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Florence Griswold Museum Curator Amy Kurtz Lansing realizes what happens.
"So many people go to museums, and they see these terms - Impressionism, Modernism - and curators assume everybody knows what they mean," she says.
But that's not always true. Sometimes, visitors don't have a solid sense of what, say, Tonalism or Social Realism mean. Which is where the latest Flo Gris show comes in.
Kurtz Lansing says, "We thought the exhibition could be kind of an introduction to art history, in a way, through these artistic movements."
Indeed, "...isms: Unlocking Art's Mysteries" breaks down various artistic movements and styles, offering succinct explanations of each and then showcasing examples from the museum's permanent connection and selected loans.
So Harry Holtzman's 20th-century "Red, Orange, Green and Yellow" reflects the tenets of Neo-Plasticism, an abstract style developed by Piet Mondrian and using black vertical and horizontal lines.
Ivan Olinsky's 1937 "Farmer Roscoe" Regionalist painting explores his region's - New England's - identity.
John Frazee's sculpture of "George Griswold III," circa 1842, echoes Greek and Roman art, just as Neoclassicism aimed to do.
The exhibition provides a context for the "isms," too. While movements such as Neoclassicism were about expressing higher ideals - beauty and truth - that were detached from personal expression, Romanticism ushered in a whole new era.
"Romantic pictures are not linked by a common stylistic trait. But they're ones that are all about expressing feeling and emotion," Kurtz Lansing says. "I think we take for granted today that that's what all art is somehow about - that art is about expressing the artist's inner thoughts and passions. But that's actually an idea that developed in the Romantic period. I think that's been instructive for people (visiting the exhibition) to understand that this concept that seems a given actually has a historical basis."
Showcased in the Romanticism section of the exhibition are evocative paintings such as Thomas Cole's study for "A Wild Scene" from 1831 and Frederic E. Church's circa-1858 "A Catskill Landscape," with a burst of sunlight blazing over mountains and illuminating the distant landscape.
All told, "...isms: Unlocking Art's Mysteries" features 100 American works - including paintings, sculpture and furniture - from the 18th century to the 21st.
Kurtz Lansing had a great deal of potential material. She went into the Flo Gris storage area, and, with so many options, she honed in on items that would best explain various concepts.
"Parts of our collection are displayed more frequently. Some of the pieces are in storage for a longer period without being shown. So this exhibition was a chance to say, 'What can some of these things that we don't see as often tell us?'
"I'm happy we're able to bring out some treasures from the vault that people haven't necessarily seen before. Especially for some of the pieces in the section that's about Realism and Social Realism - it would be hard to place those in many of our exhibitions, but in this one, we can make really good use of them."
That said, it's not possible for the exhibition to include every single movement.
"It's a selection, but I think the ones we were able to include really cover a lot of the trajectory for the ways in which artists have moved stylistically over the past couple hundred years," Kurtz Lansing says.
The Flo Gris show also points out that "isms" aren't necessarily cut-and-dried groupings. One work might bear the characteristics of multiple movements.
"I didn't want people to leave the exhibition thinking, 'Okay, I know where all these things fit.' We did want to people to realize that, although (a piece) could fit into one category, it could also fit into another category," Kurtz Lansing says.
The Flo Gris exhibition explains, too, that some categories weren't created by the artists themselves but were defined after the fact by critics who noticed that elements united a grouping of art. Luminism, for instance, was coined almost a century later, when art historians recognized how certain 19th-century American landscape paintings boasted similar qualities of light and mood.
"...isms: Unlocking Art's Mysteries" runs through June 10. Museum hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Sat. and 1-5 p.m. Sun. For more information, call (860) 434-5542 or visit flogris.org. The Florence Griswold Museum is at 96 Lyme St., Old Lyme.
The Florence Griswold Museum's exhibition “...isms: Unlocking Art's Mysteries” provides thoughtful, in-depth explorations of art movements. For those of you who want just enough knowledge to fake your way through a cocktail-party conversation — or who can't retain more than sentence fragment about a given an “ism” — we are here to help. Here are some pruned-down descriptions.
Neoclassicism: Strives to revive the excellence of Greek and Roman art and embody classical ideals.
Historicism: Invokes earlier eras.
Romanticism: Art as a vehicle of self-expression.
Modernism: Abstraction and “art for art's sake.”
Regionalism: Depicts American scenes in American ways.
Luminism: Fascination with the depiction of “American” light.
Japonisme: Inspired by art from Japan.
Impressionism: You know this one, right?