Trying to do Shakespeare justice is hard. Arguably the greatest writer of all time, his work has influenced everything from our modern movies (10 Things I Hate About You, I mean Taming of the Shrew) to the language we speak (he invented something like 1,000 words). This semester, Yale pays homage to the bard through everything from courses to movie screenings. The most recent effort, the Yale Center for British Art’s exhibition “While These Visions Did Appear”: Shakespeare on Canvas, accomplishes this, but not much else.
“Visions” is a collection of art depicting scenes and characters in great Shakespearean romances and comedies. The exhibit, named for the last four lines in his comedy “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” organizes the paintings in chronological order. The paintings chosen were demonstrations of public and artistic reaction to Shakespeare during the 18th century.
The Yale Center for British Art is a beautiful museum with a diverse permanent collection, but this exhibit did not contain the ambiance that honoring Shakespeare requires. The traveling exhibitions typically go in the “long gallery,” a section on the fourth floor not particularly distinguishable from the rest of the paintings in that wing. Viewers may end up walking right through the area without even noticing the exhibit.
After finding the exhibit, things get better. A description plate begins with a quote from Shakespeare and background on how the paintings were acquired. Most of the paintings were purchased by Paul Mellon ’29 and that should have made it feel like more of a collection than it did.
The first painting was a horizontal portrayal of 26 characters from Shakespeare’s plays that seemed like the perfect way to start off “Visions.” Unfortunately, it was cramped above two smaller paintings and right near the corner of the wall. That placed it adjacent to a much larger painting with a different mood and a different subject.
Aside from the limitations of the venue, the exhibit itself seemed to lack thematic organization. Depictions of some plays were put together and some were separated. Information panels were strewn about in groups around groups of paintings, instead of separating them from one another. Further, the size of the paintings were so mismatched that the exhibit felt imbalanced.
While “Visions” faced many pitfalls, it had some high points. “Olivia, Maria and Malvolio from Twelfth Night, Act III, Scene iv” by Jonathan Heinrich Ramberg was a perfect representation of what the exhibit could have been. The painting itself depicted Olivia and Maria playing a prank on Malvolio with nuance and humor. The large painting was accompanied by an explanation of what was happening in the scene. Combined, it was quintessential Shakespeare, with subtle body language and jarring scenery.
Viewers may enjoy the exhibit because the artwork itself is fun and colorful. But those looking for a more adequate tribute to Shakespeare may be more satisfied by the other bard-centric offerings this semester.