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Editor’s Letter: The single-artist museum

2 March 2015

From the March issue of Apollo: preview and subscribe here

A single-artist museum is always an intriguing place to visit, even if you’re not a devotee of the artist it celebrates. Of course if you are, then this type of museum can take on the character of a pilgrimage site, whether that’s due to the intense focus of its collection or to circumstances that grant an artist’s ephemera the status of relics. If not, then it’s bound to be a rich prompt to thought all the same: somewhere to mull over the cult of the artist; or the consequence of biography to art history; or in some cases simply how artistic reputations come and go.

Many such venues are house or studio museums that owe their origins in the 19th or early 20th centuries to that period’s sense of the spirit of place, and its emerging idea of heritage as closely tied to celebrated national figures (see Giles Waterfield’s article on the history of studio museums in Apollo, April 2014). I’ve always been drawn to these buildings, with their evocative interiors and feeling of the artist’s presence and absence – of being, as the Victorians would have put it, both ‘homes and haunts’ at the same time. Take the Leighton House Museum in London’s Holland Park, for instance, with its redolent fountain tinkling on in the richly tiled surroundings of Frederic Leighton’s Arab Hall. Beguiling for other reasons is the De Chirico House-Museum on Rome’s Piazza di Spagna, where the artist lived for his last three decades: a high bourgeois Roman apartment hung with the artist’s late works, which only stutters to life in the kitschy gewgaws and lucky charms that are scattered around the restored studio.

Other single-artist museums, usually modern examples, have premises that don’t directly relate to the artists in question, and for me tend to lack the charm and personality of their forebears. These include most of those that, in terms of international profile, might be said to constitute the champions’ league of such places: among them the Musée Picasso in Paris, the Zentrum Paul Klee in Bern, and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

So when I visited the latter last month to interview director Axel Rüger, it was admittedly with more of a critical interest than through any deep personal bond with the institution. Had the recent redisplay succeeded, as the museum declared, in softening towards the personality and myth of Vincent Van Gogh without yoking its famous collection to a reductive biographical narrative? And did the rehang feel at home, as it were, in the museum’s geometrically functional but nevertheless challenging Gerrit Rietveld building? The answer to both questions, as I discovered, is a resounding yes: so much so that if I arrived with a sense of enquiry, I left with the glow of a pilgrim.

As far as single-artist museums go, the Van Gogh Museum is big business: it can plough its considerable ticket revenues back into its core activities. Smaller single-artist operations often rely heavily on the generosity of public grants or private benefactors as they set out to expand or modernise their facilities. In England, one of the most important examples, in terms of its founding vision, its architecture and its collection, is the Watts Gallery in Compton, Surrey. This was purpose-built in the early 20th century to exhibit the work of Victorian painter George Frederic Watts but has been given a new lease of life in recent years with a successful renovation project and a series of focused exhibitions that have included ‘Dickens and the Artists’ and a retrospective of Frank Holl.

The Watts Gallery Trust is now appealing for funds to save the neighbouring house of Limnerslease, once home to G.F. and Mary Watts, and in itself a fine arts and crafts building by Sir Ernest George that was a key feature of the artists’ village they envisaged at Compton. The renovation of the adjoining Watts Studios as a museum is already underway, and this is due to open to the public later this year. But the house itself is only currently saved from public sale by a time-limited loan that will expire in March 2016. The Trust has until then to secure the building. See www.wattsgallery.org.uk for further details.

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