In today's episode, we discuss the current situation with the Detroit Institute of Arts. In July 2013, the city of Detroit declared bankruptcy. Since the DIA's collections are owned by the city, some of Detroit's creditors have pushed for DIA's holdings to be sold off to help pay down the city's debts. We review the reasons why people are arguing that the DIA must be preserved, as well as the reasons why it might have to be sacrificed.
Check out the Slideshow below for images that we mention in the episode. Scroll down further for our Postscript (stuff that didn't make it into the episode), including an extended discussion of two works held by the DIA, Henry Fuseli's The Nightmare and James Abbott McNeil Whistler's Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket. At the bottom of the page, you'll find Links to other sites for more information and News on this story. Enjoy!
For each episode, we feature extra material on our blog. Below is our discussion of two important works in the DIA collection.
Sarah: The two paintings that would be my top picks from the DIA's collections would be Henry Fuseli's The Nightmare from 1781 and James Abbott McNeil Whistler's Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket from about 1875.
Tina: If you haven’t seen [Henry Fuseli’s] The Nightmare, you’re probably, in a sense, lucky, because it is a very nightmarish image that will probably haunt your dreams. So basically you see a woman reclined over a bed, and a horse has stuck its head through her window––
S: Or a mare…
T: Or a mare, a-ha, “mare of the night,” has stuck her head through the window, and on the chest of this woman is sitting… a creature. And so one of the most terrifying aspects of this painting, aside from the specter of rape (and perhaps also bestiality) is the ambiguity of it––that we don’t exactly know what’s going on. Is this an actual creature who is sitting on this woman’s actual chest, or is she conjuring it? Is this, in fact, her nightmare that we’re observing?
S: And Fuseli was really good at expressing this ambiguity and morbidity. Fuseli was painting at the same time that Mary Shelley was writing Frankenstein, the quintessential gothic novel. So his work is often associated with that type of literature. The other work that is just visual stunning to me and is also incredibly significant historically is Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket.
T: Before Sarah gets into it, I just want to mention what a “nocturne” is––it’s basically a painting that is set at night, a night scene. So, I don’t know what it says about you that your two favorite works are both at night and one is a nightmare. Well, I guess the other one is fireworks, so that’s slightly less disturbing.
S: Well, and the nocturne also refers to the type of music, but yes, still redolent with nightly and mysterious imagery and sounds, so I think we all know what that says about me. So, if you take a look at this painting, it caused quite a scandal when it was first exhibited, and while it may not seem so outlandish to us now, the fact that it bordered on almost complete abstraction was something that people in the 1870s just did not know how to handle. He is referencing something in real life, and you can kind of see these ghostly figures at the bottom of the canvas, and they’re looking up at these fireworks (that’s what "The Falling Rocket" refers to). But it is very abstract, and if you didn’t have that point of reference you might think that it was completely non-representational. One person in particular, the writer John Ruskin (who was a very influential art critic and author at the time), was absolutely scandalized by this painting and said that it looked like Whistler had flung “a pot of paint in the public’s face.” He was just outraged at this painting. Whistler ended up suing Ruskin for libel, so it was quite a public event in Victorian England.
T: I think we’re really attracted to paintings like this, that have a story around them. It’s incredible, there was a lawsuit over this painting! It’s really exciting drama, but its also important for us to understand the art historical significance of a painting like Nocturne in Black and Gold. I was just talking to my students about this today, actually. We were looking at late-nineteenth-century painting and I always try to explain why we look at what we’re looking at, why it’s important, and over the next few weeks we’re going to be talking about the birth of abstraction, about Picasso and then Jackson Pollock. The phrase I always come back to is “condition of possibility”–– you can’t have abstraction, have Jackson Pollock literally flinging his paint across his own canvas without Whistler making this painting that (at least to somebody like Ruskin, who was looking with eyes of somebody in the 1870s) looks like a mess and is offensive because of it.
Detroit Institute of Arts
DIA Collections Online
Detroit Free Press Arts News
Diego Rivera Detroit Industry murals at the DIA
July 28: Just this past week, another appraisal firm released their assessment of the DIA's collection. This firm was hired by one of Detroit's creditors, who would potentially lose hundreds of millions of dollars in the bankruptcy. Read the New York Times story here.
August 6: Toyota North America has pledged $1 million to support the "Grand Bargain" Sarah discussed in our podcast! Read the DIA press release here.
April 4, 2015: Seeing a Cash Cow in Museums' Precious Art, NYT