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Monday, August 20, 2018

Writing Museum Wall Labels: A Case Study

Recently a new rotation of works on paper--featuring prints and drawings reflecting the Renaissance interest in anatomy--went on view in the Italian galleries. I was asked to create the wall label to accompany it. Wall labels in museum galleries are concise blurbs about a work, or works of art, written in a way meant to be easily understand-able and accessible to the public. Prior to writing the label for this rotation, I had only worked on two labels for photographs in the 2016 exhibition Cyanotypes: Photography’s Blue Period, with each label representing a single work of art. In this case, I needed a label that would tie together and clearly present three works as a single grouping in 150 words or less. It was the same amount of space, but I had to squeeze in discussions of two additional pieces of artwork.

In order to create a cohesive didactic label for three artworks, I had to locate a single central theme to unite them and narrow down my focus. In this case, I focused on the significance of anatomical study to artists during the Renaissance. Understanding how to render the human body accurately was tied directly to successfully depicting a nude figure. All three images include at least one nude figure despite differences in medium, the artists’ personal styles, and the subject being depicted. While the print Bacchanal with a Wine Vat by Andrea Mantegna’s subject is more or less a standard mythological scene, the two other prints are a nude depiction of The Last Supper and a rather theatrical image of skeletal and flayed figures. With three diverse images, the narrative I conveyed needed to be observable to the visitor viewing the grouping of these works. Working within the 150 word limit, I was able to point out one element of each work on paper relating to the overarching theme of anatomical study, while still leaving room for the viewer to make their own observations within the theme and discover the works of art for themselves.

Through my own experience I can say that artwork has so much to say that it feels easier to write a book than it does to write a quick blurb. It is easy to go down a research rabbit hole when writing on a work of art, and thus it can be equally tempting to overwhelm a casual viewer or stray off subject. Sometimes you find more questions than answers. While looking into these objects, I discovered theories about how Skeletons and Ecorches by del Barbiere may have been intended for use as an illustration in an anatomy textbook, but it seemed too embellished with curtains and props for a book of that nature. Could it have had another purpose? If it was intended for a book? If so, which book? I also was fascinated by an ongoing debate over the artist attribution of the drawing of The Last Supper. In the past it was attributed to Rosso Fiorentino, but through formal analysis the curator and others agreed that his association with the drawing was not secure.  In addition to the unknown status of the artist, was this drawing a study for another work of art that exists today? Was it drawn by Andrea del Sarto? What about an unknown student in a workshop? Are there any other artworks or sketches connected to this piece somewhere out there? These questions may never find their answers. Limiting the subject matter discussed in the label prevents it from turning into a book or dissertation, and leaves room for others to enjoy the mysteries and speculation that make art history so fascinating.

--Gabrielle Belisle, Fellow for Prints, Drawings and Photographs, Worcester Art Museum

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