Narrative, Figurative, Magical and Real

Curator Jill Deupi shares her thoughts about Fairfield University’s Bellarmine Museum of Art and its upcoming exhibition of the work of Colleen Browning.

By Sarah Z. Sleeper

Colleen Browning

Fairfield University’s Bellarmine Museum of Art is a striking space with a flowing design and glowing light. It’s rich with diverse, engaging art, selected with care by Jill Deupi, founding director and chief curator. Deupi took a few moments to talk about the upcoming exhibition of the work of mid-twentieth-century artist Colleen Browning, and how her work fits with the other works in the museum – pieces that range from Celtic to medieval, to late antique, early Christian and baroque.

“Because our permanent collection is relatively small, we focus on geographic and temporal breadth so that our visitors can be exposed to a rich variety of cultures and time periods,” Deupi said. “We look for art that is aesthetically compelling and intellectually engaging. This does not mean that something needs to be ‘beautiful,’ per se. Rather it must be intelligently conceived and artfully rendered.”

A stroll through the museum offers a stimulating, inspiring way to spend any afternoon. And Mason’s Road is privileged to be able to feature images of some of the museum’s pieces, and to share Deupi’s comments about the artist, the art and the museum’s mission.

Q: Why did you select Colleen Browning’s art for the exhibition? What is it about the artist or the art that made you feel it was a good fit for the Bellarmine?

A: Colleen Browning’s life and work were first brought to my attention several years ago by my colleague, Philip Eliasoph, who is a professor of art history at Fairfield University. Philip was, at that time, hard at work on a monograph devoted to Browning; a fine book, Colleen Browning: The Enchantment of Realism, which was published by Hudson Hills in 2011. My conversations with him left no doubt in my mind about her importance in the history of mid-twentieth-century American art, so when the opportunity to mount a show of her work (in collaboration with the University’s Thomas J. Walsh Gallery, which is showcasing her paintings created after 1960) emerged, we jumped on it.

I think Browning is such a good fit for the Bellarmine because her work is both figurative and rich in narrative content. This allows for interesting parallels—in terms of both form and content —between some of her pieces and the works displayed permanently in our galleries. A good example is Browning’s ‘Self-Portrait (undated but circa 1950/60) and our sixteenth-century ‘Portrait of a Lady’ by an anonymous Italian painter from the Fontainebleau School (Samuel H. Kress Collection via the Discovery Museum, Bridgeport). Both are closely cropped images of a woman, whose face (and, in the case of the Kress painting, neck and shoulders) occupy the entire pictorial field. There are many fascinating points of confluence—and divergence—between the works, which are separated by four entire centuries. I encourage visitors to come in and see them for themselves, or, at a minimum, to take a few moments to study the images reproduced here, for they afford us remarkable portals onto the multi-faceted histories of individuals, their societies, and humanity at large.

Q: The Bellarmine features art objects from many periods of time and many places. Do art museums offer a particular opportunity for people to learn about and appreciate history in a unique way? Could you say a little about why the Bellarmine has so many time periods and cultures represented?

A: Because our permanent collection is relatively small, we focus on geographic and temporal breadth so that our visitors can be exposed to a rich variety of cultures and time periods. Thus we have ancient Chinese funerary sculpture from the Han and Tang Dynasties cheek-by-jowl with pre-Columbian figures, which in turn are installed near our Kress paintings from the Italian Renaissance. To my mind, this type of comparative installation facilities more nuanced understandings of cultural differences, which, I am convinced, makes us more sensitive to and appreciative of cultures other than our own, making us more humane and civilized along the way. We are fortunate in this regard to enjoy a robust collections sharing arrangement with the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Cloisters, which currently have twenty objects on loan with us. These objects range from Celtic to medieval, from late antique and early Christian to baroque and help to ‘fill in the gaps’ in our permanent collection.

Q: What are your criteria for selecting artists to feature? Do you have a particular mix of work that you are looking for? Does it change seasonally or based on what’s going on in the world?

A: We look for art that is aesthetically compelling and intellectually engaging. This does not mean that something needs to be “beautiful,” per se. Rather it must be intelligently conceived and artfully rendered; that is to say, there must be evidence of skilled craftsmanship as well as an invocation of one’s higher powers of thinking. We don’t usually pursue a particular agenda in seeking out or selecting works, though of course we bear in mind the wider curricular movements here on campus; including the designated areas of focus (which for this year and next is Cities). Having been in the field for some time now, my colleagues and I have a very intuitive sense about what will work well in our galleries and with our broad array of constituencies: work that we not only think is worth showing but also believe to be useful as a tool for teaching, learning, and—most importantly—engaging. This means that it will delight – and maybe challenge – the eye of the beholder while also providing a nice range of access points for visitors of all ages and stages as well as our faculty colleagues from across the disciplines. We were founded, after all, as a laboratory for learning: a charge that we take very seriously.

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