YCBA exhibit illustrates comedies

“Olivia, Maria and Malvolio from Twelfth Night, Act III, Scene iv” by Johann Heinrich Ramberg is one of 17 paintings on view at the Yale Center for British Art as part of the Shakespeare at Yale festival.
“Olivia, Maria and Malvolio from Twelfth Night, Act III, Scene iv” by Johann Heinrich Ramberg is one of 17 paintings on view at the Yale Center for British Art as part of the Shakespeare at Yale festival. Photo by YCBA.

In the first of two Shakespeare-inspired exhibitions this spring, the Bard’s comedies take center stage at the Yale Center for British Art.

Amid a flurry of Shakespearean events promoted by the Shakespeare at Yale project, the exhibit “‘While these visions did appear’: Shakespeare On Canvas,” opened Jan. 3 to showcase the playwright’s influence on the art world. Curator Christina Smylitopoulos said that while the British Art Center has displayed Shakespearean art in the past, an exclusive focus on Shakespeare’s comedies distinguishes this exhibit from its predecessors: past exhibitions, she said, have often focused on the more serious histories and tragedies.

Smylitopoulos said she and her co-curator, Eleanor Hughes, chose the title “While these visions did appear” in reference to Puck’s last words to the audience in the comedy “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

“Puck’s final lines from ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream” break the fourth barrier when he speaks directly to the audience,” Smylitopoulos said. The curators’ idea, she said, was that the visions of the artists captured in the works would reach out to the viewers in a similarly direct way.

Due to concerns for the conservation of certain art works, the 17-piece exhibit is relatively small compared to past efforts, Hughes said. Because the show occupies the sunlit fourth-floor gallery, light-sensitive works on paper were deemed too fragile to be shown, and the curators opted for paintings instead.

With its chronological progression, Smylitopoulos said the team intended for the exhibit to highlight the resurgence of interest in Shakespeare’s works in 18th-century England. In the mid-1700s David Garrick, an actor and stage manager of the Drury Lane Theater, helped revive interest in Shakespearean theater, spurring painters to take up the subject as well. Shakespeare’s works inspired a national British school of painting in the 18th century, Smylitopoulos said, connecting connoisseurship and entrepreneurship as collectors used their acquisitions to make high-quality prints that could be collected, displayed or published in new editions of Shakespeare’s works.

English professor Lawrence Manley said that he frequently uses paintings in his “Shakespeare: Comedies and Romances” class as a supplement to show students different interpretations of the Bard’s works.

“Seen in historical perspective, they are a record of how others have seen or responded to Shakespeare, and sometimes they are a guide to how Shakespeare was staged at different times,” Manley said. “And they are also examples of what further creations Shakespeare has inspired.”

David Kastan, one of the initial organizers of Shakespeare at Yale and a professor of English, said that the paintings also provide historical evidence of staging practices.

The exhibit culminates with a painting titled “Procession of Characters from Shakespeare’s Plays,” a work by an unknown artist featuring an array of Shakespearean characters. The piece, Smylitopoulos said, invites the viewer to guess the identity of each character, which struck her as a “fun” way to end an exhibit based on the Bard’s comedies.

The Center will host a second Shakespeare-inspired exhibit this spring, called “Making History: Antiquaries in Britain,” which features royal portraits and war artifacts fictionalized in Shakespeare’s historical works.

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