I was wandering the halls of the Dallas Museum of Art yesterday, trying to work through the over-arted doldrums (more on that soon), when I found myself in The Reves Collection. The Reves Collection is one of the DMA’s most treasured assets, a huge trove of paintings, sculpture, furniture, books, carpets, tapestries, antique frames, and an amazing collection of design objects. It includes some of the most important impressionist and post-impressionist paintings in the museum’s collection. When they were given to the museum (not without some controversy) and first exhibited in Dallas back in 1985, part of the agreement was that all of the objects would be exhibited within an approximate recreation of the Reves’ home, the Villa La Pause in the French Riviera, once the dwelling-place of Coco Chanel.
For the most part, the idea works. It’s fun to wander between the rooms – the library, bedroom, sitting room – and see the furnishings, books, carpets, etc. set up as they were. As a kid, I always loved visiting the Decorative Arts galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and imagining the ghosts of queens reclining on the antique beds and taking up the tiny objects on the bed stands with their invisible hands. My hope would be that the Reves rooms inspire young visitors to dream up their own Dallas version of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler.
But there’s also a problem with Reves Collection. Because of the way the display is set up, you have some of the museum’s best impressionist and post-impressionist art hanging on walls some twenty or thirty feet away from visitors. You just can’t see them.
The argument for this exhibition design is that the setting allows the work to be experienced within a domestic setting, as it was seen during the Reves’ lifetime. But it is a spurious premise. After all, if we were to really mimic seeing work during a visit of the Reves home, then a museum guard should pour me a glass a wine as I enter and chat about mid-century British politics as we wander around the furniture to get a closer look at the paintings. Instead, what we have is a falsified experience, a kind of kitsch diorama that neither truly honors the original domestic setting nor permits a real encounter with some of the best paintings in the museum’s collection. Even worse, the exhibition design furthers the feeling that the real subject of the Reves rooms aren’t the great works of art on display, but the Reves themselves, a kind of society rag fetishization of the lives of the collectors, whose entombed, mummified manse has swallowed-up these paintings and continues to keep them from the public.
In short, it’s just a really dumb way to hang art. Not all of the paintings are out of view, but enough are. It’s almost been 30 years since the Dallas Museum of Art acquired the Reves paintings. It’s time to release these paintings from their prison so we can finally look at them.