Exhibition Design Innovations That Help Us Think about Art Differently | Magazine

Barbara Merkley

Born a count in Vienna in 1901, Rene d’Harnoncourt went on to become a legendary exhibition maker, as well as the director of The Museum of Modern Art for nearly 20 years. He studied chemical engineering at the University in Vienna but never graduated. In 1924, with the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the family estate he had hoped to inherit was expropriated. He immigrated to Mexico City in 1926, freelanced as a commercial artist, and fell in with a vibrant group of modern artists who introduced him to pre-Columbian art.

Sketch of a Sulka Dance Mask included in the exhibition Arts of the South Seas, 1946

Sketch of a Sulka Dance Mask included in the exhibition Arts of the South Seas, 1946

Slow Looking

Scale drawings of sculptures for the exhibition Jean Arp: A Retrospective, 1958

Scale drawings of sculptures for the exhibition Jean Arp: A Retrospective, 1958

Many of us have had that experience in a museum when one is trying to carefully contemplate a work of art while a steady barrage of selfie-takers quickly cycles through. D’Harnoncourt insisted on being deeply familiar with each work he put on display. To that end, he studied every one at length and made careful object drawings (sometimes from memory), and then studies of groups of objects, to understand the relationships among them.

Choreography of Space

Floor plan, with circulation path, of the exhibition Timeless Aspects of Modern Art, 1948

Floor plan, with circulation path, of the exhibition Timeless Aspects of Modern Art, 1948

Another concern for d’Harnoncourt was how a visitor would move through the spaces of the museum, and what that circulation could impart to the understanding of the works of art along the pathway of a show. A story should unfold through the interaction of objects in the sequence of the space. He used his group drawings to think about their placement along the circulation path, which he then sketched out as well.

User Experience

Installation vista of the exhibition Arts of the South Seas, 1948

Installation vista of the exhibition Arts of the South Seas, 1948

Vista of the exhibition Elie Nadelman, showing sculptures installed on multi-level pedestals, with curtain behind, 1948

Vista of the exhibition Elie Nadelman, showing sculptures installed on multi-level pedestals, with curtain behind, 1948

Alternate Narratives Outside the Western Canon

From left: Preliminary list and drawings of Chavin objects, including “El Lanzon,” in the exhibition Ancient Arts of the Andes, 1953; Installation view of the darkened entry passageway gallery, featuring the cast of “El Lanzon,” in Ancient Arts of the Andes, 1954

From left: Preliminary list and drawings of Chavin objects, including “El Lanzon,” in the exhibition Ancient Arts of the Andes, 1953; Installation view of the darkened entry passageway gallery, featuring the cast of “El Lanzon,” in Ancient Arts of the Andes, 1954

D’Harnoncourt was interested in art from Indigenous and non-Western cultures, and from eras predating modern art. In fact, one newspaper critic labeled him The Museum of Modern Art’s chief ethnological expert. He presented exhibitions of pre-Columbian art, Native American art, and Oceanic art, and throughout his career he possessed a profound respect for all makers of works of art, whether a popular contemporary artist or an anonymous Indigenous artisan.

Vista of the exhibition Timeless Aspects of Modern Art, showing Georges Rouault’s Christ Mocked by Soldiers (1932), paired with a Romanesque Christ on a cross (c. 1300 AD), 1948

Vista of the exhibition Timeless Aspects of Modern Art, showing Georges Rouault’s Christ Mocked by Soldiers (1932), paired with a Romanesque Christ on a cross (c. 1300 AD), 1948

Beyond the White Cube

Watercolor vista of the exhibition Arts of the South Seas, 1946

Watercolor vista of the exhibition Arts of the South Seas, 1946

Far from the ubiquitous early modern “white cube” gallery, d’Harnoncourt was audacious in his use of color, lighting, texture, and other innovative exhibition devices in his installations. He deployed these techniques either for what he called “symbolic effect,” to heighten the exhibition narrative, or to best showcase individual works of art. In Arts of the South Seas he carefully studied the colors, which are inspired by the different landscapes of origin of the objects: yellow evoking sand, for instance, while dark green suggested the jungle. In The Sculpture of Picasso, he also relied on galleries with different wall colors, even selecting fabric swatches, indicating the exact hue of the custom-made curtains that he used to frame certain objects, which he would affix to his planning notes for fabrication. When determining how to exhibit Pablo Picasso’s enormous sculptural heads, he designed a round room, to give the effect of infinite space.

Installation view of the exhibition Indian Art of the United States, showing d’Harnoncourt’s dramatic use of lighting, 1941

Installation view of the exhibition Indian Art of the United States, showing d’Harnoncourt’s dramatic use of lighting, 1941

And, taking a cue from theatrical lighting design, he was also able to employ the subtleties of dramatic lighting to great effect. D’Harnoncourt would often strive to illuminate the objects included in a manner that would evoke their original context: for his Indian Art of the United States exhibition, Native American masks used during ceremonies performed around campfires were presented in a semi-darkened room, displayed in niches lit from below to evoke the directional glow from the fire.

D’Harnoncourt’s approach to the arts—curious, cosmopolitan, and open—is deeply relevant to our current enterprise. Perhaps his most eternal attribute was his centering of the art itself, a kind of humility in service of his chosen profession. Hailed in his time as a master installateur, he modestly explained, “The only good installation is one where people forget the installation and remember the work of art.”

The Exhibition as Work of Art: René d’Harnoncourt for MoMA is currently on view at the Tiroler Landesmuseen in Innsbruck, Austria, through February 26, 2023. You can read more about his work and life in René d’Harnoncourt and the Art of Installation.

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