 season, when at $500,000 it became the highest appraised item in the show's history.)

Lucy Ament is a local freelance writer and contributor to Model D.


The Grand Tour of Italy

Chief Curator George Keyes

European Galleries

African Galleries

Nii Quarcoopome, Curator of African Art

Native American Galleries

David Penny, Curator of Native American Art

All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger

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