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Drawing with Scissors: The Anatomy of an Exhibition

By Zoe A. Kessler, Crimson Staff Writer

"I’m sorry. The lecture is completely sold out," a museum representative said.

"Sold out! I thought the event was free!" a disappointed prospective attendee responded.

Last Thursday, at the Harvard Art Museums, senior curator Jodi Hauptman and senior conservator Karl Buchberg of the Museum of Modern Art in New York spoke about their most recent project, "Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs," an exhibit that opened in October and closes in two weeks.

Comprised of about 100 cut-outs, Hauptman’s and Buchberg’s exhibit focuses on Matisse’s "The Swimming Pool" (1952), a piece of art which displays a novel style for its time due to its medium. According to Hauptman, based on Buchberg’s and his historical research, photographs of the artist’s work show that he first envisioned a scene—as sketched at various points—and then put scissor to paper and cut out his images. Pins were then used to piece together the cut-outs in the chosen design. For the exhibit, Hauptman and Buchberg studied both the final display and the process of creation. "Deep knowledge of materials and techniques is essential for understanding modernism," Hauptman said.

With his perspective as a conservator, Buchberg analyzed how the materials, particularly the cut-outs, influenced the art’s display. For instance, in "The Swimming Pool," the height of the display changes how much beige (from the burlap material), white, or blue is shown. When the height was changed from 11 to seven feet, there was more beige above than below the white parts of the cut-out. This presentation crucially changes the way museum-goers see the work on the walls. "MoMA only once tried to hang the panels at the right height…. It was too low," Bucherberg said.

Historical research played a large role in the creation of this installation. In response to a question regarding the historical interpretation she and Buchberg took, Hauptman explained that the artist’s own documentation demonstrates the usefulness analyzing the past to understand how to best display the art. "Matisse’s constant photographing of his own work tells us that there are many stages [of production], but I don’t think that anything is left out."

Attendee Narayan Khandekar, director of the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies for the Harvard Art Museums, thought that the historical focus helped audience members experience the exhibit from over 50 years ago in a way that was authentic to the artist’s original intention. "I think it is great to see how an environment is recreated," he says. "It gives you an insight as to how to experience these spaces." Attendee Liza Leto-Fulton agrees. "For me I think the intriguing part of the lecture today was…solving problems as to how to reinstall it...once it was taken from its original site [and] how to sort of recreate the feeling in a completely different environment."

While dealing with the challenge of displaying Matisse’s work, Hauptman and Buchberg showed that a joint curator and conservator perspective can be useful when one cannot simply re-hang a painting. "I think this is another example of how you need not just one point of view, but you need all these different perspectives to come together to give you the possibility of an audience decades later experiencing an artist’s created space," Khandekar says. "Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs" is not the first joint-venture between curators and conservators, and due to these collaborative efforts, an ample showing of audience appreciation continues as the exhibit enjoys its last weeks of display.

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