Tuesday, August 3, 2010

When a Review Doesn't Pass the Twitter Test: Drama & Desire at AGO, And Other Big-Insto Shows

On Friday, I realized that a review of mine that would be published in Saturday's National Post failed to pass the Twitter test. That is, a tweet-length summary of my feelings about the show doesn't quite match the published review that I wrote of it.

I realized this when @jgombita (Judy Gombita, a PR/networking gal on Twitter), asked me what I thought of the show on Friday. I tweeted (awful verb!) back, "Paintings = awesome (or at least "impt") Presentation = needs work." In a direct message, I also wrote "I think it needed a LOT more text or sound explanation to substantiate cheesier bits (wind machines, etc.)" and "Yeah the lit up painting was the most embarassing; the rest I could see as ok attempts at new-visitor engagement, but that was worst."

My review in the following day's paper was, I think, a bit gentler:

Promising to explore the ways that 1800s art mavericks were influenced by theatre, Drama & Desire contains many beautiful, internationally renowned paintings. (Jacques-Louis David’s Oath of the Horatii and John Singer Sargent’s Lady Macbeth are just a couple of examples.) Campy props — such as crystal chandeliers and old-fashioned wind machines — also add period zing. But in a bizarre plot twist, Drama & Desire forsakes one of the great joys of both art history and the stage: straight-up, old-fashioned storytelling. Most of these paintings were created to crystallize sprawling narratives, yet only a few have any accompanying explanation. (Even stranger, it’s the well-known stories, such as Romeo and Juliet, that actually get explained.) This lack leaves most viewers mystified about the actual dramas at hand. On a related note, true stories of class and gender are also AWOL. Many scholars note that 19th-century theatres often served gritty, lower-income audiences, and that even high-toned playhouses were hotbeds for prostitution. Degas (included in the show) actually tried to expose the tawdriness beneath theatre’s surface glitz. But Drama & Desire’s strategies merely amp that glamorous fa├žade, leaning on theatre’s current status as elite entertainment and distancing viewers from the vital, vicious reality of the era it purports to immerse us in. Unintentional comedy? Gentle tragedy? Drama & Desire is both — and thanks to the fame of its paintings, it’s still a must-see.

Lesson learned: When trying to carve a review down to word count, I should perhaps consider what my Twitter summary would be first. Sans snark (or even avec), it can be a helpful thesis-statement exercise.

And yes, while I appreciated the attempt on the AGO's part to "enliven" the gallery experience with dramatic set design and devices, that lit-up painting I tweeted about (a scene from Shakespeare's King Lear accompanied by audio of Stratford actors speaking the scene's lines, with each painted character spotlighted while speaking) really did make me a bit squeamish. The strobed lightning on a painting of a stormy night also seemed a bit excessive and non-19th-century. What I enjoyed best was the variety of wall colours and seating, as well as the (yes!) wind machines. (They generate just the sound of the wind, not the motion.) The audio interview with an orchestra musician was also interesting. But overall, as I noted, all this needed supplementing by good old fashioned storytelling about the plots represented in the paintings, as well as the contexts of theatre and class in their respective eras.

You can also read my reviews of the Gardiner Museum's Private Pleasures and the Barnicke Gallery's Scream at the National Post. I'm open to any sentiments on these, long or shortly stated, that you might have.


sally said...

oh my goodness I loved the spotlit King Lear painting drama. Must we give up good old fashioned chees-o-taintment just because we also like fine art? I, for one, say yes to campy fun!

Leah Sandals said...

Hey Sally,

Sorry I took so long to respond.

Yes, in the end, I guess I cut my complaints about the theatrical cheese from the original review because (a) some of them were enjoyable, to others if not to me (b) my main worry was the fact that these paintings were being presented without any explanation.

I know some critics out there (ones I like, even) loooooove to hate wall panels and explanatory texts. But hello! We are critics. We all have some degree of art historical education (even if it is way minimal, like mine). But the general public coming to see this stuff -- they generally don't have that! They are coming, yes, to be entertained, but also to learn! Also, yes, we can definitely learn by looking at art. But so many of us have also learned by reading about art, or being lectured to about it! Why not share some of that valued information with people who have taken their (increasingly dear, in this age) time and money to visit an exhibition in hopes of a little bit of knowledge and pleasure?

Maybe I just kicked off another potential "you overdid it there" comment but that's sincerely my biggest complaint about this show. I overheard many people saying "so what is this painting supposed to be about?" to each other. Some option to find out more really needed to be there in greater presence.