A Journey Through “Picture Stories: The Art of Europe and the

by Beth Taylor-Schott

The Santa Barbara Museum of Art has been shaking things up since
last September with a new hanging of its permanent collection,
Picture Stories: The Art of Europe and the Americas. It’s hard not
to notice the difference in the Sterling Morton West gallery, for
example. If you are looking for stylistic unity, or even expecting
to find just one artistic medium, the room looks like a jumble. The
Northern Renaissance and Baroque masters Dürer and Rembrandt share
a wall with the modern artist Frederico Cantú, their delicate
engravings and etchings adjacent to another wall bearing an
enormous photo-collage by the Guatemalan artist Luis
Gonzàles-Palma. Elsewhere, a 19th-century French academic painting
by Jules Breton confronts a monumental quasi-cubist charcoal by
Alfredo Ramos Martínez. On top of all of this, the room includes a
painting by Chagall, prints by Picasso, and a model of a pediment
by the neoclassical sculptor John Flaxman.

If you stop looking just at the style, and instead focus on the
subjects of the works, the room hangs together remarkably well.
Mythic and religious figures, gestures, and objects appear and
reappear as one moves from piece to piece. In one of Rembrandt’s
etchings, we see Christ crucified on the cross, while across the
room in the Martínez, two women pray before a figure of Christ on a
crucifix. One of these women holds a taper in a gesture that is a
near-mirror image of the figure in Breton’s “The Pardon,” another
depiction of female piety, which it faces. Back on the other side
of the room, Dürer’s St. Philip holds a cross up in front of
himself as if it were a candle, and on and on. In a similar manner,
centaurs and nymphs cavort throughout the gallery in prints,
photographs, and wax relief, interpreted by artists of different
centuries and continents. It is easy to imagine many connections
between the works here: connections between one artist and another,
between different cultures, and between different eras and

This play upon theme and subject matter continues to a greater
and lesser degree in all of the galleries that feature the
permanent collection. At times a roughly chronological arrangement
seems in place. At other points, it is clearly turned on its head.
You need to look closely in order to recognize the deviations from
the usual historical narrative in the Campbell gallery, for
example, where religious paintings dominate, and where one might
not notice at first the historical distance between, say, the
19th-century New Mexican retablos and the 16th-century Russian
icons, precisely because the two seem on first glance to share a
basic visual language.

In the Preston Morton gallery, on the other hand, the visual
correspondences between strikingly different depictions of the
human figure are impossible to miss, and all the more entertaining
for it. This gallery offers us the chance to contemplate an Edward
Weston nude alongside a Degas drawing of a dancer next to a
photograph of Martha Graham. It encourages us to look back and
forth between the works on the walls and the sculpture on the
floor, helping us see correspondences between a Maillol torso, for
example, and the painted Dali figure behind it; or between a Mercié
sculpture, a John Singer Sargent painting of a sculpture, and a
Braque depiction of a figure so nearly monochromatic that it seems
sculptural itself.

This new way of arranging art in a museum goes against a strong
tradition. In the permanent collection of most museums the art is
arranged in chronological order. Duccio comes before Giotto, who
comes before Botticelli. If you follow the right path through the
museum, you can see the history of art unfolding in front of your
eyes. A traditional museum thus tells a story about style in art,
one particular story about the way that the look of paintings and
sculptures changes over time.

There are a number of problems with this, and academic art
history has been occupied with many of them for the last several
decades. Why should a museum, which is meant to serve the whole
community, tell only one story? Who gets to decide which story it
is? Who is served, politically and culturally, by that story?

Even from the point of view of an average visitor walking
through the museum, a straightforward chronological arrangement can
be problematic. If the museum is telling just one story, and you
don’t know how to read that story— either because you didn’t take
that art history class, or because you’ve forgotten it, or because
you faked your way through it in the first place — then you are
pretty much out of luck. It’s also true that the story of how
styles of art change over time is actually pretty abstract. Many
people don’t relate to it very well. Most of us like a work of art
because we relate to its subject matter. The style of a work — that
is, the way that an artist has depicted the subject matter — can
make it more or less interesting, but only a minority of museum
visitors are interested first and foremost in the way something is

What to do, especially if you want to make the museum a more
interesting, engaging place for more people? The answer that the
Santa Barbara Museum of Art proposes is to re-hang the permanent
collection — to rearrange the way that the pictures are hung — to
use the museum to tell more and different stories.

For the expert on art, such an installation offers hours of
interpretive fun. A certain PhD in art history from Berkeley that I
know thoroughly enjoys the new hanging, and my brother-in-law, a
serious museum buff, also raved about the layout after he visited
the SBMA this year. After all, if you already know how the history
of art unfolds in the West, then it is refreshing to see this
variation on the theme. It is like watching a narrative unfold
through a series of flashbacks and side stories. The way that the
images are arranged makes the museum less like a lecture and more
like a poem; everyone is asked to bring a strong measure of their
own interpretation to the table.

The way the galleries are laid out also appeals to those who
enjoy art, but who have less of an art history background. Because
Picture Stories pays attention to subject matter, it is accessible
to visitors who do the same. Judy Davison, a first-grade teacher
from Sebastopol, California, who was visiting the galleries
recently, had one semester of art history in college and has always
wanted to take more classes about >>> art. She admitted
that when she is in a museum she has little idea whether things are
in chronological order or not, but she very much liked being able
compare a number of depictions of the same subject, as the hanging
at SBMA allowed her to do. She was particularly drawn to a series
of images of arched bridges in the Ridley-Tree gallery, a painting
by Monet, one by Matisse, and a photograph by Kertész. Looking at
them, she explained, “I like how you can see what the different
artists do with the same subject.” Describing the gallery as a
whole she used the adjectives “friendly, open, inviting,
easy-to-look-at.” “I love art,” she said “but I don’t know much
about it. I don’t know why I like the way they have things
arranged, but the room seems to make sense. It’s not all cluttered.
It’s easy for someone who isn’t an expert to enjoy.”

Davison’s reaction is consistent with the feedback that the
museum has been getting in general. According to Diana du Pont, the
curator of the show, the response of the community has been “really
positive. We’ve had nothing but positive feedback.” She attributes
the success of this new way of doing things to the fact that the
galleries are now both surprising and recognizable. “If you compare
this with other museums, it’s unexpected. But this is how the world
is today. People like it because it is more like their experience.
Things aren’t just divided into different boxes. They’re all mixed
together, in different layers.” Although the approach of Picture
Stories will continue at SBMA, as special exhibitions come and go,
the hanging of the permanent collection will shift and change. The
works on display — particularly the works on paper — will rotate,
offering a shifting visual feast that repays return visits many
times over. Du Pont sees this way of arranging art as the future,
not just for SBMA, but for other museums as well. Let’s hope she is
right; if she is, it will be a delight for museum goers who enjoy
finding something new every time they go to a museum.


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