Art, Exhibitions and Installations, Getty Research Institute

A Gallery Fit for a Prince and Now the Public? The Düsseldorf Gallery and the Modern Museum

Interior gallery view of Display and Art History at the Getty Research Institute

Most museum galleries have certain things in common. For one, the works are spaced a restful distance apart from one another on the wall. For another, they’re typically organized by school or theme. The focus might be, say, on fashion in the Middle Ages, Cambodian bronze sculpture, or even ancient glass. Visitors are invited to contemplate and compare.

It wasn’t always this way. Back in the early 1700s, when art collecting was a royal affair, princes set up jam-packed galleries in their palaces both for aesthetic enjoyment and to boast about their artistic treasures to the royals down the road.

The current Research Institute exhibition Display and Art History: The Düsseldorf Gallery and Catalogue shows how a pioneering gallery presented its art, which later led to practices in modern museums—such as catalogues—that we recognize today.

The story begins in the Baroque period, when European princes displayed their rich collections of paintings and drawings frame-to-frame, floor to ceiling, blanketing enormous gallery walls. This print of a View of a Room at Pommersfelden Palace, with its gargantuan walls of paintings and tiny visitors, shows the overwhelming effect such collections were meant to have on palace guests.

Detail of a View of a Room at Pommersfelden Palace / Johann Georg Pintz, printmaker; Salomon Kleiner, draftsman

View of a Room at Pommersfelden Palace (detail), Johann Georg Pintz, printmaker; Salomon Kleiner, draftsman; in Representation au naturel des chateaux... (Augsburg, 1728), pl. 18. The Getty Research Institute, 84-B21917

But one German prince had a broader objective than simple braggadocio. Johann Wilhelm II von der Pfalz wanted to make his magnificent gallery more accessible to select visitors.

Between 1709 and 1714, he built next to his palace in Düsseldorf what is believed to be the first free-standing gallery—exclusively to house his treasures, which included around 400 paintings, 46 of which were by Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens.

His collection was formidable, one of the most significant in Europe, in part because of his artistically well-connected wives. (His first wife was the German emperor’s daughter and his second was a Medici, cozy with collectors of Italian masterpieces).

Johann Wilhelm’s nephew and successor, Carl Theodor, took the gallery project to yet another level. He hired painter Lambert Krahe as his gallery director and, by 1763, Krahe had organized the massive collection of paintings by school—Dutch, Flemish, Italian—and invited scholars and viewers, just as today, to draw comparisons. Giles Waterfield, a scholar at the Getty Research Institute and an expert on the history of museums, succinctly describes the Düsseldorf Gallery as “an early attempt to organize works of art as though they were scientific specimens.”

First Room, First Façade of the Düsseldorf Gallery, Nicolas de Pigage and Christian von Mechel, etching in <em>La galerie électorale du Dusseldorff; ou, Catalogue raisonné et figuré de ses tableaux</em> (Basel, 1778), pl. 1. The Getty Research Institute, 70670

First Room, First Façade of the Düsseldorf Gallery, Nicolas de Pigage and Christian von Mechel, etching in La galerie électorale du Dusseldorff; ou, Catalogue raisonné et figuré de ses tableaux (Basel, 1778), pl. 1. The Getty Research Institute, 70670

Architectural model of the Dusseldorf Gallery in the exhibition, showing the arrangement of paintings by room

Architectural model of the Düsseldorf Gallery in the exhibition, showing the arrangement of paintings by room

In this gallery, artworks had ample breathing room. Though they were still crowded by contemporary standards, the increase in spacing made it easier to contemplate the qualities of a particular work. (Compare the print above to the one below.) One palace guest—these early galleries were not open to the general public—might meditate on a religious work, while another might pause to admire a hunting scene. It no longer took blinders to focus.

“These galleries are dedicated solely to the appreciation of art,” Louis Marchesano, curator of prints and drawings at the Getty Research Institute, told me. “You are invited, by the separateness of this building, to contemplate the works in a way that may have been impossible in a domestic environment.”

In this way, the Düsseldorf Gallery heralded a new perspective and contributed to the birth of the modern museum.

Fictive Wall of Paintings from the Imperial Collection in Vienna, Frans van Stampart and Anton Joseph von Prenner, etching in <em>Prodromus</em> (Vienna, 1735), pl. 21. The Getty Research Institute, 88-B2961

Paintings arranged floor to ceiling, pre-Düsseldorf Gallery style: Fictive Wall of Paintings from the Imperial Collection in Vienna, Frans van Stampart and Anton Joseph von Prenner, etching in Prodromus (Vienna, 1735), pl. 21. The Getty Research Institute, 88-B2961

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  1. Georgia
    Posted July 8, 2011 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    Really fascinating. I never considered the “restful distance” between paintings in a gallery, or how the way we not just create, but conceive of and display art reflects our values and culture. Thanks for the historical perspective.

  2. Sarah
    Posted July 8, 2011 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    How cool! We take our spacious galleries so much for granted these days. Thanks for the historical perspective!

  3. Kathie
    Posted July 9, 2011 at 10:47 pm | Permalink

    Who knew that a story about the space between paintings could be so interesting!! Loved every moment, and I will be noticing the “restful distance” between paintings from now on. Thanks so much.

  4. Janis
    Posted July 12, 2011 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    I’m almost not sure what the best context for a piece of art would be. “Restful distance” is in itself a distortion, like saying that a piece can only be understood or appreciated if it’s treated almost as separate from the world. I don’t know now what the “best” way to regard a piece of art might be. Some of my faves honestly would take me all day to look at anyhow.

  5. VM
    Posted July 13, 2011 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    Of course, in many modern museums the flip side of having the “restful distance” between more sparsely hung paintings is having more artwork exiled to storage for lack of exhibition space. Me, I’d rather have salon-hung and at least see everything than be restricted to which artwork curators deem deserves my “meditation”.

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      A Chat with Photographer Tomoko Sawada

      A conversation about Japanese matchmaking traditions, self-portraiture, clothes, and identity.

      When did you start photographing yourself?
      I began making self-portraits when I was 19. It was an assignment for a photography class. I can’t even explain in Japanese why I liked them so much. It was instinctual. It’s as if I knew that this was going to be my style, that this is what I wanted to do. And I’m still doing it because I love the self-portrait, but I don’t know why. 

      What themes are you exploring in your work?
      I’m interested in the relationship between inside and outside. If you wear a sexy dress or if you wear kids clothes or casual clothes, people treat you differently. Even though you are you no matter what you wear. It’s that relationship that makes me think. 

      My new work is from when I was living in New York. When I was in New York, people didn’t think I was Japanese. Sometimes they thought I was Korean or Chines or Mongolian. Even Singaporean. It was funny, when I would go to the Japanese market, they would speak to me in English. When I went to the Korean market, they would speak to me in English again. I don’t seem to look Japanese outside of Japan. I was surprised because I think I look totally Japanese. It’s funny that people’s points of view are totally different.

      Could you talk a little about OMIAI, the series that represents a traditional Japanese matchmaking technique.
      OMIAI is a tradition that is somehow still working today. Usually, there is a matchmaker and photographs are exchanged before meeting. If both sides are interested, they can meet for lunch or dinner accompanied by their parents and steps for marriage proceed from there. In the old days, some people chose their marriage partner just through photographs, without even meeting each other. 

      When OMIAI was exhibited in Japan I saw people making various comments in from of the work. People would say things like, “she looks like a good cook; surely she would prepare delicious meals every day,” or “ this girl could be a perfect bride for my son,” or “I can tell she would not be a good housewife,” or “she’s such a graceful girl; she must be the daughter of a decent family.” Comments like that. 

      What was the process of making that work?
      I gained 10 pounds before I started taking the pictures, and in six months I lost forty pounds, because I wanted to look different in each photo. I wanted to change the way my legs looked. 

      Every weekend I went to the hair salon and put on a kimono. Then I went to the photo studio on the street in Japan. I would take a picture and then change my clothes to western dress. Then I would go to the studio again the next weekend. 

      Did you tell the photographer how you wanted it done?
      I told him I was an artist and wanted to make photographs with him. I told him to think that each weekend new girls would show up to make the OMIAI. I didn’t want him to think of me as the same girl who came every weekend. He understood the concept. 

      We had fun. While he was taking pictures, his wife would tell me how to lose weight. She gave me many tips.

      Tomoko Sawada’s work is on view at the Getty until February 21, 2016 in “The Younger Generation: Contemporary Japanese Photography”


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