- Purchase/rental options available:
Eighteenth-Century Studies 38.3 (2005) 547-552
[Access article in PDF]
Dresden Meets the Delta
Michael E. Yonan
Readers familiar with the Magnolia State know, of course, that Jackson is not technically part of the Mississippi Delta. That area corresponds with the state's northwest central region, flanking its titular waterway, and is home to both rich soil and a rich musical legacy, the legendary Delta Blues. In invoking the Delta, furthermore, my title does not intend to present Mississippi as somehow unsophisticated or inelegant in comparison to an old European city. Jackson is home to a respectable tradition of art exhibition as well as unique forms of local cultural expression, much of which relies on its former antebellum glory. Yet my title insists upon contrast because it is hard to escape the feeling that the recent "Glory of Baroque Dresden" exhibition at the Mississippi Arts Pavilion in Jackson represented a clash of radically dissimilar cultures and an interface of mutual European-American projections.
This show, the fourth in a series sponsored by the Mississippi Commission for International Cultural Exchange (MCICE) brought to Jackson a prodigious array of art objects from the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden, and sought to present an overview of collecting in that city during the reigns of its most prominent eighteenth-century monarchs: Elector Augustus II, known as "The Strong" (1694–1733), and his son Elector Augustus III (1733–1763), both of whom also ruled as Kings of Poland. (The MCICE's previous shows were entitled "The Palaces of St Petersburg: Russian Imperial Style," 1996; "The Splendors of Versailles," 1998; and "The Majesty of Spain: Royal Collections from the Museo del Prado and the Patrimonio Nacional," 2001. All were critical and financial successes. Art organizations in the Netherlands, Austria, and Italy have approached the MCICE to discuss possible future shows based on art from their national collections.) The volume of objects on view in Jackson was indeed dazzling, ranging from old master paintings to armor, military equipment, guns, porcelain, coins, [End Page 547] jewels, sculpture, and drawings, as well as rooms built to reconstruct several of Dresden's most impressive palatial spaces. Viewers were able to assess this city as a European cultural capital, as home to a vibrant art tradition, and perhaps additionally to reposition it within European art history more broadly. While the exhibition's framework and mode of presentation had their basis in the eighteenth century, the show revealed in a fascinating manner current assumptions about marketing court art to modern museum-going audiences. If the results were somehow less than totally adequate, the exhibition still said much about the state of German-American cultural relations and the potential role of art in economic exchange.
"The Glory of Baroque Dresden" is not the first Dresden-themed art show held in the United States. Veteran museumgoers may remember the exhibition "The Splendor of Dresden" that traveled to Washington, New York, and San Francisco in the late 1970s, and in 1999 the Columbus Museum of Art sponsored an exhibition devoted exclusively to paintings entitled "Dresden in the Age of Splendor and Enlightenment." These titles alone conjure an image of Dresden as a place of magnificence, artistic overabundance, and cultural sophistication, perceptions presumably backed up by the art presented. That they also are repetitive and superficial indicates a desire to change what may be the city's more commonplace, negative connotation: the memory of its bombing during a series of allied air attacks in February 1945, the widespread damage from which reduced Dresden essentially to rubble. In addition to memory itself, books like Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five further support the idea of Dresden as a modern ruin, with the result that American audiences find it hard to replace that image with one of a splendid baroque capital. Likewise, the notion that the bombings destroyed Dresden completely lends its art a talismanic aura, as if its very survival confirms the miraculous. Yet art does survive in Dresden, and in such great...