Masterpiece Conversations: Old Master Paintings and Sculpture
Image: Lamentation, Naples, c. 1520, Circle of Bartolomé Ordóñez (c.1485-1520), Alabaster, 33 x 23 cm. Courtesy of Lullo • Pampoulides.
Eve Straussman-Pflanzer is Head of European Art Department and Elizabeth and Allan Shelden Curator of European Paintings at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Her recent projects include ‘The Medici’s Painter: Carlo Dolci and 17th-Century Florence’, which she curated at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College, MA, and the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, NC, in 2017–18.
Andreas Pampoulides is an expert on sculpture and works of art, and (with Andrea Lullo) co-founder of Lullo • Pampoulides, a specialist dealership based in Mayfair that focuses on master paintings and sculpture.
How did you come to specialise in this field?
Eve Straussman-Pflanzer: I realised I wanted to go into art history, as a career, at the end of my time at Smith College. I’d taken two survey classes, on the Italian baroque and the Spanish baroque, and remember being so excited about 17th-century painting – it felt so visceral, and I hadn’t experienced that before. I applied to grad school at the Institute of Fine Arts at NYU because I knew they had a strong relationship with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and that it was likely that I would be able to find a position at some point doing research in the European Paintings Department – which was indeed the case. That on-site training at the Met really set me up to take a curatorial job, which I did at the Art Institute of Chicago after finishing my PhD.
Andreas Pampoulides: Looking back at it now, it was quite a logical progression, but at the time, it seemed a completely bizarre decision. I did an MPhil in early European art history, and debated doing a PhD in Byzantine history, but I also needed to earn a living. I got offered an amazing job at Christie’s – I went in as a junior specialist, with no real experience of the art world, and ended up staying there for almost 14 years. I always loved the objects, but I really wanted to be writing about them rather than selling them. When I went to work for Coll & Cortés, which then became Colnaghi, I saw the other side, the dealing side, and realised that as a dealer you have exposure to objects that you wouldn’t necessarily have in the auction houses – you get to work in a much more methodical way. It was at that point that I thought, wow, this is really special.
How dynamic is this field currently, in terms of academic research and curatorial activity?
Eve Straussman-Pflanzer: There are various generations working in Old Masters. There’s what we might call the ‘old guard’, who are really engaged with the traditional understanding of excellence in terms of connoisseurship, which I definitely inherited in my training. But I think that my generation is also really engaged with scholarship in terms of new perspectives on the material: the political situation in which some of this work was made, with issues of race and gender coming to the fore in books and exhibitions – and even on the market, with prices going up for women artists.
Andreas Pampoulides: Those changes are very relevant, and very important. In a way, we all work in sync with each other. Yes, there’s a drive in international museums towards exhibiting female artists, towards creating exhibitions or writing labels that will engage ethnic minorities, and we have to react and feed the market with appropriate material. It’s important that the trade researches artworks which correspond to curatorial priorities.
Eve Straussman-Pflanzer: Absolutely. I’m very transparent about the projects I’m working on and the types of work that I’m looking to acquire for the institution. Sharing that information is a way of helping to shape what people are looking for, in terms of works that might come to the market. As theoretical as some of these approaches to race and gender can be, I think what really changes the scholarship in a meaningful way are new discoveries of art that really can stake a claim at a historical moment. Working in tandem on this is the most fruitful and positive way to work.
How can you engage a wide audience with art whose subject matter – whether religious, historical, or mythological – may seem increasingly arcane?
Eve Straussman-Pflanzer: You can explain anything in simple, concrete terms. I don’t think you need to shy away from the religious or mythological subject matter – but of course, with all of these objects, there’s also always a human story. If we know about the provenance of a picture, which we hope to in museums, then explaining why someone would have wanted it, in concrete terms, should make it accessible to anyone. There’s always a way to connect with that desire.
Of course, there are other ways to connect. People are still religious today; or they care deeply about relationships, or self-presentation – portraiture has certainly become an easy access point for people immersed in digital media, with an obsession with selfies and capturing the self. It’s really just about being true and sensitive to the historical context in which an artwork was made, and sharing and revealing its history over time; and about being really open and flexible, looking to your audience and seeing what they’re connecting with. I actually don’t think it’s that hard, and in fact it makes the field more dynamic, because every interaction with a different group of people brings out a new perspective and a new way of looking at the work, which is very exciting.
Andreas Pampoulides: We always have to be thinking on our feet. I think the nature of the object itself has to speak – the quality, the condition – and sometimes that’s enough to engage people. But more importantly, we always have to find some sort of narrative that people can connect to. That links into my philosophy for the gallery, which is that we try to make the language we use as unpretentious as possible, because we want people to feel that they can engage with this stuff.
Last year, I sold a high-value, historically important English 18th-century portrait bust to someone who’s the doppelgänger of that portrait. There was an immediate connection there, and that was my angle. If people don’t know about the historical context, you can always connect over basic things – love, hate, death, feasting, the beauty of nature. It sounds very ‘lowest common denominator’ but, in a way, we have to work out what people like and what they’re interested in. Of course, we need to understand all the attributes of every artwork that we handle, but we publish them based on what we think people are going to engage with.
And how do you emphasise the materiality of Old Master works – that they’re not simply images – and draw attention to their state of conservation?
Eve Straussman-Pflanzer: We’re currently piloting a public conservation project at the Detroit Institute of Arts: one of our conservation fellows is working on a Jan Hals portrait in the galleries, conserving it and doing the inpainting, with 10-minute talks on the hour. The public can watch and are free to ask questions. Another project that I’m working on, in collaboration with the conservation department, is a focus show on The Wedding Dance by Bruegel the Elder – an icon of the DIA’s collection. We’re coming at it from a conservation perspective and, using digital media, we’re going to reveal to the public the ways in which the colours have faded over time to illuminate how what you see at now is not exactly what you would have seen when the artist finished the painting in 1566. Those are two very concrete ways of opening up the mysteries of conservation practice and informing the public about how the surfaces of artworks change – and hopefully getting another generation to think about the possibility of going into this field, too.
Andreas Pampoulides: We also focus on condition: the last catalogue we published, on a painting by Domenico Fetti, included a whole chapter about what we found through X-rays, infrared imaging and so on. It’s been amazing to see people’s reaction to the fact that there was another painting beneath the surface. With the naked eye, you could see some underpainting, but until you saw the X-ray, it was hard to understand that the funny shadow was actually a face showing through drapery.
The beauty of sculpture is that you can engage with it in so many different ways… picking it up, turning it upside down, understanding the way it was made. It occupies a space in a room, so you can do something very different to what you would normally do with a painting.
Eve Straussman-Pflanzer: Tactility is important. We have a very popular sculpture of a donkey [by Renée Sintenis] that stands close to one of our entrances, which we allow the public to touch. Of course, when we’re thinking about diversity, that includes people who are blind or have low vision: there are ongoing discussions at the museum about how to make objects accessible in ways that engage senses other than sight, and a lot of museums now have touch collections. Without question, the ability to engage with an object with your hands is a wholly different experience from just looking at or hearing about it.
Could Old Master paintings and sculptures be more intelligently brought together in displays, whether public or private?
Eve Straussman-Pflanzer: Bringing together objects in different media is a guiding principle at the DIA – and has been since Wilhelm Valentiner was the director [from 1924–45]. Painting, sculpture and the decorative arts are seen in collaboration, in exchange with each other, and in my opinion that’s definitely the way forward. A lot of the large civic museums in the United States have divisions between departments, which creates unnecessary and artificial boundaries in collections. If we can help an object speak, we need to be open and flexible about where we place it. That’s really my philosophy.
Andreas Pampoulides: After I started the gallery with Andrea Lullo, whose background is in painting, we became a lot more sensitive towards each other’s expertise – buying things that spoke to each other across categories. I think that chimes with the way that people collect today: no-one buys only Old Master paintings anymore, or only Old Master sculpture. We want to show people that you can live with these things, but also react to the way that people are now collecting. It’s such a great joy to be able to show, say, a portrait from the 17th century with one from the 20th century, and then a sculpture made by a related artist who was influenced by an earlier painter. The trick is spotting what might work together.
How challenging is it for museums to make acquisitions in this field?
Eve Straussman-Pflanzer: There may not be an overwhelming amount of material, but every year, whether at auction houses or art fairs, I see museum-quality pieces. As a curator, I have desiderata for the collection based on my study of it, and what I think would be the best things to strengthen it. Making acquisitions is a balance between adhering to that list and studying what becomes available. Of course, with limited funds, it can be a challenge to decide what to privilege over something else.
Andreas Pampoulides: With pretty much any important artwork that we buy or are contemplating, we’re thinking, could this be hanging on the walls of a museum, could this be in this place or that place. That’s fundamental to us: curators have the sensitivity, the intelligence and also the interest to build collections. What I’ve found, especially in America, is that they’re usually very open and friendly too, and make it easy for dealers to have a relationship with them.
Could museums and the art trade collaborate more effectively in this field?
Eve Straussman-Pflanzer: In terms of acquisitions, I think as curators we need to be open about what we’re looking for. When it comes to working with dealers, when they need advice or help – attribution is a tricky area – I think you have to judge it case by case. Of course, the fact that dealers are running businesses means you have to approach these situations gingerly, but I definitely don’t think it should be a one-way relationship.
Andreas Pampoulides: As a gallery – and I know this is true for a lot of other dealers, especially of the younger generation – we’re often open to the idea of selling something to a museum at a discount. It’s a privilege to have something that we’ve handled hanging in a museum – and it’s true, that can also help us to forge connections with the museum’s patrons and trustees. There’s no reason why we can’t all benefit from the discoveries that we make.