Eskenazi Museum of Art Represented at Important Conference in Jerusalem

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Shrine of the Book, Israel Museum, Jerusalem. Photo: Jenny McComas

By Jenny McComas, Curator of European and American Art, Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University

Engaging with the wider academic and professional communities is an important part of a curator’s job. Participating in conferences is one way to stay abreast of current trends in the field, meet new colleagues, and present one’s own research. Since I established the Eskenazi Museum of Art’s Nazi-Era Provenance Research Project in 2004, I have taken advantage of opportunities to participate in the broader field of provenance (the ownership history of works of art) whenever possible. In November, I participated in an international conference on Provenance and Collecting organized by the London-based International Research Forum on Collecting and Display in conjunction with the Israel Museum and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The conference was held at the Israel Museum, the largest and most comprehensive art and archaeology museum in Israel. The museum has extensive wings devoted to antiquities, fine art, and Jewish art and life, but is perhaps best known for housing the Dead Sea Scrolls. These scrolls, written in Hebrew and Aramaic on parchment and papyrus, were found in caves in Qumran on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea in 1947. Dating from the third century BCE to the first century CE, they are the earliest written biblical texts to have survived. The scrolls are displayed on a rotating basis in the Shrine of the Book on the Israel Museum’s campus. This unusual building, designed in 1965 by the American architects Armand P. Bartos and Friedrich Kiesler, is meant to evoke the lids of the clay jars in which the scrolls were discovered. It was thrilling to present my conference paper in the Shrine of the Book’s auditorium, just steps from the famous scrolls.

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Jenny McComas discusses two objects from the Eskenazi Museum of Art, Israel Museum, November 2016. Photo: Yair Hovav

With the aim of exploring the myriad ways that provenance and provenance research impact scholarship, ethics, and the law, the Provenance and Collecting Conference was attended by a range of art historians, archaeologists, museum professionals, archivists, and lawyers from Israel, North America, and Europe. In my presentation, I described how I recovered the long-lost provenance histories of two objects in the Eskenazi Museum’s collection: Merzbild 13A (1919) by German Dadaist Kurt Schwitters and Head of a Girl, Turning (1913-14) by German Expressionist sculptor Wilhelm Lehmbruck. My research had revealed that both objects played significant roles in the introduction of modern German art to American audiences in the 1920s and 1930s, a discovery that, in my opinion, increases their art historical value and significance. In my presentation, I argued that provenance research conducted on museum collections has critical implications for the art historical interpretation of objects. Learning more of the specifics of an object’s past helps us to understand more about historical patterns in collecting, the public display of art, and how artistic canons are formed. In addition to sharing my research with other scholars in the field, the conference provided a wonderful opportunity to introduce the Eskenazi Museum of Art and its collections to an international audience.

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Conference attendees learning about a display of Hanukkah lamps from Jewish communities worldwide in the Israel Museum’s galleries. Photo: Yair Hovav

The Israel Museum’s own collections played an important role throughout the conference, providing a break from the more traditional lectures and offering a constant reminder of the object-oriented nature of provenance research. The conference began with a guided tour of the museum’s three main wings, and included extended discussions of particular objects with remarkable—or troubled—provenances. In the Jewish Art and Life wing, for example, we learned about “ownerless” objects sent to the Israel Museum’s predecessor, the Bezalel National Museum, by the Jewish Restitution Successor Organization (JRSO) after World War II. Most often, these were ceremonial objects from synagogues destroyed or looted during the Holocaust. Today, the museum continues to research these objects’ provenances in the hopes of finding their rightful owners. The conference organizers also arranged a variety of workshops that focused on objects in the Israel Museum’s collections. Engaging with original works of art in an intensive session and hearing the insights of the curators was a unique opportunity for conference attendees.

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Edmund de Waal giving the conference keynote lecture, Israel Museum. Photo: Yair Hovav

The conference concluded with a moving keynote lecture by Edmund de Waal, acclaimed British ceramic artist and author of the bestselling 2011 memoir The Hare with the Amber Eyes. In his book—and in the lecture—de Waal recounted his research into the history of his Jewish ancestors, the Ephrussis of Paris and Vienna, and their collection of Japanese netsuke (miniature carvings), which he inherited as a young man. This was the only part of the family’s once vast art collection to escape Nazi looting during World War II. A powerful speaker and storyteller, de Waal had the audience laughing and crying in turn.

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Installation of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain at the Israel Museum. Photo: Jenny McComas

Engaging in fruitful dialogue with fellow scholars, curators, and provenance researchers, viewing the museum’s rich collections, and exploring Jerusalem itself—a city that certainly figures prominently in the history of art and culture—were reasons enough to make this a successful conference experience. Yet there was one more thing that made my visit to the Israel Museum special. Like the Eskenazi Museum of Art, the Israel Museum houses one of only three complete sets of the 1964 authorized replica edition of the Readymades by Marcel Duchamp. The original Readymades, among them the iconic Fountain (a porcelain urinal that Duchamp submitted to a New York art exhibition in 1917), were produced by Duchamp between 1913 and 1921 and epitomize the anti-establishment artistic movement known as Dada. Although most of the original Readymades were lost, the techniques and concepts pioneered by Duchamp—including the use of found objects, assemblage, and a general rethinking of Western artistic traditions—have proven extremely influential, providing a model for minimalism, conceptualism, and performance art. In 1964, the replica edition consisting of thirteen of Duchamp’s most important Readymades was designed and produced under the supervision of Duchamp and the Milan gallerist Arturo Schwarz; this project made Duchamp’s early twentieth-century innovations visible to a much wider audience. The Israel Museum’s set of Readymades, along with a major collection of Dada and Surrealist art, was donated in 1998 by Schwarz himself. I was curious to see how these objects would be installed and was particularly interested in the placement of Fountain high up on a wall separating two gallery spaces. As David Rockefeller Senior Curator Adina Kamien-Kazhdan explained to me, her presentation of the object references a photograph showing the original 1917 Fountain hanging above a doorway in Duchamp’s studio. I appreciated Adina’s creative installation choices, which I will certainly keep in mind as we prepare to reinstall our galleries as part of the Eskenazi Museum of Art’s upcoming renovation project.

Eskenazi Museum of Art Website

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