On the correct history of the Salon, or: five mistakes by Marco Goldin (in six minutes)

Marco Goldin lately has been improvising himself-teaching art history. But in one of his 'lessons' he made five mistakes in six minutes.

For the past few weeks, posts from Linea d’Ombra, the company of the never tame Marco Goldin, have been raging on my personal Facebook wall. Italy’s most prolific curator seems to have kicked off a pressing publicity battle, including on social media, in order to bring as many people as possible to his umpteenth exhibition on Impressionists soon to be held in Treviso. The posts that appear on my wall are in fact sponsored posts (and also for this reason they manage to get so many interactions), so I imagine Goldin is sparing no expense. Also because, from the tenor of the posts, I think he wants to convey more than just advertising. In other words, Goldin is trying to repeat his mantra on Facebook as well: to excite the visitor even before he leaves for the museum where the exhibition will be held.

Mind you, I think Goldin is a real creative writing ace. If someone wants to learn how to write a text that succeeds in making a reader feel sensations by talking about art, I think Goldin’s writings are always a good read, so much so that I myself sometimes visit his social page, or get his texts, to get ideas from them. I think it’s normal that those who do outreach also try to study who is better at engaging. The other side of the coin, the negative side of Goldin’s texts, is that they leave you with nothing. Limiting myself to reading his travelogues on Facebook, his descriptions of places about the Impressionists, one gets the feeling that in the end, about the art of Monet, van Gogh and all those artists dear to Goldin, one knows exactly as much as one did before embarking on the reading.

Probably Goldin also realized this limitation of his, and he thought of filling it with a series of"lectures" (the definition is his) on art history that he has been giving in recent weeks at Treviso’s Teatro Comunale. Pressing to disseminate excerpts, uploaded to Youtube, on his Facebook page. Moved by curiosity, I tried to listen to the first lecture, dedicated, as the title reads(I include here the link to the video), to Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and the Salon. And I found a completely different Goldin than the vivacious and lively one in the “creative” texts, let’s call them that: a really uninteresting Goldin, at times boring, often confusing, rolling out a lecture stuffed with dates and notions, scarcely inclined todeepening and asking why certain situations arise. Goldin declares, however, that he does not want to offer the public a “textbook” history, and believes he achieves this goal by simply starting “from afar,” that is, from the 18th century, to explain the processes that would lead to the birth ofImpressionism. I did not believe that to avoid a “textbook” popularization it would be sufficient to lengthen the chronology of the topics addressed, but wanting to give Goldin the benefit of the doubt I decided to go ahead with the viewing of his first “lecture” on Impressionism. To make a long story short, after his declarations of intent, Marco Goldin starts with the history of the Salon, the historic exhibition that was an expression of French academic culture, named after the Salon Carré in the Louvre, the venue of the exhibition since 1699. Goldin’s problem lies in the fact that from the moment he starts spouting the history of the Salon, he commits a series of errors and inaccuracies that one really would not expect from someone who works seriously with art history. I counted at least five of them, which out of six minutes of exposition of the history of the Salon, do not constitute a properly exhilarating result.

Goldin davanti a un dipinto di Van Gogh
Goldin in front of a Van Gogh painting. Photo by Vicenza Report distributed under a Creative Commons license.

  • 1. The Salon “continued and continued until even the beginning of the twentieth century.” The Salon, from its inception, had been sponsored by the French government. This “sponsorship” came to an end in 1881, when the task of organizing the Salon was taken over by the Societé des Artistes Françaises, an association that was formed precisely in 1881. And whose activity continues to this day, indeed: the society still organizes an exhibition called “Salon,” about which information can also be found on the Society’s own website. So, when Goldin says that the Salon “continues until even the beginning of the twentieth century,” he makes a first mistake: if he is referring to the government-sponsored Salon, the end has a specific year, 1881. If, on the other hand, he is referring to the “Salon” in a generic sense, the exhibition, which can be regarded somewhat as the heir to the historic Salon, continues to be organized even to the present day.
  • 2. The Salon “is the place where French painting was formed and founded and expressed and exhibited from 1648 onward.” A slight inaccuracy, with Goldin confusing the dates: 1648 is not the year in which the first Salon was held, as one might imply from his sentence, but is the year in which theAcadémie Royale de peinture et de sculpture was founded, which organized the first Salon nineteen years later, in 1667. This is not serious, but one would expect a little more precision.
  • 3. The Salon “was the only opportunity for painters, but also for sculptors, but also for engravers, to exhibit their works.” It is not clear what period Goldin is referring to, because to speak of the Salon is to speak of a history of at least two hundred years, but if the curator is referring, indeed, to the entire history of the Salon, it is by no means true that it was the only opportunity artists had to exhibit their works. One of the most famous exhibitions was the Place Dauphine in Paris, which was held every year during the Corpus Christi procession. The procession has been documented since at least 1644, and we know that even back then Parisians had artifacts, paintings, and objets d’art hung along the route on which the procession would take place (which was held between Place Dauphine and Pont-Neuf). Over the years, the tradition became an opportunity for artists to showcase their works. And such exhibitions were also attended by several of the most important French artists, such as Nicolas Lancret, Jean-Baptiste Oudry, Jean Restout and others. Then in the eighteenth century exhibitions were organized by another institution that gathered the artists of the time, the Académie de Saint-Luc, and one could also mention the two exhibitions organized by the Duc d’Antin in the third decade of the eighteenth century. In short: the exhibition scene in seventeenth-eighteenth-century Paris was not as restrictive as Goldin believes. If anything, the success of the Salon was due to the fact that it was the most important and prestigious exhibition, given the names of the promoters.
  • One note: shortly after making the above error, Goldin asserts that the Salon " becomes the mediation point between the effort that politically the central state makes to exhibit the works of artists and enhance the image of the nation, and the interest that private individuals, whether they are the artists themselves or even possible buyers, have. So a kind of synergy between the public and the private, which is one of the big issues that we constantly hear being analyzed at these times." Rather than an error (and in fact I want to disregard it as such), this is completely nonsensical reasoning: it is a bit like saying that modern Academies of Fine Arts are the result of a “synergy” between public and private insofar as they enhance private citizens (the artists) for the benefit of other private citizens (the possible buyers of their works). The public-private “synergies,” including today’s, to which Goldin alludes when he speaks of the current “big issues,” are others (for example, those involving private individuals in the management of public museums). In short, if Goldin was looking for some foothold to justify his company’s use of the spaces granted to it by public administrations, he has completely misjudged the yardstick.
  • 4. “The idea of the Salon comes from a kind of institutionalization of the idea of the Italian Academy. So it’s an idea that France picks up from something that had happened in Italy in the Renaissance, with the Academies, think for example of the Academies in the Florentine sphere, and what happens in the Neoplatonic circles, especially the circles of Marsilio Ficino.” Glossing over an expression with no historical basis as “institutionalizing the idea of the Italian Academy” (Italian Academies, at the time the Salon was born, were already officially recognized institutions with orders), here Goldin confuses sixteenth-century Academies, such as theAccademia delle Arti del Disegno founded in Florence in 1563, with fifteenth-century cenacles, which often did indeed like to call themselves “Academies” (Marsilio Ficino himself might have used the expression “Accademia,” although a debate has recently arisen around this appellation, so much so that some have even proposed that the aforementioned expression no longer be used to refer to Marsilio Ficino’s circle - or presumed to be one, since there are those who doubt its existence tout court), but had a totally different nature. The so-called “academies” of the fifteenth century did not pursue didactic purposes, did not have an official character, but rather had the aim of spreading a certain kind of culture: however, I prefer not to dwell on this too much and, if anything, postpone an in-depth study of the subject to a future article. Instead, Academies as we more or less understand them today were born in the sixteenth century: it was the Italian academies of the sixteenth century, especially the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno and the Accademia di San Luca in Rome, that inspired the founders of the Académie Royale. The “institutionalization of the idea of the Academy” thus occurred not in seventeenth-century France, but in sixteenth-century Italy.
  • 5. The “neo-Platonic circles” were “places in which artists, who are not only painters, but are also engravers, sculptors, draftsmen, manage to escape from that central power which somehow oppresses them.” To begin with, the fifteenth-century cenacles gathered not only artists, but intellectuals of all sorts: poets, historians, men of letters, philosophers. Marsilio Ficino himself was a philosopher. Moreover, it is by no means true that the artists who attended the intellectual gatherings of fifteenth-century Italy were “oppressed by central power” (assuming one can compare the exercise of power in seventeenth-century France with that in Medici Florence); on the contrary: they often worked precisely because of the protection of a lord. Marsilio Ficino himself was subsidized by Cosimo de’ Medici to do his studies, and think of the vast array of artists in 15th-century Florence who worked thanks to Medici commissions.

Having finished the story of the Salon, I decided to stop watching Goldin’s “lecture”: I had had enough. One has to wonder how it is possible that a person who speaks in front of such a large audience (the theater, one can see from the shots, was full) and who organizes exhibitions that draw thousands of visitors, manages to fill an all in all banal, linear, almost encyclopedic speech with such gross inaccuracies. It must be acknowledged, however, that to manage to make five mistakes in six minutes, on a subject that is after all not even so complicated as the history of an exhibition, requires a certain amount of effort... ! Too bad it does not make him a good popularizer. Although I am convinced that, even after reading this article and perhaps even after watching his “lecture,” there will still be plenty of people who will continue to think of him as such.

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