Benedict Leca

December 15th, 2010  |  Published in Features, Profiles

Curating to Delight and Inform

“Hello, my name is Benedict Leca, and I am the curator of this show. Would you like me to give you a tour?” Leca visits the gallery that houses the Cincinnati Art Museum’s internationally acclaimed show Thomas Gainsborough and the Modern Woman (through January 2, 2011) two or three times a day. Several people look up, at first surprised and then with anticipation, as Leca launches into a provocative and illuminating description of the relationship between Gainsborough’s bold brush strokes and the equally daring women he painted (the “demi-reps” of the day, women with “half” reputations who were derided as impure), both shockingly modern in their socially confining context. (see ÆQAI article by Jane Durrell for a full review of the show).

As Aaron Betsky, Director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, points out in his foreward to the catalogue of the Gainsborough show: “The portrait at the heart of this exhibition is of signal importance in this development (the emergence of a new class of clients who were gaining power through manufacturing and trade)—as our curator, D. Benedict Leca, so brilliantly shows. The emergence of a group of both women and artists who made their way through their talents, and whose expressive modes stood out against the fixed and canonizing modes of some of their predecessors, paralleling the psychological portrait as it was then appearing in literature and theory both in England and on the Continent.”

Benedict Leca strikes one at once as animated and thoughtful, an unusual combination that manifests itself in rapid and lucid delivery punctuated by short moments of rumination. His demeanor is affable and accessible, his passion for his work at the museum palpable.

What would Leca do with a show if there were no budget constraints? “The economic downturn has helped us as curators and museums to appreciate anew the small, focused or bantam-sized exhibition as an extremely viable and cost efficient vehicle. But it isn’t just a matter of savings or a smaller carbon footprint (costs of transport for instance), which is gigantic for blockbusters. Focused shows allow for more in-depth, contemplative looking, unhurried by the trajectory set forth by the large-scale retrospectives, which can often, by their very nature, banalize exceptional masterworks when seen among countless others. Certainly, it is always a treat to see multiple major works together; but there is also something to be said for more deliberate viewing of single pieces or small clutches of works”

Thinking about future shows, he adds that received wisdom is that the nineteenth century has more or less been exhausted of fresh ideas. “It is true that museum goers, especially Americans, have tended to be fed a predictable diet of Impressionism, which, while always marvelous, hews largely to established narratives of the development of French landscape painting: Corot (Barbizon) to Monet. Thus, I am particularly interested in developing projects that might round out our picture of this signal era.

“While other national schools merit attention, my specialty is French art, and therefore this is where my focus lies. Chronologically, the early nineteenth century gets short shrift. In fact, academic painting across the century, so often reviled as the anti-modern, deserves a reappraisal in order to give us an appreciation of the coexistence of the latter alongside the period’s more avant-garde production.

“It seems to me that the French nineteenth century is ripe for a more sociological approach, one which would account for the broader visual culture and of consumerism away from the monographic tradition of exhibitions centered largely on the great landscapists. The problem of course is that these great masters who define the nineteenth century are so masterful and their works so beautiful that they remain greatly appreciated by the public.”

Leca says that art education is often severe and dogmatic. “I keep in mind, in all the shows I do, their interest to a broader public. One can create exhibitions and catalogues that are accessible to the layperson. If you look over the study of art history, some of the very greatest and most profound thinkers and writers use very basic language.” He cites Linda Nochlin (a leader in feminist art history) as an example. “Her language is snappy, crystal clear, and intensely incisive and perceptive. People of that caliber are able to unpack complex ideas and concepts in plain language.”

Speaking of his role as curator, deep in thought, Leca says that people often forget that the curatorial role is essentially a service industry. “Unlike the academicians, we have a responsibility to the public. That, to me, is a primary motivation and the reason why I went into museum work. I’m interested in introducing to the public things they might overlook or are not aware of. When I started, I literally knew nothing. I didn’t come from an art family. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as art history. I am fortunate in having been trained both at The University of Texas and at Brown University by top-notch people. They didn’t cut me one inch of slack; I started at the bottom. So, the really dopey questions that people are afraid to ask—well, I’ve asked them all myself.” Leca shows a great respect for academicians—his wife is one—but says, “I am an extrovert and always thought I would make a better curator than professor.” He smiles, “I was the class clown, and even today, getting people excited about art is what stimulates me.” He looks up on a more serious note, “One has to be humble in front of these objects; they are talismanic objects of culture, so it’s serious business, and it’s what makes a museum different from a water park.”

Leca feels that eighteenth century history has been largely marginalized (less so in the last 25 years), because the mythology has persisted that it was largely fluff—poodle culture. “Historians, especially women historians, today are working through very important theoretical and political issues pertaining to the eighteenth century. Everything we understand about the modern, we can trace back to the eighteenth century.” He points out that art criticism started in 1746 with Etienne La Font de Saint-Yenne. Saint-Yenne was a couturier, who arrived in Paris from Lyons feeling that the arts were complicit in the decline of civic standards and public life. He wrote a groundbreaking review of the 1746 Paris salon, asserting for the first time that an amateur, representing the public, had the right to join a debate about standards that had been the sole purview of the Académie Royale for over an hundred years. He argued that the decadence of which he accused the painters of his time was attributable to the usurping of wall space by mirrors and rococo plasterwork, marginalizing the artists into an untenable position. His publication ushered in an era of criticism that persists today, and others quickly joined him in art-critical writing, men such as Stendhal and Diderot.

“Of course art criticism,” continues Leca, “is due in part to the arrival of the public sphere, this aggregate of public opinion that takes on political consequences. When you go to the Royal Academy exhibition in 1780’s or the Salon in France a bit earlier, and you make negative comments about the art, you’re making a political statement. That is equal in important respects to today’s blogosphere—people who are typing away and have political impact. It valorizes or dismisses certain works, expresses political opinions, and it does make an impression.”

To illustrate, Leca refers to the show. “For instance, it is clear that Gainsborough is dialoguing about man and nature, nature in large part being re-conceptualized. Before, in very general terms, nature was seen as a physical expression of theological truths from The Bible—a dynamic system into which man fits. People then began to understand an individual society being in unity with nature.” This, adds Leca, is analogous to today’s green movement, which can be traced back to that new vision of nature. “Or,” he adds, ” look at today’s celebrity culture. Mrs. Siddons (National Gallery, London) is one of the first modern celebrities. She was adept at manipulating the media and fashioning a public persona.” Leca’s analogies to modern cultural drifts brings up the question here of who in today’s culture would equate to Gainsborough’s “thoroughly modern” woman. Would it be Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan? He says not. It would have to be “women who are aware of existing constraints, whether it be glass ceilings in business or inequitable salaries and opportunities, women who push up against socially sanctioned decorum and do it deliberately.” He would choose Madonna, because she has the same combination of intelligence and sex appeal and knows how to manipulate public opinion.

“Public sphere/blogosphere, nature sphere/green movement, and celebrity culture/celebrity culture—here you can draw the historical parallels and see how they shed light on our world today.” Leca says that behind everything he does, he is conscious of relating the past to the present, creating a thread that winds forward. “You can’t write art history or do exhibitions in a bubble.”

In discussing the relative “use” of history in general, an open question today, Leca adds that “knowing about history, cultural awareness, and being exposed to the kind of lessons given to us by art works, critical thinking and lively original writing—all of that is not only important but turns out to be good for business. I think about these things when I put an exhibition together; it’s my duty as a curator, part of my career choice.”

Making use of the Cincinnati Art Museum’s permanent collection is integral to Leca’s mission. “The Gainsborough show comes out of the very important portrait of Ann Ford that we own. Right when I got here, I identified it as a picture that would benefit from a sprucing up. It is important to valorize it, construct it as our Mona Lisa, make it a destination picture, so that visitors to Cincinnati understand its importance. It’s an advantage to the Museum, of course, but as important is the benefit to the community and the world at large in having now contextualized this picture and recreated the world from which it came.” He says he is always looking for similar situations within the museum.

“Right now I am thinking about new shows, taking pictures from our collection and building shows around them. It can be a very small thing from which you can extrapolate large concepts. For instance we have a little painting of a head by Picasso, painted during his classical period—there’s a show right now at the Guggenheim on classicism. I’ve wanted to build a show around Picasso’s classicism (1917-1923). Or, we have an important picture by Tissot (1836-1902). Then we have a great grouping of French landscapes from the Barbizon School (1830-1870), all the way to the early twentieth century.” This could show the “changing concepts of nature on the one hand and art as artifice on the other: the way artists navigate the two poles; the way artists are always talking about nature and plein air painting, but then are dealing with paint, artifice. So there is a tension there between artifice and nature, either scientifically, empirically or physically.”

We are, emphasizes Leca, told the same story over and over, Corot (1796-1875) to Monet (1840-1926), the drive towards Impressionism. “It seems worthwhile to ask again how we get to the Impressionist and then to the post-Impressionist landscape. There are all sorts of discussions that go way back. For instance, people were doing plein air work in the seventeenth century. It didn’t just appear with the Impressionists. They were using sketches and pen and ink.” He adds, by way of illustration, that you can look at a Boucher (1703-1770) landscape, and there are parts of that highly constructed and theatrical view that have elements that reflect a very close observation of nature.

Leca stresses that various aspects of this have been already been discussed, and that his immediate interest stems from the strength of CAM in French landscapes. “We have perhaps the finest Claude Lorrain; we have one of the premier groupings of Barbizon paintings anywhere in America; we have that fabulous Van Gogh; and we have arguably the finest watercolor that Cezanne ever created. So, across the board, we have some key pieces that trace the lineage of French landscape from A-Z.”

His steady focus on the permanent collection also stems from practical considerations. “You are much more convincing when you ask for a loan if you own one of the key pieces of the exhibition. This was a force in the Gainsborough exhibition; we owned possibly one of the most important pictures of his career.” He pauses and adds that The Cincinnati Art Museum mounted the first Gainsborough exhibition in the country, in 1931—the first worldwide Gainsborough retrospective. “So, you see it’s more convincing.” Just having the idea without the force of bringing something to the table would only elicit a mild response from possible participants. He adds that with a larger budget he would have added more paintings and possibly some pendant pictures, as well as a portrait of a man and a contrasting one, say by Sir Joshua Reynolds.

Leca’s overriding approach to showing art is to provide as much context as possible, and the idea of doing cross-cultural or cross-media shows is entirely within that realm. “Cross cultural can be tricky. Cross-media I’ve done. Doing a certain set of paintings and then the reproductive prints and showing the changes is interesting. You look at a painting and then the subsequent engraving; it’s different. In the Rembrandt exhibition I had the portraits, prints and the school of Rembrandt paintings, ones done after his time. So, absolutely, one always wants to give the fullness of the context. Reproductive or interpretive printmaking can go all the way to a poster, and that has meaning in the world of images, but you cannot lose sight of the real painting.”

In this new era replete with imagery, from the television to IPods to messages on buses, what becomes of our perception, the perception of the young growing up in this world of pictures? “First of all,” Leca says, “I think it’s a good thing, because we are so conditioned historically to a bias against images. People have concentrated on the fixity of text, the word, the holy books, so it’s a good thing we are turning to images. What we don’t want to lose though is the ability to interpret images. So, great that we are moving in a world that values the image over text; I think that’s fine, but it’s extremely important that the corollary to this is that people be able to “read” images properly. That’s what I feel is part of my duty. You can decode, “read” images. It’s funny to be using the metaphor of a text while looking at images, but that’s the point. We can’t let people lose that ability.”

Benedict Leca’s infectious enthusiasm for his chosen career seems to carry with it a deeper significance: Pay close attention to the details, ferret out the messages, and build context around everything that shows up in life. There is a richness here that, in our modern inclination to fix on the future, can be lost as the present unfolds and merges with the past.

– Cynthia Osborne Hoskin



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