SYMPOSIUM | 25-26 November 2021
Expressionism. Colonialism. Rethinking Kirchner and Nolde: On the relationship between the modern and contemporary art museum and the ethnographic museum
Hybrid: Online and in person at the Stedelijk on November 25 and at the Volkenkunde on November 26
In early September 2021, the exhibition Kirchner and Nolde: Expressionism. Colonialism opened at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. The exhibition examines Kirchner and Nolde's art within the context of the colonial reality in which it originated. The reviews that followed—whether critical or laudatory—all expressed the extreme discomfort and in some cases disdain the reviewers experienced during their visit. These reactions underscore what have now become quite recycled, yet unresolved, ethical concerns that have arisen in comparable contexts: What is the difference between art and ethnography, both in the approach adopted by museums and in the contemplation of the associated works by visitors? How does an exhibition on Kirchner and Nolde end up revealing how so much of our standards of beauty derive from exoticist and even racist practices of looking? At whose expense do we educate our visitors in this regard? And, if we are all implicated in colonialism, as per Michael Rothberg’s work, how can we as museums create a space for audiences whose experience of colonialism is so radically different?
To read the Dutch critiques of Kirchner and Nolde: Expressionism. Colonialism, and to compare them to those published just three years earlier concerning Gauguin and Laval in Martinique (Van Gogh Museum, 2018-19), it is clear that there has been something of a tempering in the forcefulness of attack in the intervening period, with more critics than expected now demonstrating ambivalent if not negative feelings about couching modernist art in its colonial context. Is it the curators’ responsibility to consider the affective registers of their audiences? Whose critiques do curators consider? Those of status quo stakeholders, such as the major news channels of a given public sphere? Those of influential stakeholders whose ideas are not (yet or fully) reflected in the more traditional media outlets of how exhibits are critiqued?
This symposium does not seek to address the above questions per se, for scholars such as Carlo A. Célius, Lewis R. Gordon and Kobena Mercer take them up directly. That is to say, while experts have heavily debated the question of what role each type of museum should play in society, the news media still remains sensitive to this perceived divide. How then might we shift the conversation to better understand contemporary and modern art as material culture, and in so doing rethink our collections’ objects—or what Souleymane Bachir Diagne refers to as “intersubjective matrixes”—as existing between and among the formal, the historical, the social, the technological, and the cultural?
Thus, the questions addressed by this symposium are:
- What is the role of the contemporary art museum in exhibiting modern art? As Kirchner and Nolde’s paintings show, modernism in all its iterations ran parallel to colonialism, and was often intimately implicated in it. What is the impact of existing traditions in contemporary art museums and ethnographic museums on the presentation of their work in society today? And how might, and has, contemporary art be incorporated in the offerings of the ethnographic museum?
- What does a material culturalist perspective afford a museum-based approach to bringing our objects—or “intersubjective matrixes”—into the public sphere?
- Given that the experts on the advisory board assisting the Kirchner and Nolde exhibition team were also specialists in Oceania, how does exhibiting Oceania/Océanie first at the Royal Academy of Arts (London, 2018) and then at the Quai Branly (Paris, 2019) relate to what it means to take into account the colonialist underpinning of Kirchner and Nolde’s work, whose subjects depicted scenes and people from Oceania? How does this confluence of exhibits over a three-year period allow us to take stock of our changing notions of art? And again of the role that each genre of museum plays in this changing notion?
- How can we more deliberately think about ways in which ethnographic, world and contemporary art museums have and might continue to think alongside each other, borrowing from each other’s collections and working methods, and working together?
- Finally, we will think through particular methodologies of curating exhibitions. How much should we read, watch or listen to when preparing to visit an art museum? And how do these acts of knowledge-sharing affect each visitor differently? More simply stated, how is one person’s experience of a Kirchner painting ‘art’ and another an assault? And what role does the museum play in the abyss between the two experiences?
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