Florence Syndrome and a Bird View Tour of Curators Early Art Memories

Albion Rose by William Blake, c. 1793, Colour engraving, 250 x 211 mm. On the occasion of the 2019/2020 exhibition at Tate Britain.
Albion Rose by William Blake, c. 1793, Colour engraving, 250 x 211 mm. On the occasion of the 2019/2020 exhibition at Tate Britain. Courtesy of the Huntington Art Collections and Tate Britain.

In his 2012 book, published by Independent Curators International, “Thinking Contemporary Curating”, Terry Smith attempts to define what constitutes contemporary curatorial thought, as different from, say, that of an art historian or a teacher. I believe curatorial thought is still defining itself, along that of what a curator is or does. However, the reason I mention this very interesting book of reference is far more playful. As Smith introduces his essays and intellectual reasonings, he shares a formative art-memory from when he was nine years old. At the time, he believed that he had discovered art by accident. He was at the Museum of Natural History, in Melbourne, when he followed the drawings of William Blake—what he thought resembled comic books—throughout a staircase that eventually led him into the National Gallery of Victoria, and its expansive art collection. Only years later he met with Dr.Ursula Hoff who told him that she had placed the drawings in that particular staircase, exactly in the hope of luring the youth away from the dinosaurs and into the museum’s collection of art. Fittingly, Smith introduces the idea of the lure in curation, while I am introducing memories about art museums, and other art memories.

Museum art memories. After the dozen of interviews I conducted in Curtain, with all of their varied artistic environments and disparate levels of industry professionalisation, the commonalities between curators are often in their lifestyle, and sense of curiosity. There are those like Smith, with early art memories forged in museums. For curator Ericka Florez, for instance, it was her local museum, Museo La Tertulia in Cali, and its premises. It includes the outside of the museum, the foot traffic and the performances organised there. It was a backdrop for the casual life and the hangouts happening, perhaps filtering through unconsciously over the years. There are those early art memories that include the museum space for the performances it hosted. Such is the memory of curator Catalina Lozano who was otherwise bored during the openings she attended with her mum, but suddenly mesmerised, at ten years old, by late Colombian artist María Teresa Hincapié’s performance. A living museum, besides strategising its layout, can have strong impacts like these.  

Art Book Memories. Then there are the interactions with art books that constitute cherished memories. From curator Lydia Gatundu Galavu, who attributes sparks of imagination and confidence to her school readings of a book on Kenyan legendary heroes, to curator Erica Yu-Wen Huang, who after school casually flipped through the volumes on the shelves of the design firm her father owned, and realised only years later that she had been consuming images from French museums catalogues. Thinking about the printed material extending its influence in unexpected ways is thrilling. After seeing Tibetan bon dancers on the pages of early 80s magazines, curator Davide Quadrio went to Tibet, and learned about Buddhism, the local culture and architecture during most of the 90s.

Art books for art making. When memories relate to even earlier age, they include physical interaction with the printed material. Curator Melike Bayık remembers wanting to be an artist as a child, painting over her books, re-illustrating them over and over again, candidly creating a practice of clown-drawing. And Curator Sofía Dourron recalled a Delacroix book that scared her at first, but that she eventually vanquished thanks to her crayons. Those memories seem more archaic and primitive in relation to art and pleasure, and for that they are also very liberating. Curator Biljana Ciric, who works a lot with ideas, and quoted about five philosophers and theorists in her interview, still described her art values as childish, because of the good-feelings that inspire them (change the world for the better, you know).

Living with art makes memories too. Especially if that art is made by family members. Besides Delacroix’s book, Dourron also mentioned a painting by her great-aunt Rosa that lovingly stayed with her family for many years. Curator Aurélie Barnier spent time in the art studio of a family friend, when she was 3 years old, where she was impressed by her surroundings of brushes and paints. Curator Naz Cuguoglu remembers her father’s painting practice, even more vividly so after he rekindled with it, last year. Curator Olivia Poloni also grew up around the sketches of her father, a jeweller. And curator and artist Mariah Lookman was taught very early on by her mother—a very good amateur painter, the careful use of brushes and colours inside the studio. I imagine the emotion of manipulating colours and the transmission of the teachings and the artful environment, somewhat merging together.

Florence Syndrome. Finally, several curators mentioned memories of visiting Florence. Anecdotally the city has its own alleged syndrome. The Florence or Stendhal syndrome is a psychosomatic condition allegedly occurring when individuals are exposed to great beauty. We can settle for life-changing. At least for curator Ana Carolina Ralston who discovered Boticelli in the Uffizi Gallery at five years old, and curator Anca Rujoiu, who on a student visit realised the possibility art offers in terms of modernity, power, and irreverence—thanks to the work of mannerist painter Jacopo da Pontormo. I hope that like me, you enjoy a little sense of wonder in having these memories of art experiences shared by curators together.

Art critic and writer.

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