By Emma Roodhouse, Collections and Learning Curator
On 24th November we opened the doors of Christchurch Mansion to visitors coming to see our shiny new exhibition. The hard work in getting it to this pristine state is never fully revealed and, as our Visitor Services staff tell people who ask how The Kiss got into the building, it is by museum magic. Of course, these things don’t happen ‘as if by magic’ and in reality it takes years of planning, many meetings and quite a lot of cake.
The idea for this exhibition came about over three years ago during our year of Constable in 2015. Colchester + Ipswich Museums were part of the Aspire partnership between five national and regional galleries that secured John Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows 1831 painting for the nation. The painting toured between the five venues – National Museum Wales, Salisbury Museum, Christchurch Mansion, National Galleries of Scotland and Tate Britain – between 2014-2018. In Ipswich we had a yearlong celebration about John Constable’s art and the influence his work has had.
The idea that you take one ‘iconic’ artwork or object and build an exhibition around it led to the development of the ‘catalytic exhibition’ for our future programming across Ipswich and Colchester. But what could come next after Constable’s great Salisbury painting? The Tate proposed Auguste Rodin’s The Kiss. The large marble sculpture is definitely an ‘iconic’ artwork and this would be a once in a lifetime chance to have it on display here in Ipswich. The formal loan request was submitted to Tate and we awaited their decision.
Once we had the official confirmation that The Kiss would be coming to Ipswich, we could really start planning. The main themes of the exhibition could start to emerge and as the Curator I could start to research objects that would be included.
Deciding what to put in?
The Circle of the Lustful by William Blake, on loan from Tate
I felt it was quite important to tell the story of The Kiss and explain who the lovers were. What was the inspiration for Rodin? And importantly who was Rodin? I was aware not everyone would know The Kiss or Rodin’s work, so how could we explain that? The Tate had other artworks by Rodin we could borrow that would help show how the artist worked and a timeline would illustrate key points in the artists life.
What else in East Anglia could potentially be borrowed to explore the story of Rodin and The Kiss? I started looking and found work in Norfolk Museums, the Fitzwilliam, the Red House and East Anglian Traditional Art Centre that would all add to the story. More loan letters were written and sent out and we awaited their reply.
Thankfully nearly all the loans that were requested could be part of the exhibition. Once the loans were sorted I could begin looking at the Ipswich collections and how they would relate.
Ipswich does not have any work by Rodin in the collection but it does have an interesting selection of sculpture relating to Suffolk artists and a lot of those focus on the body. It also has significant World collections on show in the Ipswich Museum and many of those depict the human form. Rodin was obsessed with sculpting the body and it seemed only natural that sculpture of the human form was examined across the widest collection. A very long list of possible sculptural objects was produced and then the questions needed to be asked about what condition they were in, how they would be displayed, did we have any information on them and was there enough room in the gallery?
Rodin everywhere I looked
Rodin Museum in Philadelphia and The Kiss on display
At about the same time I was narrowing down object lists and working out how to tell all the relevant stories, I went on a family trip to Philadelphia. The city boasts one of the most important collections of work by Auguste Rodin outside of Paris in the Rodin Museum. Never being able to fully leave the day job behind, I of course met up with the Curator of that collection and got to immerse myself in more about Rodin.
Sculptures from the Metropolitan Museum in New York
Then a trip on the train to New York and the Metropolitan Museum, which had just re-displayed their Rodin collection. It was a good opportunity to meet with Rodin scholars and view how they had displayed his work. It also got me thinking about possibilities for the Wolsey Art Gallery and the all-important colour of the gallery walls.
Rodin exhibition at the British Museum
Back in Blighty, the British Museum had also opened an exhibition on Rodin and Ancient Greece. The project team for the exhibition here in Ipswich went to view the displays and meet with Celeste Farge, one of the Curators of the show. I think that all of us were inspired by her, talking about Rodin’s interest in classical art and the fragment. It helped the team start to visualise how the Ipswich exhibition would work.
Of course after all the research visits, confirmed object list and key stories were worked out, I needed to sit down and write. 100 object labels were required, expanded text on loan artworks, timeline to devise, the lovers story to write up, introduction panel, key quotes and the all important thank you to funders and volunteers.
Then once you have finished all your scribbling it gets circulated to colleagues who proof read and send through useful comments. There are a lot of track changes and different versions that get narrowed down to the FINAL FINAL one for printing.
More tea and cake please for the final push
The original Taddei Tondo at the Royal Academy and the installation of our restored cast
The months of research, planning and writing all finally culminate in the frantic pace of the actual installation. Charlotte Gay’s blog post really gives you a great insight into this process and that it is a team effort. I think my highlights were seeing the sculpture being craned into the building and then watching the sides of the crate come off to reveal the forms of Paolo and Francesca. Then when all the objects were in, labels up and lighting set I could enjoy seeing how people reacted to the sculpture. Then after Kiss and Tell it was straight into installing the next exhibition in Ipswich Art Gallery and dealing with over 100 artworks by women artists. Now both exhibitions are open we are already planning for the next few years. If you have ideas on what you would like to see next, let us know, we’re always interested in hearing what you think.
Museum team with Judith Nesbitt from Tate and Cllr Carole Jones