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Casanova as Case Study: How Should Art Museums Present Problematic Aspects of the Past?

Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, The Charlatan, 1756.

COURTESY MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS, BOSTON

In 2014, when staffers at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco began planning the exhibition “Casanova: The Seduction of Europe,” they could not have foreseen the two-word hashtag that would trigger an unprecedented national awakening regarding sexual harassment and assault.

Four months after #MeToo made its debut online last fall, the institution rolled out a lavish exhibition at its Legion of Honor location devoted to Giacomo Casanova, the storied 18th-century adventurer whose behavior with women would—as he described it—in some cases be understood today as sexual assault. While the show, which opened this past February and closed in May, was less about his sexual conduct and more about the ideals and inclinations of his era, the timing seemingly couldn’t have been worse.

Or maybe it couldn’t have been better? From a certain perspective, the Casanova exhibition provided a timely platform to grapple with a dilemma facing all arts institutions: how to present historically significant works whose content—or creators—are out of sync with current social mores. At a time when museums are cancelling shows by artists facing allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior, like Chuck Close and Thomas Roma, the Legion of Honor presented the show as an opportunity to talk about power, wealth, identity, self-invention, and social media.

François Boucher, Jeanne‑Antoinette Poisson, Marquise de Pompadour, 1750 with later additions.

COURTESY, MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS, BOSTON

In engaging Casanova’s past head-on, the museum struck a balance between recognizing his extraordinary accomplishments and his indefensible actions. Art historians, academics, and critics were invited to lead a series of difficult public discussions, to provide context and criticism, with some pointedly questioning the museum’s decision to host the exhibition of 200-plus items, including a dazzling selection of paintings by Canaletto, Boucher, and Fragonard as well as decorative arts, furnishings, and costumes from the time.

Who was Casanova? A man of sweeping talents, he rose from a humble upbringing in Venice to reinvent himself as a diplomat, soldier, lawyer, inventor, violinist, author, gambler, and spy. He knew everyone and went everywhere, traveling more than 40,000 miles from Moscow to Madrid, mostly by stagecoach, which was unheard of in the 18th century. Through the lens of his life, the exhibition, which moved to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston last month for a run into October, brings the Age of Enlightenment to life, a time when new ideas flourished in Europe about philosophy, science, art, liberty, and sex.

“Casanova is a complicated figure—there were things he did in his lifetime that were scandalous, certainly illegal in our current climate,” said European paintings curator Melissa Buron, who organized the show at the Legion of Honor. “But I don’t think it does anyone a service to whitewash or rewrite history, especially as a museum.” That history includes incidents Casanova outlined in a posthumously published memoir that under contemporary law would constitute rape, and his victims included girls who are now classified as minors. For a period, he was imprisoned for “public outrages against the holy religion.”

Woman’s dress in two parts, 1760s.

PHOTOGRAPH © MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS, BOSTON

“I’ve struggled with whether this sort of move by an institution might come across in some cases as the institution trying to have their cake and eat it too,” said Monica Westin, an art critic and fine arts instructor at California College of the Arts. “But I’m quite interested in this model.” Museums are filled with works that are problematic on many fronts for audiences today, but they can’t simply be written off,” Westin argued. “They bookmark an entire set of histories and understandings about the world that we have inherited and must deal with.”

The reality of that history is not something that can  be changed, said Max Hollein, the former director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco who, since this interview, was named the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. “You can amplify certain aspects of the narrative,” Hollein said. “For example, American art galleries of the 19th century basically portray one particular perspective on the development not only of American art in the 19th century but on how this country has developed. It’s clearly the white settlers’ perspective. A Native American and their ancestors certainly have a very different way of reading those paintings, and I think, to a certain extent, it comes with their understanding that art doesn’t necessarily tell the truth. It is more like a particular perspective on things that can challenge you, but art is not the truth.”

Citing one of his favorite films, Rashomon (1951) by Akira Kurosawa, Hollein suggested art can have no single and categorically correct interpretation. “The film is basically one particular story being told four times by different people,” he said. “It’s always the same story but each person has a very different way of narrating it, so it becomes a new story.”

William Hogarth, The Lady’s Last Stake, 1759.

One possible approach to an exhibition might have been to frame the history through the stories of women from Casanova’s times. “This certainly would be one strategy for addressing historical imbalances of power that have most often positioned women as objects and subjects,” Westin said.

The challenge is that, with a few exceptions including Catherine the Great and Madame Pompadour, who are both included in the exhibition, few women in Casanova’s time chronicled their world in ways that have been handed down.

Casanova, on the other hand, wrote voluminously, and his memoir, History of My Life, runs to 3,700 pages. “This is what survived the times, and we have to look at it from that documentary framework,” Hollein said.

The memoir offers a fascinating point of entry into the writer’s opulent, intellectually charged times and recounts Casanova’s meetings with the likes of Voltaire, Rousseau, Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Johnson, King George III, Pope Clement XIII, Madame de Pompadour, and Catherine the Great.

“It makes sense that he is the tour guide and narrator,” Katie Getchell, the chief brand officer and deputy director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, said while acknowledging the need to fill in the void for missing voices.

Tureen in the form of a boar’s head, Holitsch Manufactory, about 1750.

PHOTOGRAPH © MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS, BOSTON

To supplement the exhibition, the MFA is offering a wide range of programming that includes author Lindy West, who will speak on the politics of romance in a #MeToo world, a performance from the Nigerian-American writer Obehi Janice, and a film series featuring prominent female figures such as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the recent documentary about her life, RBG.

The same approach extended to the gift shop. “We decided to try some new things,” Getchell said. Along with the usual museum fare, visitors will see books about raising feminist boys and more biographies about women, including 18th Century Women Artists: The Trials, Tribulations and Triumphs by Caroline Chapman. Also on offer: The Kardashians: An American Drama, by Jerry Oppenheimer. “The obsession with celebrity and status was a part of Casanova’s time,” Getchell said, “so we tried to pick a modern example from social media.”

Man’s court suit, French, 1785–92.

PHOTOGRAPH © MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS, BOSTON

The MFA also changed the show’s title from the Legion of Honor’s, removing the word seduction so that it became “Casanova’s Europe: Art, Pleasure and Power in the 18th Century.” “It’s an important nuance,” Getchell said. “The show is not about Casanova—it’s about Europe in Casanova’s time.”

One of the scholars tapped to speak in San Francisco, Julia Bryan-Wilson, a professor of modern and contemporary art and director of the UC Berkeley Arts Research Center, said she would like to see museums take further steps to create space for diverse voices and to deemphasize those who have behaved inappropriately. “I’m not saying let’s take down every piece of art by every known sexual harasser,” Bryan-Wilson said. “But why not? Let’s just experiment with an idea about what that would look like and how much room there would be.”

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