Scenes from a first exhibition

The Monitor followed a young curator for nearly a year as he struggled to mount his first show

Joachim Homann turned the month of May into his own personal "triathlon."

The student curator's first exhibition opened to the public at Harvard's Busch-Reisinger Museum on May 10. Then he jumped on a plane to Germany to defend his doctoral dissertation at his home university on May 20. And to top it all off, on May 30 he got married.

"It was a hectic time," he said in an e-mail to a reporter.

A year ago this month, the student curator from Germany had gotten the go-ahead from the Harvard museum to mount an exhibition on the set and costume designs of Natalia Goncharova, an early 20th-century Russian artist who worked with the Ballets Russes in Paris when it was under the direction of legendary impresario Serge Diaghilev.

The 1914 production was called "Le coq d'or (The Golden Cockerel)," a ballet and opera with music by Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, based on a Russian folk tale told by Alexander Pushkin.

Poking around Harvard's museums in the spring of 2002, he had discovered that a superior collection of her drawings for the opera were nearby in the Harvard Theater Collection.

"I had never come across anything like this in my student years," Homann said. "Her approach looked so fresh to me." They seemed like an untapped resource.

In his proposal to mount an exhibition, he stressed that a show featuring her drawings, full of dazzling colors, would "shed light on an important moment in the history of avant-garde art."

Leaning over a table, the sleeves of his blue shirt rolled up, leafing through a book of Goncharova's drawings with a reporter, Homann explained their beauty and history and the difficulties that lay ahead in trying to tell her story. How much wall text should he write? How much should he explain about Ballets Russes? Or the plot of "Le coq d'or?"

Those were all challenges, though not unexpected. But after his project had been approved, Homann had found out something much more troubling: In 1937, Goncharova had redesigned the sets and costumes of the 1914 production for a revival at the Ballets Russes. The drawings in the Harvard collection, and probably elsewhere, might be from either 1914 or 1937. Some might even be fakes casually included, or be authentic Goncharova, but not related to the "Le coq d'or" production.

Would enough of them be from 1914? How, if at all, should he make use of the 1937 drawings, assuming he could tell them apart? "I was sleepless for some nights," he said, when he first learned of the problem.

The show was to be the culmination of his two-year internship as a student curator at Harvard. Homann had enjoyed studying art since childhood. He loved to visit museums or rummage through collections of old calendars. He studied art history at a German university, but didn't think about becoming a curator until he learned about Harvard's program.

But his vision was severely tested. He shook off his doubts and assured his visitor that his inexperience wouldn't be a problem. "I have great help. So no one who lends me works should be frightened!" he said with a laugh.

Serendipitous discovery

In late September, Homann presented to the Harvard Theater Collection the list of objects he wanted to display. Fortunately, he learned, they were in good condition.

His research continued. He checked souvenir programs, magazines, and other publications of the era. He discovered good collections of Goncharova at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn., and at the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio, Texas. That fall he traveled to both cities.

Serendipity helped, too. He learned of a Harvard museum supporter from New York, who had a collection of about 20 Goncharova works. The patron's mother had known the artist. Her scrapbook would become part of the exhibition.

Over the winter, he worked with registrars to arrange for the handling and shipping of delicate artworks from Texas and New York's Museum of Modern Art. At the same time, the publications department set "draconian deadlines": They needed his essay on the exhibition immediately for a 12-page catalogue that would accompany the show.

The tasks kept multiplying. Homann arranged for the objects to be photographed. He wrote wall texts and made a scale model of the gallery, cutting out yellow sticky notes to represent each drawing. Even the color of the walls required decisions. He chose a stage-curtain red for one wall; an aggressive yellow for another. He added an auditory aspect as well: Visitors could listen to excerpts of the "Le coq d'or" via headphones.

Little by little, Homann's research proved that the beautiful drawings were indeed from 1937. In some cases, the dancers' names were a tipoff. Some had stamps on the back, which a Russian volunteer translated. And the 1937 pieces, he began to realize, were more stylistically mature and showed the care of a veteran theatrical designer, including markings for costume measurements.

But the fundamental problem remained.

"How can I present something that isn't even dated to the [1914] performance?" he kept asking himself. "I was so worried about that."

Finally, he realized that it wasn't the dates of the works that had interested him, so why should his visitors care? "I find this material interesting for other reasons ... the colors, the forms, the interaction of choreography and stage and painting, and so on," he said.

The way that he displayed the works would help to tell the story. The 1914 works would be on one wall, with the 1937 versions opposite. They formed a natural progression around the exhibition space.

What Homann learned, says Peter Nisbet, the head curator at the Busch-Reisinger Museum, who advised him along the way, was "how to speak with objects, how to stage an exhibition as a way of demonstrating a thought."

A personal milestone

With his internship now over, Homann isn't sure what will be next for him. Cuts in funding for the arts in Germany make him reluctant to take his wife and look for a job there. He may take a teaching job this fall.

But wherever his career leads, the Goncharova project will be a landmark for him.

"I think I was able ... to prove that [her] theatrical work [for the Ballets Russes] was an important part of Goncharova's oeuvre," he says, work that now is better understood.

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