One of my favourite comedy sketches is ‘At the Art Gallery’, that sparklingly irreverent Peter Cook and Dudley Moore skit from the mid 1960s. Chomping through their sandwiches in a museum that loosely resembles the National Gallery, Pete and Dud play up as idiots savants, hopelessly naïve in the face of the paintings that surround them but satirically attuned to the mores of both the art and its setting. Part of the joke, at least, is that comedy feels out of place in this context, and yet the two funnymen seem compelled to seek it out. ‘I mean that’s the thing about the Laughing Cavalier,’ says Dud, ‘at least he has a giggle.’ ‘Have you seen that bloody Leonardo da Vinci cartoon?’ asks Pete. ‘I couldn’t see the bloody joke.’
Museums and galleries are hardly the place for stand-up or slapstick. But they could perhaps do more to accommodate comedy’s close cousin, wit. This was something that struck me while visiting ‘Silent Partners: Artist & Mannequin from Function to Fetish’, the enthralling current exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge (until 25 January; reviewed in the December 2014 issue of Apollo). While the intellectual arguments here are ambitious, and the quality of the objects consistently impressive, the entire display is elevated by the care the curator has taken over droll but telling details.
So, for instance, a cluster of stilted compositions, by Courbet and others, are shown with reproductions of the contemporary cartoons that took aim at the painters’ overreliance on the artist’s lay figure. A full-scale neoclassical mannequin, missing one of its feet, has its stump propped up on a pile of books that includes Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Walter Sickert’s unwieldy wooden dummy (which dates to the 18th century) is laid out in a cardboard coffin – aptly, given that he only ever seems to have made use of it in his painting as the model for a fully swaddled mummy (in The Raising of Lazarus). And where there are audiovisual displays, headphones have to be prized from the grasp of articulated wooden hands. In other contexts, it might be easy to dismiss such things as gimmicks; but here they contribute to the brilliantly estranging effect of the exhibition.
That effect doesn’t stop at the exhibition doors. For me at least, the exhibition has a way of recalibrating the Fitzwilliam’s permanent collection, so that familiar paintings now seem punctuated with question marks, some starting to hint at previously unnoticed artifice and others more boldly lifelike than before. With apologies for quoting it once again in these pages, T.S. Eliot’s definition of wit would make a fine critical synopsis for ‘Silent Partners’: ‘It involves, probably, a recognition, implicit in the expression of every experience, of other kinds of experience which are possible.’
I don’t for a moment think that all exhibitions or museum hangs need be seasoned with some kind of levity. Many require a dry objectivity to make striking arguments. And besides, wit can be a serious business. But I do think that museums should make room for the type of surprise that curatorial wit makes possible. At its best, this is what artist-led curation can do, by challenging art-historical logic or ingrained notions of decorum. Take Mike Nelson’s recent selection of works from the V-A-C Collection at the Whitechapel Gallery: its many deft touches included a De Kooning bronze perched with its back to other figures on the edge of a low wooden platform, like a teenager sulking at a picnic.
More broadly, it would be constructive to remember that art has historically encompassed different types of wit, which often etiolates in the context of the modern gallery. This doesn’t only apply to those artists, such as Bosch and Bruegel, whose feel for the grotesque easily accords with the modern taste for the caricature or cartoon. It also applies to the play of shapes and volumes in a Bramantino panel, or the rhyming details, colours or poses in a cycle of medieval frescoes. We’re never likely to visit museums in search of belly-laughs, but we might go to them without being afraid to smile.
‘Silent Partners’: mannequins at the Fitzwilliam Museum (Katy Barrett)