Gentlemanly hang…

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There’s a great cartoon in Matt Groening’s book School is Hell called A Teachers’ guide to words that make kids snicker. Words in question include Uranus, Sperm Whale, Lake Titicaca, and verbs such as to erect. After some twenty years of teaching Middle School, I’ve learned that even the adjective “hard” can get boys to giggle, so it’s better to replace it with “difficult”.

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Art history and museum studies have a few slippery terms, among them the “gentlemanly hang” and the “princely hang” (Louis XIV certainly had some nice gams – see Hyacinthe Rigaud’s painting of him – but let’s stick with the “gentlemanly hang” of our Greek fellow). For the prudes, there are more genteel hangs: “salon”, “art-historical”, and “aesthetic”. These terms refer to the way paintings are hung and they are also linked to the historical shift from private collections to public museums. Let’s look at four of these: the gentlemanly, the princely, the salon, and the art-historical.

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The “gentlemanly hang” dominated in England, a land of gentlemen if there ever was one. Paintings, almost exclusively Old Masters, decorated the rooms of the wealthy and were hung without the kind of information we have become accustomed to in museums. English gentlemen, by dint of their education and good breeding, could identify the painter and school of painting. If you couldn’t tell a Van Dyke from a Rembrandt, chances are you didn’t belong in the Earl of Squirrel’s fancy digs. The “princely hang” is not dissimilar in its lack of information or its overall goal of signifying power, but whereas the gentlemanly hang emanated sobriety, the princely hang was meant to dazzle: paintings were hung on walls thick with paint, gilt, mirrors, tapestries, and plaster relief so that visitors would be awestruck by the wealth and taste of the king. A visit to Versailles will give you a potent dose of the princely hang, though works of American artist Jeff Koons are currently intermingling with the splendors of Versailles, so don’t let the giant aluminum lobster throw you off.

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The Salons in France, exhibitions organized by the Académie de Beaux Arts, displayed paintings based on the idea that “more is more”: paintings were hung right next to each other, above each other, under each other; every wall was crammed with what was thought to be the best of the best (read: the most conservative and least challenging). The “salon hang” continued long into the 19th century, despite the fact that the “art-historical” hang came to dominate the logic of display in the late 18th and early 19th century. In fact, if my memory serves me right, the Louvre (before its magnificent renovation) still clung to the salon hang: the painting galleries were dark and claustrophobic; a glass of wine too many and the visitor felt as if the walls were collapsing on him, dragged down by the weight of hundreds of years of painting, Greek tragedies, and shipwrecks at sea.

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The “art-historical” hang signals the transition from private collections meant for the few to public museums meant for everyone. Whereas private collections impressed, public museums were intended to instruct. Curators, taking cues from the fledgling discipline of art history, arranged collections chronologically and by school, thus establishing an ordered itinerary for the visitor who embarked on an edifying journey, observing the aesthetic progress of painting which inexorably culminated in the Italian Renaissance.

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Most art museums today still use this approach to varying degrees and it is a useful way to guide the visitor. However, it is instructive to develop an awareness that your experience in a museum has in part already been programmed for you through the arrangement and display of its objects. Not only that, but the attention you give to individual pieces is tempered by the privileged hanging of paintings deemed more important than others. This isn’t inherently bad: your visit is not being hijacked by some curitorial control freak. At the same time, by being aware of the politics of display, you are more likely to ferret out the corners and darker hallways and stumble upon something normally unnoticed and decidedly wonderful, which makes “hanging out” at the museum even more rewarding!

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This post relies heavily on Carol Duncan’s book Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums. If you are interested in the history of art museums you should check it out.

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