Monday, May 21, 2018

Widener Gallery presents art from Trinity’s Kress Collection



On Tuesday, Sept. 25, Trinity’s ‘Widener Gallery,’ located in the Austin Arts Center, hosted an opening reception for its exhibition ‘Into the Light.’ The exhibition features Old Master paintings by Italian, British and American artists, which have remained in Trinity’s possession for many years, but have not been exhibited in a very long time for a variety of logistical reasons. Amongst these valuable art works on the walls of Trinity’s own art gallery, are four highlight pieces that have recently been successfully conserved. These paintings, along with a few others on display originally belong to the renowned Samuel H. Kress Collection.

The Widener Gallery that is overseen by Trinity’s Studio Arts Program, presents a series of fascinating exhibitions every year—generally featuring internationally or nationally acclaimed contemporary artists, as well as exhibits of the best student work completed during the academic year. The historical nature of the current works on display, as well as the fact that they belong to the college, immediately make this ongoing exhibition stand out. Most members of the Trinity community, including faculty members who attended the opening reception, expressed that in their many years here they never realized that Trinity even had it’s own fine art collection. In reality- the college is in possession of a praiseworthy number of paintings, prints and other significant works of art that will hopefully in time come to the surface too.

 In reference to the highlight works in this exhibition, it is necessary to realize the story and significance of the Kress Collection. Samuel Kress (1863-1995) was an American businessman and philanthropist, who used his wealth to create an extremely significant collection of Italian Renaissance and European artwork dating from the 13th to the early 19th century.  In 1929, Kress established a foundation to promote European art in the United States (the Kress Foundation). Through this foundation, he donated works from his collection to various museums in the US, most significantly to the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.  By the late 1950s, the Kress Collection consisted of over 3000 objects, and while a majority of them continued to be donated to museums, some were distributed amongst a few educational institutions, including Trinity College. For a painting to have been a part of the Kress Collection, puts it in line with works by some of the greatest artists such as Raphael, Botticelli, Bernini, Veronese, Titian, and many more; and for Trinity to be in possession of such works is remarkable.

Another major topic of discussion in relation to the works in the exhibition pertains to the conservation of four of the paintings. Professor Cadogan of Trinity’s Art History Department expressed that one of the reasons that some of the paintings belonging to the Kress Collection have not surfaced in such a long time, was because of their fragile, and deteriorating conditions. The age of the paintings had caused some of them to have a yellow or brown tint from varnishes, making them look dull. In a few pieces, several cracks were evident, and in one of the extreme cases, a wooden panel had buckled up so much that the painting had a dent right down its middle. Due to the high costs of restoration projects, Trinity approached the Kress Foundation a few years ago, that was willing to sponsor them. The four paintings that were in conditions that could not be displayed because of  their fragility, were cleaned up, over-painted, and treated for their material to better survive weather fluctuations. There are several debates surrounding restoration projects and it is interesting to view the paintings in light of these. Some people argue that flaws and age-related deterioration reiterate the historic nature of a piece. Yet when the flaws become distracting to a viewer who ends up noticing things like cracks instead of the subject of the painting, conservation projects are important to preserve their aesthetic nature and to prevent them from further deterioration. When a piece is restored or conserved, however, it must be done in a manner that allows viewers to distinguish between the work of the original artist and the restorer. At the Widener Gallery exhibition, viewers have the chance to view some of the paintings alongside photographs of what they looked like before and through their restoration projects. Viewers can also read about the treatments that the pieces underwent. The exhibition also features a case that contains the pigments used for over painting.

Professor Cadogan also discussed that due to the digitalization of everything these days, many people tend to view an artwork as simply a surface image rather than a material object. One of the excellent things about this exhibition is that it brings to light the material realties of an artwork over time, giving students and other members of the Trinity community the chance to reconsider their way of looking at art itself. The theme of restoration and conservation of art is also a new conversation for Trinity members to engage in, in relation to the works in the exhibition.

Given the infrastructural shortcomings of the Widener Gallery, in terms of temperature control, and security in particular, it does not qualify to showcase significant pieces of art which could be temporarily outsourced from other institutions.  We are thus at this time very privileged that Trinity has its own collection that can be displayed in the gallery. The exhibition is also in sync with a new course offered in the art history departments titled, ‘A Closer Look at Art and Architecture,’ which examines materials, techniques and artistic processes.

The exhibition runs until Oct. 26.

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