Just What Do They Have in Common?

Leah Ollman is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Here at the San Diego Museum of Art, a Norman Rockwell show has just closed, and a Grandma Moses show is set to open in a few weeks. Now must be the time to squeeze in a little sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.

"High Societies," which the museum unveiled last week, has got all three. It's not typical fare at this staid institution, but the times they are a-changin', and the way art history is taught through museum exhibitions is changing here too. "High Societies" brings together three bodies of work that form a loose continuum, but are not often thought of as closely related: 18th and 19th century Japanese woodblock prints of the "floating world"; Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's turn-of-the-20th-century French posters promoting the cabarets of bohemian Montmartre; and psychedelic posters advertising rock concerts in the epicenter of 1960s counterculture, San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district.

All three bodies of work celebrate sensual pleasures, some enhanced by drink and drugs, and the brothels, nightclubs and dance halls that provided them. The posters and printed sheets were all cheap, mass-produced ephemera not expected to have much of a shelf life. But the Japanese prints and Toulouse-Lautrec posters have long become enshrined in museum collections, and the rock posters are rising in status as well.

It's not surprising that the San Diego Museum of Art would opt to showcase such works. The museum has a long history of dipping into popular culture, from its shows of Ivory Soap carvings in the 1920s and record album covers in the 1950s to recent exhibitions of the art of Dr. Seuss, the Muppets and "Star Wars." What is new is the more scholarly approach to the material, the attention to how such work gets "elevated" over time, and the museum's own role in that process. That focus--and the concept behind the current show--can be attributed to Don Bacigalupi, who took over as museum director nearly two years ago.

Asked whether "High Societies" continues or deviates from the museum's tradition of showing popular forms of art, Bacigalupi quickly answers, "Both. It extends the tradition, but my hope is that it also extends the notion of what that kind of exhibition can be. One of the theses of the exhibition is that what we look at and call art is fluid all the time. By positioning ourselves at this moment to look at the Haight-Ashbury material, the Toulouse-Lautrec posters from 100 years on and the Japanese material from 200 years on, we're asking visitors to revisit preconceptions."

Something else that the three bodies of work have in common is a history of being misunderstood, or embraced in limited ways. The Japanese woodblock prints, for instance, revolutionized European and American composition when they flooded those art scenes in the late 19th century. Their radical flattening of forms and asymmetrical compositions were hugely influential--yet the context of their creation and their subject matter were largely overlooked.

The term "floating world," or ukiyo, derives from a Buddhist belief in the transience of life. By the late 17th century, the term's religious connotations fell away and it came to refer to the temporary, materialistic and sensual pleasures afforded by prosperity--Kabuki theater performances, visits to the brothel district, travel to famous sights. Ukiyo-e , or "pictures of the floating world," were turned out in great quantities and sold to the wealthy merchant class of Edo (present-day Tokyo) as souvenirs of these escapist pleasures. They depicted actors, courtesans, sumo wrestlers, mythical demons and more.

The prints were as casually abundant as posters in Japan, but when trade with the West opened in the 1850s, Europeans and Americans embraced ukiyo-e as something far more precious: Japan's most highly refined, sophisticated art form. Dazzling the European and American art scenes and drawing crowds at international expositions, the prints launched a craze for things Japanese that seeped into painting, printmaking, architecture, fashion and design.

Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), an aristocrat by birth and bohemian by choice, ardently subscribed to Japonisme and avidly collected Japanese prints. He brought their graphic immediacy, bold, foreshortened compositions, and broad areas of flat color to bear in his art, especially in the 30 lithographic posters he created after 1891, a complete set of which is on view in "High Societies." The posters advertised serialized novels, bicycle chains and photographic services, but the most notable of them featured the cabaret performers of Montmartre, the Parisian district where Toulouse-Lautrec established his studio.

Though his life and the cultural scene he chronicled have been romanticized, especially in film, Toulouse-Lautrec's reality was gritty and challenging. Extremely short, due to a genetic defect attributed to inbreeding, he was also crippled by accidents and prone to numerous illnesses. The artist's self-destructive lifestyle, alcoholism, and extravagance exacerbated these conditions. By his own admission, he was an "abject being."

The rock posters of the 1960s bear no formal resemblance to Toulouse-Lautrec's works, but their designers identified with the Frenchman who lived the edgy scene he chronicled. In Toulouse-Lautrec's time, absinthe was the mind-addling substance of choice. In Haight-Ashbury, it was LSD, whose mind-expanding effects were visualized in the rock posters' woozy rhythms, intense patterns and hot, vibrating colors. Although the posters were initially meant only to advertise concerts at the Fillmore Auditorium and Avalon Ballroom, concert promoters soon recognized that they had an independent life as collectibles. Now, some 30 years later, the art establishment has started to covet these embodiments of anti-establishment passion.

All 111 posters in the San Diego museum show came from the extensive private collection of Santa Barbara exhibition designer Paul Prince, a mentor and friend to the museum's curator of American art, Scott Atkinson. Atkinson proposed an exhibition of the posters, and director Bacigalupi supported it, but not with the work in isolation.

"It's interesting material historically and graphically," he said. "I was all for showing it, but only if we contextualized it."

In a curatorial brainstorming session, Bacigalupi and Atkinson, along with senior curator and curator of Asian art Caron Smith and curator of European art Steven Kern, began discussing other aspects that make the posters significant. One of them was their apotheosis, as Bacigalupi calls it, their ascendance from street level to high-art sanctuary. Connections were soon drawn between the rock posters and other works of graphic art in the museum's collection that had experienced the same steep rise in status--Toulouse-Lautrec's posters, part of a large body of the artist's work acquired by the museum in 1987, and the Japanese woodcuts, from a large in-house holding that had seldom been shown.

"High Societies" ended up as a collaborative project of all three curators. This kind of synergistic, interdepartmental effort and the focus on the works' social and cultural context reflect growing trends among museums nationwide. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art's "Made in California," which engaged every curatorial department of the museum, is just one recent example.

More multidisciplinary efforts are in the works at the San Diego museum. Next year, curators Kern and Atkinson will team up to stage an exhibition joining Renoir with the American painters he influenced. A few more years down the line, a show of contemporary East Asian art will pool the efforts of Asian curator Smith and the museum's curator of contemporary art, Betti-Sue Hertz.

Collaboration yields a freshness of perspective, Bacigalupi says.

"As a contemporary scholar, I can look at ancient art in ways that a scholar in that field might overlook. I don't pretend to be an expert in that field, but the frameworks and structures that I use in my field can be instructive and even revolutionary applied to another field. The museum as a whole benefits because scholarship of the work is enriched by the contribution of more voices."

Applying that scholarship to work in the museum's permanent collection is another of Bacigalupi's commitments, and a clear break with previous programming at the museum, which leaned heavily toward imported, traveling exhibitions. The museum's own collection was overshadowed by special exhibitions and especially high-profile blockbusters. By supplementing and contextually reframing work in the collection, "High Societies" attempts to bridge the gap between dynamic special exhibition and the conventionally static permanent collection.

"As a field," Bacigalupi says, "we're really in the early stages of the marriage of the blockbuster phenomenon and what we're about at our core, the collections. Learning from the blockbuster, and taking what's useful from that experience and applying it to livening the collections is something we're all doing."

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"HIGH SOCIETIES," San Diego Museum of Art, 1450 El Prado, Balboa Park, San Diego. Dates: Through Aug. 12. Prices: $8 for adults over 25; $6, seniors, students and adults 18-24; $3, children younger than 18; free, children younger than 6. Phone: (619) 232-7931.

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