In Good Company?  Retrospectives and Global Art History

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In Good Company? Retrospectives and Global Art History

    In 1855 French painter Gustave Courbet mounted an exhibition of his work titled the “Pavilion of Realism” outside the grand Exposi

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In 1855 French painter Gustave Courbet mounted an exhibition of his work titled the “Pavilion of Realism” outside the grand Exposition Universelle from which his large and complex The Painter’s Studio and Burial at Ornans works had been rejected from display. Including more than forty canvases including the rejected works, Courbet’s pavilion represents possibly the most famous, but certainly not the only instance of a monographic exhibition positioning itself outside the official zones of institutional and academic art in the nineteenth century. Within the Exposition itself, officially sanctioned exhibitions included numerous monographic retrospectives. As art historian Robert Jensen describes, these displays provided a means for the French state under the reign of Emperor Napoleon III who had taken the throne after a coup d’etat in 1851 to stage its own apparent tolerance, and to stage-manage an appeasement of differing factions within the art world itself. Between Courbet and these sanctioned displays, retrospectives at the 1855 Exposition functioned to placate and also to challenge the official status quo.[1]


After the Exposition the retrospective format continued to thrive in Paris thanks to a succession of deaths in the ranks of the Royal Academy and subsequent memorial exhibitions. In the 1880s, and inspired by successful precedents in London, the retrospective format and private commercial galleries became intertwined as galleries sought to elevate and promote the genius of artists for a profit. At the cusp of the nineteenth and twentieth century, the Salon d’Automne, an annual exhibition founded in 1903 to counter the official Salon, also held important memorial retrospectives of Toulouse Lautrec, Pissarro, Gaugin and Cezanne, and belated memorial displays of van Gogh and Seurat. These exhibitions helped to coalesce a narrative of avant-garde modernism and to inspire subsequent generations of artists including Picasso and Matisse, who themselves became subject of retrospectives at increasingly younger ages as the century progressed.[2]


Over the course of the twentieth century blockbuster museum exhibitions around the world have attracted ever larger and more rapturous audiences, and the 1970s gave birth to the star curator enacting a singular and guiding vision over diverse displays of artists and artworks. Thus the provocations of the curated show have positioned the retrospective or monographic display in the role of the more conservative sibling of the group show, frequently overlooked and even “repressed” in histories of exhibitions and curating.[3]


As Jensen notes in his account of the nineteenth century retrospective, however, “after 1900 the retrospective was widely and self-consciously employed as a weapon to redress the exclusions of the past, to rewrite history, to construct a canonical history of modernist artists as a sequence of great individuals in the evolution of modern art.”[4] He adds that retrospectives also, “served, and continue to serve, to destroy the historicity of an artist’s career.”[5] A consideration of such points becomes important in an art historical and institutional environment that is increasingly looking to the monographic and retrospective exhibition as the go-to means for museums in Europe and North America, to expand their geographical interests and acknowledge the existence of artists from beyond, well, Europe and North America.


Despite the painfully White Mail line-ups that still characterize museum schedules today, this year (2017) has seen a major tour of Yayoi Kusama’s (Japan) installations throughout Japan and North America, and retrospective surveys of work by Helio Oiticica (Brazil) and Carmen Herrera (Cuba) at the Whitney Museum; Lygia Pape (Brazil) and Raghubir Singh (India) at the Met Breuer; Ilya and Emilia Kabakov (Russia) at the Hirschhorn and Tate Modern; Fahrelnissa Zeid (Turkey) also at the Tate Modern; Nalini Malani (India) at the Centre Pompidou; Frank Bowling (Guyana/Britain) at the Haus der Kunst in Munich. A major Rasheed Araeen retrospective will open at the Van Abbemuseum in the Netherlands this December.


Over the last few years, large and small retrospective exhibitions of South Asian art have included a Rasheed Araeen retrospective at the Sharjah Art Foundation (2014); of Anwar Jalal Shemza at Tate Britain (2016); Bhupen Khakhar at Tate Modern (2016); Nasreen Mohamedi at the Tate Liverpool, the Met Breuer and Museo Reina Sofia (2014-16); Zarina Hashmi at the Guggenheim, Hammer Museum, and Art Institute Chicago (2012-13); and V.S. Gaitonde also at the Guggenheim (2015), among others. Within Pakistan, over the last fifteen years the Mohatta Palace has played host to important retrospectives of Imran Mir (2017), Rashid Rana (2013), Asim Butt (2011), Jamil Naqsh (2003), and Sadequain (2002). This Spring all forms of media were abuzz with Ayesha Khalid and Imran Qureshi’s combined retrospective at the PNCA in Islamabad, which, along with the Alhamra Arts Council and Zahoorul Akhlaq Gallery in Lahore and similar public or university-based and private commercial venues throughout Pakistan, has played host to numerous important exhibitions that have cast a retrospective look over Pakistani artists’ careers.


I love retrospectives. Although group exhibitions can, for better or worse, be more curatorially and historically provocative, retrospectives are like book-length art historical studies made three-dimensional and able to buzz with the presence of their subject. Perhaps it’s laziness: in three hours of walking around a retrospective I can learn as much about an artist than an entire day reading books and articles about their work. And just as retrospectives can provide academic shortcuts into an artistic career, they can become shortcuts into the canon of art history for their subjects. Even the most famous of artist stands to benefit from the outlay of scholarship, publishing, publicity, and resources that a retrospective can funnel into their work and reputation. This is something to be celebrated, but the thought of it also makes me rather worried.


As Jensen notes, retrospectives “destroy the historicity of an artist’s career,” strategically isolating them from their social, artistic and often collaborative networks. While projects such as the Raghubir Singh retrospective at the Met Breuer and MoMA’s “Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends” retrospectives in New York this year have also included works that have inspired or been made alongside these practices, the retrospective nevertheless relies on a rather romantic and Eurocentric model of the artist as a singular heroic subject.


As a widely-shared online article by Turkish Paris-based critic and scholar Yaman Kayabali suggested in a precise 550 words this summer, retrospectives can even separate an artist from their place in already-formed canons of art history. Pointing to two articles in the Guardian and the Art Newspaper that coopted and emphasized the curatorial hyperbole that the Tate Modern had deployed to describe its retrospective of Turkish painter Fahrelnissa Zeid (1901-1991), Kayabali critiqued assumptions that this exhibition was “saving,” or even “resurrecting” Zeid from the threat of being “forgotten by history.”[6] As Kayabali articulated, in Turkey Zeid is well known. She “was not forgotten by history, just by Europe.”[7]


A year before Zeid’s Tate retrospective and Kayabali’s article, art historian Sarah-Neel Smith wrote an account for Ibraaz magazine of how, as an itinerant female artist who married into Iraqi royalty and lived in Germany, Baghdad, Paris, Turkey, England, and Jordan, Zeid straddled art and culture across Europe and West Asia, and has thus been historiographically fashioned and refashioned by her posthumous exhibitions. In the 1990s Zeid’s work became institutionally affiliated with the ‘Arab world’ despite her Turkish nationality, and in the 2000s her cosmopolitan Turkishness was emphasized so that, “Zeid was portrayed as both a Turkish national and a world citizen in order to demonstrate Turkey’s cultural compatibility with Europe on the eve of the EU membership negotiations.”[8]


The historicity of artists’ careers can be destroyed and deployed by exhibitions and retrospectives, which raises the question of who among our favorite artists aren’t deployable (and destroyable). Those artists who, in institutional settings that must rank visitor numbers, cash flows, and positive publicity perhaps as highly as they do scholarly commitment and expanding art history’s narratives, will never get a retrospective treatment. The question makes for a sad tally, especially when asked from the point of view of art history’s so-called “peripheries.” The tally would include, for example, those “minor” artists who were deeply important in their various contexts as teachers, friends, and innovators, but were then in some way surpassed by those students, friends and followers who became “major” enough to receive retrospective treatment. It would also include art history’s anti-heroes: those artists who were influential because the models of art they endorsed were productively overcome: the Allah Baksh’s and the Ismail Gulgee’s of Pakistani modernism, for example. Also, those artists whose works have been lost into far-flung collections, or so damaged beyond repair that the international transport and display of their work is simply unfeasible; those who aren’t heroic, or spectacular, or commodifiable enough. Those who made work too small, or too shy, or too unvarying to be retrospected. And those who disturb canonical art history’s models of taste or are hard to “see” outside their respective communities. Artists like Bhupen Khakhar, for example, whose blunt figuration, acidic colouration, discursive slipperiness, playful ugliness, and yes, visible queerness, had a profound effect on Indian contemporary art but that has made some international audiences either sniff or gag, finding his work at once too familiar and too distant. Khakhar’s retrospective at Tate Modern last year was therefore brave and important. However, the reprehensible Guardian “art critic” Jonathan Jones’s now infamous review of the show, and the fact that even positive reviewers seemed to be writing through gritted teeth, was a reminder that taste, and its apparent tendency narrow and ossify in the hegemonic center, can interpolate even the most valuable of curatorial projects.[9] And further, apropos my nod to the laziness of viewing retrospectives as opposed to reading actual books, that the format suggests comprehensiveness and closure rather than an opening into a practice that requires further investigation, thus entailing that too often even professional audiences and critics fail to supplement their experience in a gallery with additional research or pursuit of understanding.


Speaking from a privileged UK-passport-carrying London-frequenting New York-based position that makes some of the global art world’s most powerful and problematic museums the ones I most encounter, I have become wary of the retrospective as a model for institutions to rethink and “redress the exclusions of the past.” I love retrospectives, and yet also fear their disproportionate ability to influence trajectories of global art history, both already formed or in-formation. Perhaps we need more group shows to tide us over until some coalition of latter-day Courbets can build hundreds of “Pavilions of the Un-Retrospectables” outside and within our current systems, engaging with antagonistic co-relation to art’s various hegemonic centers and dismantling its very terms of center or periphery; forgotten or saved; of major and of minor; and of first or fastest, and latest or last.



[1] Robert Jensen, Marketing Modernism in Fin-de-Siècle Europe (Princeton University Press, 1996), 117.
[2] Jensen, 136–37.
[3] João Ribas, “Notes Towards a History of the Solo Exhibition,” Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context and Enquiry 38 (March 1, 2015): 4–15.
[4] Jensen, Marketing Modernism in Fin-de-Siècle Europe, 111.
[5] Jensen, 112.
[6] Hannah Ellis-Petersen, “Fahrelnissa Zeid: Tate Modern Resurrects Artist Forgotten by History,” The Guardian, June 12, 2017, sec. Art and design,
[7] Yaman Kayabali, “Fahrelnissa Zeid and the Problem of Eurocentrism in Art History,” Muftah, July 12, 2017,
[8] Sarah-Neel Smith, “Fahrelnissa Zeid in the Mega-Museum,” Ibraaz, July 14, 2016,
[9] Jonathan Jones, “Bhupen Khakhar Review – Mumbai’s Answer to Beryl Cook,” The Guardian, May 31, 2016, sec. Art and design, Khakar’s work was also exhibited in the Tate’s 2001 exhibition Century City, which received similarly obnoxious reviews.


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