Art and the Construction of History
JOHN R. STOMBERG, Virginia Rice Kelsey 1961s Director
Hood Quarterly, winter 2023
There's an old adage in journalism—tongue and cheek for sure—that says it doesn't matter whether a story is completely true as long as it's good. This approach has long informed image-makers of all stripes, as well. Sculptors imagining the particular physiques of the gods, mosaicists telling of great battles long past, painters reimagining the visages of renowned individuals and groups, and then, much later, photographers selecting the best compositions to frame an event—all used or use creative license to tell their stories effectively.
This year the Hood Museum will feature several shows exploring the many, many ways that art has given history its imagery. In creating these images, artists have in fact shaped the popular understanding of countless past events, places, and people. Even when written evidence contradicts their versions of stories, the power of their images can persist. Our goal in presenting this series of exhibitions is primarily to deconstruct these visual histories and reconstruct—to the extent possible—the original people, places, and events based on current research.
We begin with a study for perhaps the most iconic image in American art—Emanuel Leutze's Washington Crossing the Delaware. This single work of art perfectly sets the stage for the whole series of exhibitions as it is literally a painting under construction. We can see the artist working out how to tell the story, where to place the figures, and how they will relate to their surroundings. It hardly matters anymore that this scene could not have appeared this way. It is now the "official" version, and we accept Leutze's imagination as historical representation.
That's the power of art.
While we all have a vague understanding that art is a construct, we still feel compelled to believe in brilliantly composed images. We must grapple with this truly extraordinary phenomenon if we are to understand the role that images play in our society. From carefully imagined history paintings to a wide variety of visual systems of knowledge-sharing, art appears in myriad societies as the legacy of the past. Even when patently false—as in propaganda, for example—our inherited visual cultures can teach us much about the past (and the present). With this series of exhibitions, we hope to move toward richer, more nuanced understandings of the complicated worlds in which our predecessors lived and in which we continue to exist today.