Published: February 1, 2011
From the sacrifice of classical heroines to the grief of ordinary people, a new Smart Museum exhibition examines tragic emotion and asks, “How and why does art move us?”
The University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art will present “The Tragic Muse: Art and Emotion, 1700‱900,” a new exhibition that investigates art’s power to express and elicit intense emotions. The exhibition examines two centuries of European works filled with darker emotions and explores the ways in which the visual representation of tragedy †as well as art’s cathartic power over new generations of viewers †has changed dramatically over time.
On view from February 10 to June 5, the exhibition combines works from the Smart’s collection †both long-held treasures and new acquisitions †with important loans from national and international museums. Divided into four thematic sections, it includes nearly 40 paintings, sculptures and prints by artists including Edward Burne-Jones, Henry Fuseli, Édouard Manet, Anna Lea Merritt, Edvard Munch, Pablo Picasso, Richard Redgrave, Auguste Rodin, George Romney and Benjamin West.
Art is often appreciated for its ability to delight viewers’ eyes and refresh their minds. But it can also serve as a powerful vehicle for exploring darker emotions such as fear, sadness and grief. And while these themes have a history dating back to the ancients, the ways in which they have been represented in art and received by the public has changed dramatically over time.
“Some of the works in the exhibition may strike visitors as being overly sentimental,” said curator Anne Leonard. “But studying them closely opens up a host of interesting questions. How is it that these supremely expressive paintings suffered such a decline in public esteem? If they fail today as vehicles for strong emotion, is that our fault or theirs? To what extent can they still move us?”
Rather than offer a comprehensive survey, the exhibition provides an in-depth look at central themes and shifts in approaches to tragedy across several distinct moments: the Eighteenth Century, when a close relationship existed between the expression of emotion in painting and larger-than-life stories from the Bible, classics and theater; the Victorian age, when pictorial realism and the portrayal of more quotidian events invited closer emotional identification from viewers; and the years around 1900, when a new aesthetic focus emerged around the solitary figure as an emblem of universal human sorrow.
The majority of the 36 paintings, prints, drawings and sculptures on view are from the Smart Museum’s collection, with important loans coming from the Art Institute of Chicago, Folger Shakespeare Library, Milwaukee Art Museum, National Gallery of Art, Princeton University Art Museum, Tate, Yale Center for British Art and Yale University Art Gallery.
Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago, is at 5550 South Greenwood Avenue. For information, 773-702-0200 or www.smartmuseum.uchicago.edu .
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