‘The Umbrellas’, High Culture, and the Art Museum: By Stephanie Mannheim

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Pierre-Aguste Renoir’s ‘The Umbrellas’ (above) depicts Parisian men, women, and children holding grey-blue umbrellas against a similarly grey sky, some of whom appear to be returning from a picnic or outdoor play.  The artist’s prominent place within the impressionist movement helped allow this painting to be placed within London’s National Gallery (The National Gallery, 2013).  Today, ‘The Umbrellas’ is viewed as a great work, worthy of such treatment.  However, it is partially because of the spatial context this painting is in that it gains such artistic importance.

Imagine, for instance, that ‘The Umbrellas’ was not exhibited in the National Gallery, but instead placed in the window of a High Street store such as Topshop or H&M.  This painting would then gain a new purpose—instead of depicting the evolution of impressionism within the sacred museum walls and amongst other pieces of so-called ‘highbrow’ art, Renoir’s work would act as an advertisement for umbrellas.  As a commercial piece rather than a museum artefact, the image would provoke different reactions from its viewers.  Instead of gazing at the piece for a prolonged amount of time, an onlooker might simply glance at the picture, notice its proximity to a store, and simply enter the shop and begin browsing the umbrellas within.

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Likewise, the presence of a Topshop advert in a contemporary photography museum exhibit, as opposed to a High Street window or a magazine, would give this piece a new context as well.  In the context of a museum, this piece would shift from a commercial piece meant to sell items to a piece of art to be studied.  Viewers might find different meanings in this Topshop photograph—for instance, it might shift from simply another means to sell clothing to an ironic look at the commercial fashion or modelling world.

Both of these examples relate to the idea of the museum as a sacred space.   Within an art museum such as the National Gallery, visitors assume that they will find masterpieces, and treat the work in a way that regards this distinction—in others words, with great respect.  Museum visitors remain quiet and don’t touch the artwork, among other behaviours that show this respect.  Carol Duncan, in her essay ‘The Art Museum as Ritual’, writes that ‘to control a museum means precisely to control the representation of a community and its highest values and truths’ (Duncan, 1995:8).  A museum, then, is traditionally a space that signifies the presence of so-called ‘high culture’ within it.  Those people that are part of the dominant culture in a specific time and place help allow for certain elements of culture to be seen as ‘highbrow’ or ‘lowbrow’, and the museum helps cement these ideas into place, setting aside a space in which visitors hope to become more enlightened, therefore treating the works within the museum accordingly.

Without its presence in a museum, Renoir’s ‘The Umbrellas’ could—despite highlighting a specific moment in the development of impressionism—shift from an integral part of the art history canon to an image used to help make a profit.

Citations:

Duncan, Carol (1995) ‘The Art Museum as Ritual’, in Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums, London: Routledge pp. 7-20.

The National Gallery. (2013). The Umbrellas. Available: http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/pierre-auguste-renoir-the-umbrellas. Last accessed 18th Mar 2013.

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