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Living inside Art History

The Fall 2003 issue of the Corcoran Gallery's magazine Corcoran Views came to my mailbox at school a few days ago. If I had any doubts that the world's impressionomania was out of control, they disappeared on seeing an article by Valerie Gladstone on the museum's upcoming exhibit Beyond the Frame: Impressionism Revisited, the Sculptures of J. Seward Johnson, Jr. (September 13, 2003, to January 5, 2004). (Another exhibit, The Impressionist Tradition in America, is simultaneously showing at the Corcoran, until April 2004.) The exhibit will consist of 18 mixed-media installations that recreate and rework famous paintings in three dimensions and on a life-size scale. According to Valerie Gladstone:

Happy to fulfill fantasies, Johnson wants people to be able to walk into a painting and enter the life being lived there. . . He couldn't be more pleased that visitors to the Corcoran will not only be able to walk into the paintings but will be able to touch their contents—the ivory shoulder of Edouard Manet's Olympia, the jaunty hat of the winsome little boy in Manet's The Fifer, even rest on Vincent Van Gogh's narrow bed—and be photographed in the act.
I will not be surprised if attendance at this exhibit is higher than normal for the Corcoran. (I can already envision the quirky morning news piece on the exhibit that is the trademark of Fox 5 reporter Holly Morris, who is always a little too peppy for me at 7 am.) The sculptor will be at the museum for a talk on October 9, and two other public programs (see the remarkable list of events and programs at the Corcoran) will discuss the subtext of the exhibit: why certain artworks are so important to the popular imagination (what the Corcoran calls "icons of modernism").

Lisa Simpson in The ScreamMy first reaction to this exhibit was to regret how derivative it is. However, as an educator, I usually conclude as I do here that anything that gets people into a museum to look at art is ultimately good, even if it is an unhealthy obsession with impressionism. I cannot tell you how many times my students have remarked in class, "I saw that painting on The Simpsons (or some other show)." So if Seward Johnson wants to give people the chance to touch or live inside their favorite paintings, it makes room in people's minds for art to have a place. For a different way to live inside art (or, rather, to have it live in you), check out the hilarious art cartoon Kunstbar, which a former student brought to my attention this week.

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