Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for the Marcel Duchamp (remember the urinal?) style of making art out of everyday objects. And the growing capacity of the digital medium to create stunning images mystifies me more and more everyday. But there’s something about scanning (and re-scanning) your eyes over an 18th century work of art that is absolutely refreshing. “Art in Focus: William III,” a new display at the Yale Center for British Art, does just that.
The exhibit is the fifth installment in the annual “Art in Focus” series, a student-curated exhibition run through the center’s Student Guide Program. This particular edition examines an 18th century lead sculpture of King William III, which, measuring in at almost six feet tall, towers over the spectator from its raised plinth.
Situated directly beneath a glass window and set in the middle of a clean and open bay, the statue commands attention, and even fright. Most of its power comes from the subject’s posture, which is actually rather difficult to physically duplicate. Indeed, as the student guides are quick to point out, the statue is almost “thematized” by this unnaturalness of pose.
But the peculiarity of this single point is more emblematic of the entire exhibition: “William III” is essentially an artistic research paper.
The actual artist behind the stately sculpture is unknown, though the list of possible candidates has been narrowed down to either John Nost the Elder, a Dutch artist, or the British artist John Cheer. In order to answer the question surrounding the statue’s maker, the student curators have assembled a range of other paintings and sculptures that seek to offer a backdrop against which to contextualize the statue’s origins. Although the exhibition ultimately fails to solve the mystery of the sculpture’s creator (not that it ever claims to), by the end of the visit, the spectator will hardly care.
The other pieces in the show are stimulating in their own right. The busts lining the wall directly behind the titular statue are particularly impressive — try staring into the eyes of “Hercules” for longer than twenty seconds without getting chills. And the two full-length portraits on either side of William literally shimmer in the sunlight from above, imbuing their kingly subjects with an ethereal and divine complexion. But while this collection is meant to place the statue in an artistic framework, the bay to the left (the second half of the exhibit) contains artwork that seeks to establish the sculpture’s political, social and cultural background.
A painting of the royal court’s birds (peacocks, canaries, parrots, etc.), among other pieces, is coupled with coins from the era (bearing William’s likeness) to offer museum patrons a chance to look at the society that produced the statue at the center of the exhibition. And if their significance wasn’t already clear enough, each item is accompanied by a small plaque written by the student curators that offers further explanation.
That being said, the art exhibit is perhaps too small to draw many students out of their dorms. The topic does seem to have much more to offer, but only two small bays out of the entire museum are dedicated to “William III.” But the lack of volume does not mean the show is dull. Sure, it may not be a urinal, or even a shovel hanging from the ceiling, but the combination of busts of legendary men and tapestry-like paintings provide a concise and insightful look at an oft-forgotten part of Yale’s collections.