Online visitors seeking details about the National Gallery of Art’s highlight sculpture “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen” — the subject of both a recent exhibition at the gallery and a Kennedy Center musical — encounter two options if they search by the artist’s name. A drop-down menu suggests either “Edgar Degas” or “Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas.” Clicking on either yields the same page, but it raises a question about the lack of consistency.
Across town at the Phillips Collection, wall texts accompanying the four Degas paintings on display identify the artist as Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas. The Phillips also uses the full names of Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin and Ferdinand-Victor-Eugène Delacroix alongside their paintings, but curiously it truncates several other artists’ names, including Ignace-Henri-Jean-Theodore Fantin-Latour, Jacob Abraham Camille Pissarro, Morris Louis Bernstein, Pieter Cornelis Mondriaan, and Wassily Wassilyevich Kandinsky. And a description plastered to the wall outside the museum’s renowned Rothko room nowhere mentions the artist’s given name: Marcus Rothkovitch.
Degas’s full name (he was born De Gas, incidentally) may prove a mouthful for museum visitors who don’t speak French. But referring only to “Camille Pissarro” and “Mark Rothko” can deprive viewers of the chance to contemplate the ways that the Jewish traditions that begat both artists impacted their lives and works, says Ori Soltes, a lecturer in art history, philosophy, and theology at Georgetown University and author of several books on Jewish art, including “Fixing the World: Jewish American Painters in the Twentieth Century.”
Not only would colleagues say “There goes Moses with the Tablets of the Law” when the bearded Pissarro strolled down the Champs-Elysees, but Renoir notoriously criticized “that Israelite Pissarro” for welcoming young artists into the Impressionist fold. That, and the painter’s lack of a definitive style, which made him “a kind of aesthetic wanderer through the diaspora of artistic possibilities,” means that a “Jewish subconscious” impinged on Pissarro’s art, even though he never set foot in a synagogue as an adult, according to Soltes.
And Rothko, Soltes says, was clearly aware of the horrors of World War II even if historians have viewed abstract expressionism in purely aesthetic terms. “Artists cannot not be aware of the world around them,” Soltes says. “The abstract expressionists were not painting in a void, in the decade after Auschwitz and Hiroshima.” Further, Barnett Newman, Adolph Gottlieb and Rothko often met in their studios to discuss, at length, how they, as Jewish artists, fit into a larger historical mosaic and how they ought to respond to the Holocaust.
Museums, therefore, should at least put Rothko’s and Pissarro’s real names in parentheses in their wall texts, Soltes argues. (The Phillips, for example, identifies the creator of the 1932 painting “Abstract Composition” in a wall text as “Jacques Villon (Gaston Duchamp).” The former name is the pseudonym of the artist, who was born Gaston Emile Duchamp and was the brother of the more famous artist Marcel Duchamp.)
“Any time you deprive your viewing audience of information that gives it a broader and deeper awareness of who the artist is, you are depriving it of some of the instruments necessary for speculating more deeply, broadly, and intelligently on the possible sources that have contoured the artist’s consciousness, and unconsciousness,” Soltes says. “Aside from deforming art history somewhat — or more than somewhat — you are cheating your audience.”
Museums have gotten better at educating their audiences when it comes to acknowledging gender and race and the roles they play in artists’ lives, Soltes says. “It’s about time that acknowledgment were applied more broadly, consistently, and honestly to Jewish artists.”
Samantha Baskind, a professor of art history at Cleveland State University and editor of the Penn State University Press book series “Jews and the Cultural Imagination,” agrees that museums don’t always address artists’ Jewish backgrounds in wall texts. “Curators are often not aware of that heritage or aren’t attuned to how Jewishness might manifest in an artist’s work,” she says. “It’s easier to find signs of gender, sexuality and race.”
Baskind’s research sometimes requires careful digging to uncover and expand on Jewishness in an artist’s work. “It takes a certain amount of training or knowledge of Judaism to find it,” she says.
Still, Baskind contends that the Phillips is right not to render the given names of Pissarro and Rothko, because they chose to identify themselves in different ways. “If the Phillips Collection called Camille Pissarro ‘Jacob Abraham Camille Pissarro,’ I would think it was odd,” she says. A spokesperson for the Phillips said the museum “follows standardized naming conventions.”
At the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler galleries, curators often have to decide whether to mention blockbuster artists, such as Hokusai and Hiroshige, by just their shortened names, which are familiar, or their full names. “If you say ‘Cher’ or you say ‘Bono,’ people are going to listen that more closely than if you give their full name,” says Joelle Seligson, a digital editor at the Freer and Sackler.
Seligson, who writes wall labels in her current job and was previously a publicist at the Phillips, notes that she and her colleagues work with strict word counts for posted exhibit texts, which is why they often post expanded information online. She noted that donors might also get a say in how their works are labeled.
But asked what might be lost by not mentioning an artist’s religious or cultural heritage, she says, “I think you’d want to give as much and as full information as you could.”
Wecker is a freelance writer.