Glazing at the MIA

Oftimes when touring a special exhibition I will be asked by a visitor, “Why does this painting have glass over it?” and my answer is always, as we were taught, “Good question.” In so many ways, glass on a painting distracts and detracts from the museum visitor’s experience of the artwork. First, depending on the quality of the glass, the glass may produce a reflection, in which visions of a window, an overhead light or the viewer herself subtly competes with the image being contemplated. With even the best of glass, glazing interposes a barrier between the viewer and the paint. The tactile quality of paint, so wonderful on a van Gogh or a late Rembrandt, disappears. Colors are a little less lively. Third, because museumgoers are accustomed to seeing great works of art without glass covers, the glass itself becomes a focus of attention. I will often see visitors moving around a picture, as I often do, checking to see if it is glazed, instead of simply appreciating the work itself.

I won’t go into the reasons why the MIA has glazed some of its paintings – reasons, as I have heard them, that have more to do with conservation than security, although both considerations play a role – because my counterarguments to those reasons are lengthy and loud and would make this essay overly tendentious, when that is not its purpose. Instead my intention, indicated by my headline, is to tour the MIA’s paintings collection and point out which paintings are the most interfered with by being glazed. All glazing is not equal. On some impressionist paintings, in particular, it is hardly noticeable. It is only because I got used to the Sisley when it was being considered for purchase that I now know how much brighter and more compelling it was before it was glazed. What follows, instead, are the real clunkers, the most vivid arguments I could find for liberating the MIA’s paintings from their glass barriers.

Ten Worst Glazings at the MIA

Cranach the Elder, Madonna and Child with Grapes (1537)
With grapes and with you; wherever you stand, you find yourself in the picture.

Moreelse, Lucas and Catharina van Voorst (1628)
The artist’s fine technique, the ultrasmooth surface of paint on a panel, is lost. Instead of the intended monochromatic background, the viewer sees every other painting in the gallery reflected in the glass.

Rembrandt, Lucretia (1663)
My heart breaks every time I see her, walled off by glass. I am no longer able to fully experience the texture of Rembrandt’s paint. Instead of being absorbed in Lucretia’s tragedy, I am repelled by reflection. Curiously, the only other glazed paintings in this gallery are the van Goyen and Backhuysen that flank Lucretia, perhaps so the crime of her glazing won’t be so glaring?

Corot, Landscape
The glass is even brighter than the painting’s gold frame. You find that the painting ‘moves’ as your head shifts its position.

Bouguereau, Temptation
If some banks are too big to fail, some paintings, such as this and the Caillebotte, are too big to be glazed. Bouguereau already presents his subject through a film of gauze; adding a barrier of glass removes the intimacy the scene needs.

This is the bad poster child of MIA glazing. If glass is meant to keep us away from the woman on the couch, it does.

Courbet, Landscape at Ornans
This is another work, like the Rembrandt, that invites the viewer to dwell on the texture of its paint. Unfortunately, its glass picks up light from the Modernism computer station across the narrow hall, turning that light green in the process.

Modigliani, Little Servant Girl
Another heartbreaker. The ceiling spotlights show up as blue circles dancing around the Little Servant Girl’s eyes. Modigliani’s paint texture was so exciting, before this got glazed.

Gallery 371, East Wall
The entire row of paintings – Kirchner, Kandinsky, Vlaminck, Derain – appears to have protective shields as you look down the wall. How much richer the facing Beckmann, unglazed, comes across in this company.

O’Keeffe, City Night
A different approach, but floating the frame in glass works no better. As I stand in front of this work, I see myself and my notebook clearly, creating an unneeded added vertical.

Polidori, Museum Storeroom
This makes you realize an inevitable problem with big color photos: because of the reflection in the glass, however necessary for a photograph, you can never see more than a small segment of the image at a time. You can hunt for details, but the overall impact is dissipated.

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