I have been back to look at the catalogue I drafted three years ago, one of the first thing I did as Jenny’s Art Executor. It’s a shock to find quite how bad it is. Even the list of works needs drastic revision.
I have started again by reviewing all the catalogues we have on our shelves. This is taking longer than expected but is very enjoyable. Most of them I am reading for the first time, as – I now realise – we have a tendency to buy a catalogue if we have enjoyed an exhibition or visiting a new gallery or museum, but not to sit down and read it cover to cover. The exhibition catalogues explain the rationale for choosing the works, where they have come from, and specialist notes on some of the works, on techniques or provenance or history. Catalogues for galleries will usually also have a narrative about the building and the collection and then a list of works with short notes. The design and the integration of the text with the pictures varies. As I go through I see that the exhibition catalogues I find most attractive start with the artworks themselves. Jenny would approve of that approach.
Catalogues for single artist exhibitions are the most relevant for me. Generally the more famous the artist the more specialist the exhibition (eg ‘Vermeer’s Women’, Fitzwilliam, 2011.) These serve to warn me off trying to explain what I am seeing in Jenny’s oil paintings as I am so clearly not a specialist and cannot aim at a scholarly explanation of how certain paint effects are produced, or set them in a context of the art of the time. An early Morandi catalogue offers deep psychological explanations, an approach which is equally beyond me (and which Jenny certainly would not approve). A few have been written or have articles by a close friend or relative of the artist – is this an advantage or the opposite? Some have enormous detail about small life events (a bus trip?) which might have influenced the artist (or might not) and are clearly research driven. This is a warning that because one knows something about an artist or a work it isn’t necessarily interesting or relevant.
What is comes down to is that every exhibition and therefore every catalogue has to tell a story. I have to ask myself what, out of all the possible stories, which is the one I should tell?