Friday, September 12th 2014
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Interview with Professor Gabriel Weisberg, University of Minnesota (US)





Interview with Professor Gabriel Weisberg, University of Minnesota (US)
Professor Gabriel Weisberg has a strong specialization in the history of graphic art, design history, and visual culture in France and Europe from 1780-1920. He has a deep interest in the art nouveau period having taught graduate seminars and lecture courses in this area. His current research focuses on nineteenth-century Music-halls and in particular Jane Avril, as well as on Nordic Japonisme. He has been the recipient of major honors and awards in art history including having served as a Member of the Institute for Advanced Study (Princeton), a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, a Senior Fellowship at CASVA (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.) and Regents Professor, National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.. Recently he was the Van Gogh Museum and the University of Amsterdam, Visiting Fellow (2010). He serves as Reviews Editor for AHNCA’s on-line peer reviewed journal Nineteenth Century Art Worldwide; he was also a past President of the AHNCA group.

S.C.― Why did you choose to become an art historian and why this diversity of topics?

Cover, "Montmartre and the Making of Mass Culture", New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2001
Cover, "Montmartre and the Making of Mass Culture", New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2001
Gabriel Weisberg (G.W.)―I started as an artist, as a painter and I soon realised that I did not have enough talent to be successful but I wanted to remain in the Art field. I therefore embraced Art History and Social History. I became more and more fascinated by figures in Art History who had fallen through the cracks. By that, I mean figures who had been neglected, not studied, or who were not even thought as being significant. So I spent a good deal of my career finding artists who were excellent but outside of the accepted canon of Art History, or even people like the dancer Jane Avril who remained mysterious even today. I wanted to make the general public, scholars, curators, museum people, more aware of who these individuals actually were and what they had achieved. I have done this in several ways: through articles, through books, but also through exhibitions. Different museums in the United States, Europe have attracted thousands of visitors to think about some of these themes and individuals, in original and new ways. So this is my advice: if you cannot do be yourself an artist, do Art History! It is a great field which needs attention nowadays

S.C.― What do you find exciting in research? Why do you enjoy it so much?

G.W.― I have quite often uncovered photo and document archives we did not know they existed but which have expanded our knowledge of an artist, or as in the case of Jane Avril whom I am working on now for publication, we have uncovered letters. Without various frequent visits to libraries, no one would have ever known that she had written. Archival research expands our knowledge. It becomes very exciting. You get to know the subject you are examining: how these people lived; how they felt... It makes it more significant for what you are trying to do.

S.C.― Could you give us more details about your research on Jane Avril?

Avril by Lautrec
Avril by Lautrec
G.W.― For a long time, I was a great admirer of all the works of Toulouse-Lautrec: for his great poster of the Divan Japonais, for many other places where Jane Avril performed but when I began to read the information that existed about her, they were all saying the same thing. Actually, we never got too close to her as a person, or knew why she was such a performer. I started this project, working through archives in libraries such as the Archives Nationales or the Bibliothèque historique de la Ville de Paris. I discovered uncatalogued material not easily obtainable. I began to put together a schedule of performances (where she performed, what kind of places, what she did etc.). In her own period, she was more famous than we originally thought she was even though she was really a kind of “secondary” performer while on the other hand she was a tremendously influential individual with regard to her ties and relationships with poets, the writers, creators, the visual artists–not only with Toulouse-Lautrec but with many others. These individuals valued Jane Avril, not just for her dancing–a very free and spontaneous dance–but also for her intelligence and wit, her ability to be a woman of ideas. This sheds a different light on what Jane Avril was. It shows also the world that she was elevated by Toulouse-Lautrec, who turned her into, not a star, but a celebrity, by acknowledging her importance as a creator, a force, a thinker who had much more to say than performers such as La Goulue at the Moulin Rouge.

S.C.― What was the difference then with La Goulue?

G.W.― Jane Avril was an independent woman who wanted to be her own boss (I do not think she wanted to sign contracts), which she chose. At the time, men in society appreciated her for this because she was a new kind of woman, maybe a little bit of a femme fatale, maybe not. I can see Jane Avril now, not just as a mystery but as somebody contributing to something very unusual. My work will contribute to show her from a very different perspective.

S.C.― She was seen as a crazy woman during the period, wasn’t she?…

G.W.― That is true. Studies usually speak about her “madness”, about her “crazy” dancing, but perhaps, that is not true! Dancing was her life. But another part of her life was even more profound. The writers she met were also thinkers. She had a strong relationship with Dujardin, a poet who was the initiator of a sort of stream of consciousness writing, so perhaps Jane Avril’s dancing reveals a kind of stream of consciousness performance. That is very interesting because that leads to surrealism.

S.C.― Do you think that rather than focusing on technique, Jane would follow “her mood”?

G.W.― Yes absolutely but unfortunately, I would need to find more material to investigate this further. I do not completely agree with recent articles that I have read on Jane Avril that emphasize her mental illness as the source of everything. Articles refer to Charcot but there was something else. More profound. Moreover, the actual site and the locations where performers worked are sometimes as important as the performance itself.

S.C.― Would you organize an exhibition on her?

G.W.― It happened with Loïe Fuller… but the problem we have here is that painting representing Jane Avril, outside of Toulouse-Lautrec, are not really that good. Such works might not support an exhibition! Jane Avril’s relationship with her boyfriends and eventually her husband Maurice Biais may be of interest. However, Maurice Biais is not a very good artist! The more we find about him, the more we realize he copied a lot of material from other sources, trying to transcribe them into his own image! For instance, he did a terrific poster for the art store “La Maison moderne” (basically a woman, Jane Avril, looking at objects inside) but this image comes from a German illustrated magazine, which he copied!

S.C.― We have photos of Jane Avril…

G.W.― Jane Avril was a popular icon not just in France but also abroad. Photographs were taken (studio photographs). They are all the same, published in books that represent the dancer. It is all we know. But the only different one is the serpent costume. It is now on the internet and was discovered recently. We may find more. We do not know yet whether Lautrec was inspired by them (he was interested in photography). His portraits of Jane may have led the photographer to ask her to pose to remind him of Lautrec’s works. And by the way, I encourage anybody having archives on Jane Avril to contact me…

S.C.― I understand that you are preparing an exhibition on Nordic Japonism.

Cover for “The Orient Expressed, Japan's Influence on Western Art, 1854-1918”, Mississippi Museum of Art in association with University of Washington Press, 2011
Cover for “The Orient Expressed, Japan's Influence on Western Art, 1854-1918”, Mississippi Museum of Art in association with University of Washington Press, 2011
G.W.― Exactly. It will be a large exhibition being done with three of major museums in Scandinavia (the Ateneum Museum in Helsinki, the National Museum in Oslo, and the National Museum in Stockholm). This is a subject that is completely original. We started to work on this exhibition four years ago. No one had given much thought to the fact that there was a Japanese influence on Nordic Art–and I mean all the arts (painting, applied arts, jewellery, furniture, graphic arts). This influence of what we call Japonisme, emerged from different countries and influenced art in Scandinavia, maybe a little bit later in the 1880s. It had a very stimulating impact on many different artists―many artists who were not particularly well-known, even in Scandinavia. Edvard Munch for instance. We are talking about major creativity in the decorative arts and design. It embraces all fields. The show will open in Helsinki in February in 2016 and will explain how it happened, what the context was, what is the history behind this. We are calling the show, “Japanomania in the North”. We think we have an exhibition which will excite a lot of interest in Scandinavia and beyond. There is also a possibility to organize an exhibition in Japan and it will open new ideas there.

S.C.― What would you advise Art historians aiming to become curators?

G.W.― They should know as much Art History as they can from different perspectives and periods. They should not be, as we say in America, a “Johnny one note” and by that I mean, they will have to be willing to tackle many different subjects and deal with many different types of people, not just academics. The more knowledge you can amass, the more ideas you can gain from looking at works of art, the better you will be as a curator. A curator is somebody who, in the best sense of the word, really loves Art. Study history. Study literature. Study writing. Study biographies. Study theories, and study works of art. Have an interdisciplinary approach. It is crucial and many students obviously do not do this. You should not forget the larger meaning, concepts; the context…. Think broadly.

S.C.― What are the best research methods?

G.W.― Firstly, I am not afraid to go to archives where you would think you would find nothing. My point is: never be afraid of following your instinct. Being creative, inquisitive, brave is a key to success. Researchers are kind of detectives, thinking also about practicalities. Secondly, when you are working in a library, ask questions of the archivists or librarians because quite often, a lot of the material you are looking for is going to be uncatalogued, such as ephemera. You need to dig things up! Finally the Internet is important but archives are essential. You cannot be afraid to pick up a document and students should be reminded of this when they start a PhD. You have to spend some time in libraries and archives. Maybe you will find nothing, but maybe you will find a lot! There is a part of luck in research. Go also to performance sites themselves and see if anything exists. It is what I did with the “Divan Japonais”, a very tiny place, which became a centre for rock music―which is pretty funny!... Research enriches your life.


Chinese portrait

Cover for “The Origins of L'Art Nouveau”, The Bing Empire, The Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam and Mercatorfonds, Distributed by Cornell University Press, 2004
Cover for “The Origins of L'Art Nouveau”, The Bing Empire, The Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam and Mercatorfonds, Distributed by Cornell University Press, 2004
If you were an art movement… which one would you be?
Abstract.

If you were a painter… or an artist… who would you be?
Vermeer, the seventeenth century artist.

If you were a colour… which one would you be?
Red.

If you were an object relating to art… what object would you be?
A paint brush.

If you were a museum... which one would you be?
I would be the Rijksmuseum Museum in Amsterdam. It is the perfect museum and installation.

If you were a theme… what would it be?
I would want to stress Realism as a theme which runs through history, literature, the visual arts…

Interview by S. Chaouche

Bibliography and useful information:

Webpage: http://arthist.umn.edu/people/facultyprofile.php?UID=weisb001

Personal website: http://gpweisberg.com/

PUBLICATIONS
Art Nouveau, A Research Guide for Design Reform in France, Belgium, England and the United States. Weisberg, Gabriel, Garland Publishing, Inc., 1998.
The Popularization of Images: Visual Culture Under the July Monarchy (co-editor). Weisberg, Gabriel, Princeton University Press, 1994.
Montmartre and the Making of Mass Culture (editor). Weisberg, Gabriel, Rutgers University Press, 2001.
Art Nouveau Bing: Paris Style, 1900. Weisberg, Gabriel, New York, Harry N. Abrams, 1986.
  • Overcoming All Obstacles: The Women of the Académie Julian. Weisberg, Gabriel, New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, 1999.

RESEARCH ACTIVITIES
• Guest Curator, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam: organization and research of exhibition on "Art Nouveau: The Bing Empire", 2000 - 2006
• Guest Curator: Illusions of Reality: Naturalist Painting, Photography and Cinema, 1875-1918a, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam - June 2011

PROFESSIONAL ACTIVITIES
• Former President, Art Historians of Nineteenth Century Art

AWARDS
• Chevalier de l'ordre des arts et des lettres, République Française Award
• Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship
• Regent’s Fellow, Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American Artl[

Sabine Chaouche



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