From the new 19th century galleries of the National Museum, Stockholm. © National Museum
by Knut Ljøgodt, December 8, 2018
In 1994, the distinguished professor of literature Harold Bloom published The Western Canon, a book that aimed at fixing a canon of the Western world’s literary works. The book sent something like shock waves into academia on both sides of the Atlantic. With the ongoing changes in the histories of both literature and art, as well as other humanist disciplines, since the 1970’s, as well as the prevailing postmodern theories of the 1990’s, artistic hierarchies were considered a thing of the past. Not for Bloom, however, who in an interview stated: ‘We have to read Shakespeare, and we have to study Shakespeare. We have to study Dante. We have to read Chaucer. We have to read Cervantes. We have to read the Bible, at least the King James Bible. We have to read certain authors.’ (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Harold-Bloom)
The canon debate was rekindled in Scandinavia in 2004, when Denmark’s Minister of Culture, Brian Mikkelsen, commissioned a Danish Canon of Culture; consisting of a list of more than 100 works of art: visual art, film, architecture, literature etc. Last year, Norway’s then Minister of Education, Torbjørn Røe Isaksen, raised the question of a canon of Norwegian literature. These political initiatives raised debate. In Denmark, it was associated with the minister’s political position. (https://da.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kulturkanonen) In Norway, the debate was somewhat milder, but then the minister’s initiative was primary directed at encouraging school children to read the classics. In both countries, newspapers and others initiated alternative canons. However, the debate also raised some principal questions: Do we need a canon, or is it something of the past? If we still need it: What should it include and who is to define it?
The canon is often understood as a set or body of works considered to be of outmost importance as compared to others; works which can serve as models. Whether we use the term canon or not, there has always been mechanisms that define or attempt to define what is of importance, and what is not, thus establishing a hierarchy. This can for instance be defined by institutions, publications, individual scholars and curators.
This is of course a discourse highly relevant to the art field, and was the topic for a recent conference organised jointly by NIA – Nordic Institute of Art and OCA – Office for Contemporary Art Norway: ‘Canon No Canon: Rethinking Nordic Art’ at the Vigeland Museum. The conference’s programme included talks as well as a debate, with contributions by chief curator and senior researcher Dorthe Aagesen, SMK – National Gallery of Denmark; curator Christopher Riopelle, National Gallery of London (NIA Associate Fellow); curator Carl-Johan Olsson, National Museum of Stockholm (NIA Associate Fellow); ass. prof. Øystein Sjåstad, University of Oslo; independent scholar and curator Dr. Marit Paasche (NIA Associate Fellow); artists and independent curator Eline Mugaas; as well as OCA director Katya García-Antón and myself.
In ancient Greece, the kanon was conceived as the perfect human (male) body by the sculptor Polykleitos – a body that is the model or pattern for all others to be modelled after. In medieval times, the canonical writings became the writings of the Bible approved by the church, as opposed to the marginalized Apocrypha texts. When André Felibien laid down the laws for the Académie Royale de Peinture et Sculpture in Paris in the 1660s, a firm hierarchy of genres was established, with history painting at the top of the ladder. Though many attempts to get rid of a hierarchy, the idea is still implicit in most art history writing.
One important form of canon is of course art history books. Art history as an academic discipline was established in most European countries during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Early art histories tend to follow a linear and progressive view of history – where one period or movement follows the other as by logic or nature: classicism is replaced by romanticism, which is followed by realism, which in its turn is replaced by impressionism and symbolism, followed by expressionism and early modernism etc. This approach easily marginalises movements, themes, ideas and individual artists that do not fit into the story. Often, art history has been written from a national point of view. This is certainly valid for young nations such as Norway and Finland, which in the 19th and early 20th century found it important to create national identities of their own – and writing a national history. This often lead to singling out certain artists as heroes of the nation, and in a way establishing a national canon. Reading Norwegian art histories from ca. 1900 to the 1980s (when surprisingly the last major history of Norwegian art was published) it is striking how they follow the same pattern, repeating the same stories. Even today, Norwegian art institutions often concentrate their resources on presenting monographic show on certain artists (dare I mention J.C. Dahl or Edvard Munch?), without critical reflections on the positions of these artists.
From the 1970s onwards, new or revisionist art historians have questioned the established hierarchies of art history, seeking new themes and artists. Best known is perhaps Linda Nochlin’s ground-breaking ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’, which in 1971 gave the starting shot for a feminist art history. But we should also mention T.J. Clark’s social and political approach, as well as Patricia Mainardi’s re-evaluation of 19th century academic painting, among others. Mainardi reflects on revisionist art history’s relation to established art historiry: ‘Modernist art history has traditionally focused on the stylistic development of individual artists or of movements, in this reading, the determinant of art historical interest has been the progression towards abstraction, the elimination of subject matter, and the focus on exclusively formal qualities. […] Even revisionist art history often accepts the essential paradigms of modernism by either promoting previously marginalized artists into its pantheon or renovation the standard interpretations of works by canonical artists.’ (Patricia Mainardi: The End of the Salon, Cambridge 1993.) Or, in other words, do we keep the idea of a canon, and simply replace certain artists or movements with new ones, or do we challenge the entire concept?
Museums – especially national museums – also represent a sort of a canon. By choosing which works to be acquired for the collection, which works to include in the displays and which exhibitions to be programmed, museum directors and curators have the power of defining what is important. And there is of course no greater canon than the National Gallery of London! A walk through its permanent collection is like walking through art history, with highlight after highlight of Western painting from the renaissance and up to modernism. In our context, it is interesting to note that this institution during the past years has included new aspects of art history – including art from the Nordic region as well as North America and Russia. The National Gallery’s post 1800 curator, Christopher Riopelle – who is central to the institution’s Nordic programming – talked about this gradual change of policy, including exhibitions on and acquisitions of works by Christen Købke, Peder Balke, Johan Christian Dahl, and Akseli Gallen-Kallela.
Recently, the National Museum of Stockholm reopened after more than five years of closure, with the building refurbished back to former glory and a new installation of the collections. While we in Norway still discuss what to do with our old National Gallery, our Swedish colleagues have demonstrated to the full that it is possible to refurbish a 19th century building to modern museums standards. The display is seemingly a traditional chronological, but within this structure, interesting choices have been made. The traditional hierarchy of ‘fine arts’ versus ‘applied arts’ is broken, and paintings and design are presented together. I was sceptical at first, but in most rooms the juxtaposition is made subtle and elegant. Also, a more international approach has been chosen rather than national compartments, and the domestic art history is presented in a global context. For instance, the Swedish Romantics are presented side by side with their Scandinavian and European contemporaries. This new display also relies on a strategic collecting policy for the past years, where the museums systematically have closed gaps in the collection, thus striving to tell a new and wider history of art.
The hierarchies of the art historical canon operate in many ways: Not only in terms of genres and techniques, but – often more subtly – in terms of gender, ethnicity and geography. Gender – and more particular women artists marginalised by art history – has been the focus of feminist art historians since the 1970s. At Oslo City Museum, an ongoing exhibition showcases women painters of the 19th and early 20th century, curated by feminist pioneer, professor emerita Anne Wichstrøm. At the conference, two cases studies were presented: Dorthe Aagesen talked about the Danish sculptor Sonja Ferlov Manocba, while Marit Paashce presented the Swedish-Norwegian textile pioneer Hanna Ryggen, both artists partly forgotten, who next year will feature in major international exhibitions: Ferlov Mancoba at the National Gallery in Copenhagen and Centre Pompidou in Paris, and Ryggen at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt a.M.
But gender is of course a large concept. The exhibition Queer at Tate Britain recently (2017) raised LGBTQ issues in a broad perspective. In Nordic art history, these questions are still rarely raised, with the Swedish art historian Patrik Steorn’s study of nude men and masculinity (Stockholm 2006) as one of the few honourable exceptions.
Geography has played, and still plays, an important part. I recall from my under-graduate years how books on the curriculum had chapters on ‘non-western’ art in separate sections. Art from South America, Asia and Africa have traditionally not been included in the ‘great story of art’, but as something separate – and in the museum world often located to ethnographic museums or departments. Even art from other ethnic communities within the political borders of what is considered the Western world – such as the indigenous peoples of North America or the Samí in Scandinavia – have until recently experienced a similar marginalisation.
But even regions and countries inside the Western world can experience a certain hierarchy. For instance, both North America and the Nordic region have until recently been on the margins of Western art history, whereas great European powers such as France and Italy have dominated. Only individual artists from other regions have passed through the needle’s eye and been included in international art history – or the canon of ‘World art’. During the past years, we have experienced an increased interest in Nordic art, as reflected in exhibitions and publications. We can only speculate why the situation has been like this. Is it the hierarchy of centre versus periphery that still dominates? Or do we have to take our own share of the blame? Are our national art histories just that – stories presented essentially to confirm our national self-images – usually published in the vernacular languages little available to the rest of the world?
Do we canonise or de-canonise – in other words, do we like Bloom wish to uphold a canon of sorts, or do we want to chuck it all on the rubbish heap of history? The panel debate that rounded of the conference raised many questions related to different perspectives – including post-colonialism and feminism. Not surprisingly with the representatives of three national galleries present, the role of museums was also highlighted. Some wanted to get rid of the idea of a canon altogether, while others thought an adjustment of history was more to the point.
There has always been, and probably always will be, an established art history; whether we refer to it as a canon or not. And let us face it, if we did as the surrealists wanted more than one hundred years ago and set the libraries on fire and flooded the museums, what would we have left of our cultural heritage? Rather than undermining this altogether, I believe this calls for constant rethinking and correction. It should be our prime duty as curators, scholars, critics and intellectuals to always be aware of and questioning the defining mechanisms, and to retell the history – or rather the many stories – of art.
I would like to conclude with the words of one of the greatest thinkers of our time, Edward W. Said, from his new preface of 2003 to his classic study Orientalism (1978): ‘My idea in Orientalism is to use humanistic critique to open up the fields of struggle, to introduce a longer sequence of thought an analysis to replace the short bursts of polemical, thought-stopping fury that so imprison us in labels and antagonistic debate whose goal is a belligerent collective identity rather than understanding and intellectual exchange. I have called what I try to do “humanism”, a word I continue to use stubbornly despite the scornful dismissal of the term by sophisticated post-modern critics.’
This text is an edited version of Knut Ljøgodt’s introductory talk at the conference ‘Canon No Canon: Rethinking Nordic Art’, organised jointly by OCA – Office for Contemporary Art Norway and NIA – Nordic Institute of Art at the Vigeland Museum, Oslo, on 23 November 2019. 'Canon No Canon' has been originally conceived by OCA and NIA, and will develop in the future in multiple iterations led by the institutions jointly or individually. ‘Canon No Canon: Rethinking Nordic Art’ was the first iteration of the series and focused on the Nordic context and its place globally.
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