Post-Impressionism : Branching Out 1880–1906
Not one of the four artists whom we now know as the Post-Impressionists would have answered to the name.
That’s not because Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat and Paul Cézanne were sniffy or disapproving of the term.
It’s just that it was coined some time after they were dead. Roger Fry (1866–1934), the British curator, art critic and artist, invented the moniker in 1910.
He needed a collective noun to unify this disparate group of artists, having selected them to form part of an exhibition he was putting on at the Grafton Galleries in London.
It was a rare London outing for the work of this France-based avant-garde group of painters, and it was likely to cause a bit of a stir.
Which would inevitably mean that the media’s white-hot spotlight would fall on Fry. So coming up with a suitably publicity-friendly title that would also stand up to the scrutiny of his colleagues in the art world was important. And – as I know from experience – surprisingly difficult.
In the seven years I worked at the Tate Gallery in London about six and half were spent discussing possible exhibition titles. ‘I Kid You Not’, ‘No Word of a Lie’, ‘It’s a Material World’, were all discussed at some time or another as potential names for a show.
A typical ‘titles meeting’ would involve about fifteen people, thirteen of whom remained mute, other than to say ‘no’ or ‘absolutely not’, while a couple of optimistic individuals made suggestions.
It was ridiculous, of course, but it does highlight a central tension in the art world: public engagement versus scholarship.
Curators and artists recognize the helpful role the media plays in communicating their ideas to a sceptical, non-specialist public, but in all honesty most would rather not bother.
And they would rather have rusty nails poked in their eyes than acquiesce to an exhibition title that might humiliate them in front of their peers by being remotely ‘populist’.
As a result, they have the habit of proffering exhibition titles that are so dry and lifeless one could only assume they’d lifted them from an obscure academic paper.
Meanwhile bubbly marketing teams implore that words like ‘masterpiece’, ‘blockbuster’ or ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ be incorporated into the title.
Cue stalemate and hours of coffee-fuelled discussion, normally followed by a torrent of emails that can often keep flowing until the last possible moment, at which point some half-hearted compromise is reached that might, or might not, catch the public’s imagination.
Much thanks to Will Gompertz’s book What Are You Looking At….some of the blog is directly taken from this fantastic book.