The College Art Association has announced the shortlist for this year’s Alfred H. Barr, Jr., Award for museum scholarship:
Mark Laird and Alicia Weisberg-Roberts, eds., Mrs. Delany and Her Circle
Darielle Mason, ed., Kantha: The Embroidered Quilts of Bengal from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection and the Stella Kramrisch Collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art
Xiaoneng Yang, ed., Tracing the Past, Drawing the Future: Master Ink Painters in Twentieth-Century China
I have all three books in hand and hope to write something on each in short order. First up: “Mrs. Delany and Her Circle,” published last year by Yale. “Mrs. Delany” is Mary Delany, née Mary Granville (1700-1788), who “embarked upon a series of nearly a thousand botanical collages … that would prove to be the crowning achievement of her rich creative life.” Although I find Delany’s art remarkable, I was frankly amazed that the curators marshaled and found the funds to publish a full eleven authors on this subject, including prominent figures such as Amanda Vickery — considering that Delany had more or less fallen off the map after receiving a flurry of interest in the 1980s. Apparently, “workshops, symposia, and archival visits undertaken in pursuing research for the exhibition” helped drum up the contributors. Biographical notes on them would have been a welcome addition to the catalogue; one has to go to Clarissa Campbell Orr’s website to discover that she is writing a Delany biography for Yale. This is a handsome, sumptuously illustrated and seemingly scrupulously produced catalogue (although I did find trivial goofs — for example, one entry in the bibliography is followed by “Delete? Not found”; after another one finds “CK-include?”). Most importantly, it appears that all of the contributors have done original research of interest to specialists and laypeople alike.
Lisa L. Moore reviewed the catalogue and its exhibition for Eighteenth-Century Studies:
The exhibition catalogue as a whole is an indispensable reference … Eighteenth-centuryists in particular, however, will appreciate the meticulous attributions, index, and bibliography that allow the book to be used as a kind of who’s who of Delany’s slice of eighteenth-century court culture. The fourteen essays collected here, including a valuable introduction by each of the curators, report expert research on many facets of Delany’s achievements, from fashion to natural history and painting to zoology. Unfortunately nothing was included about her biting, satirical literary voice sustained over decades … Of particular interest to scholarship are two appendices, a concordance identifying Delany’s botanical illustrations by the modern scientific names of the plants and the first-ever publication of Delany’s manuscript novel Marianna. Indeed, it was for purposes of this exhibition that the British Museum finally put all 976 of Delany’s collages online.
Although Delany naturally takes center stage in the catalogue, feminism’s general role in contemporary art history also surfaces as a topic of discussion. Weisberg-Roberts writes in her introduction:
The artistic dimension of Mrs. Delany’s work has also been obscured by the value judgment prevalent in much art-historical writing, which tends to undervalue women artists, amateurs, and the so-called minor arts … Traditional art history has focused on the work of (predominantly male) professional artists and on works in privileged media (such as painting and sculpture) … [even in] many progressive approaches that have championed the relevance of social-historical and gender-based analyses to the history of eighteenth-century art.
Vickery notes in her essay, “The Theory & Practice of Female Accomplishment,” a wide-ranging and deep meditation on the decorative arts:
Feminist art historians have been ambivalent … uncertain whether “in embracing activities like flower painting or quilt making as women’s separate but equal artistic heritage, we risk reinforcing the hierarchy of values in art history and art practice that has worked to marginalize these activities as craft” … Be warned, sniffs Germaine Greer, if you insist on viewing Delany’s paper mosaics at the British Museum, as “you could end up profoundly depressed by yet more evidence that, for centuries, women have been kept busy wasting their time” … Nevertheless, their decorative craftwork deserves more serious consideration … Men valued women’s productions highly enough to pay for them to be framed expensively in mahogany, suggesting that gentlemen appreciated ladies’ work far more than modern historians have done.