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"Master" or "Masterwork?"

Stephen Borys, Director and CEO, exhibition curator

The subtitle for the WAG exhibition, Only in Canada, calls for some clarification. A few years ago, as the curator of Western art at the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College, Ohio, where I also taught in the art history department, I recall the day when one of the great paintings in the collection—St. Sebastian Tended by Irene and a Companion by the seventeenth-century Dutch artist Hendrick Ter Brugghen—appeared on the cover of Pierre Rosenberg’s book Only in America: One Hundred Paintings in American Museums Unmatched in European Collections (Skira, 2006). As it turns out, the Ter Brugghen was the painting most often named in the author’s correspondence with museum directors and curators as one of the works to be included in his book. In adopting the format of a travel journal to present the story behind the planning of the WAG exhibition, I returned to the template for Only in America, which was, admittedly, a book and not an exhibition. Rosenberg, a former president-director of the Musée du Louvre, recounts his travels across the United States as a graduate student, museum professional, and, in this instance, a curator in search of paintings from American museums that were “unmatched” in European collections. He intentionally stayed away from the word masterwork in his search because the term, in his view, could not be defined; and if it could, the definition would continue to change with time. Instead, he sought out the piece that was unique, one that succeeded in augmenting our understanding of the artist, or as Rosenberg stated, “the idea we have of that artist.” Resigned to the fact that museum professionals on both sides of the Atlantic would challenge him on his choices, Rosenberg fortified his justifications with scholarly and anecdotal information, all the while conceding that it was always his personal aesthetic that led to the selection.

I adopted a somewhat different approach for the selection process for 100 Masters: Only in Canada, although there is certainly some overlap with Rosenberg’s template. I also responded to institutional (from the lenders), art historical (from academic colleagues), and personal viewpoints to shape the process. Granted, I was not necessarily looking for the unmatched or unique work, nor did I restrict myself to what Rosenberg called the “already consecrated and universally famous.” However, this didn’t make the selection process any easier.  Rarely did we ever agree on all of the same works, but on no occasion did I leave without thinking that the works being offered for loan were of the highest quality and an excellent match for the exhibition. The question of the masterwork came up during almost every one of the museum visits, the discussion often starting beforehand with initial correspondences. Aside from a few extended debates, the subject usually brought us to the place where a conversation about what was outstanding, unique, or important about a work had expanded to include new information and perspectives. Shifting from masterwork to master, there was much less debate with colleagues over the list of artists chosen for the exhibition, and the justification for their inclusion. The concept of master proved to be a much easier term to agree upon than masterwork, and in each case the selected work highlights a key moment within the artist’s oeuvre as well as in the larger context of their school.

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