The director who designs blockbuster exhibitions

Published 21 March 2016

Meet Robert Carsen, the leading opera and theatre director who designed our exhibition Painting the Modern Garden.

  • Staging an exhibition like Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse involves years of careful planning and research by curators, complex negotiations with the lenders of the art works and the vast logistical exercise of transporting those works to the galleries of the Royal Academy. But there’s another role in planning exhibitions that is perhaps less known. The exhibition’s designer plays a key role in shaping how visitors experience the exhibition – everything from the path through the galleries to the way lighting, furniture and wall colour can be used to create different moods.

    Robert Carsen, who designed Painting the Modern Garden, is best known as an acclaimed theatre and opera director. He describes the curator’s role in the exhibition creation process as similar to that of the writer of an opera or a play, and the designer as an artistic director who helps interpret their script.

    “With thematic exhibitions like Modern Garden you’re putting together pictures which were never meant to be seen together. The essential thing, if you’re working on an exhibition as I do, is to understand what the curator wants to say and help bring that to life.”

  • From the stage to the gallery


    Canadian-born Carsen has many years of experience in interpreting the work of writers and composers. He has directed Brecht, Shakespeare and My Fair Lady, worked with Andrew Lloyd Webber, Ian McKellen and Vanessa Redgrave, and staged numerous operas, such as his inventive Falstaff which set Verdi’s comic opera in 1950s England.

    It was Guy Cogeval, now the president of Musée d’Orsay in Paris, who first suggested that Carsen should try his hand at exhibition design. “He had seen some of my stagings and he had this idea that I ought to work in exhibitions.” Nothing came of it at the time, but a number of years later Carsen was asked by the Palace of Versailles and the Grand Palais in Paris to design their exhibition on Marie Antoinette.

    “I didn’t really want to do it, because I didn’t know anything about her… but they persevered and in the end I did design it, and I really loved the experience,” he says.

    Carsen subsequently worked on more exhibitions for the Grand Palais, for the Musée d’Orsay and for the Art Institute of Chicago. His work caught the eye of Royal Academy curator Ann Dumas when she visited Musee d’Orsay’s blockbuster 2012 exhibition Impressionism and Fashion. She was also familiar with his work in opera and theatre.

    “I think he’s a very original and imaginative designer, and because he works a lot in the theatre, he can bring a sense of drama to exhibitions – that’s why I asked him to design our show,” she says.

    Dumas didn’t know it at the time, but Carsen already knew the Royal Academy very well: “I’ve been a Friend of the RA for 20 years, so I go there a lot, which is one of the reasons I was really happy to be asked.”

  • Installation view of 'Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse' at the Royal Academy of Arts

    Installation view of 'Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse' at the Royal Academy of Arts

    Claude Monet, Water Lilies, 1914-15. Oil on canvas, 160.7 x 180.3 cm. Portland Art Museum, Oregon, inv. 59.16. Helen Thurston Ayer Fund. Photo: David Parry.

    Foreground: Barlow Tyrie – Glenham Seat 240 http://teak.com/english/glenham-range.shtml

  • Bringing the outdoors in


    “There are very few paintings in this exhibition which aren’t set outdoors,” Carsen says. “The rooms of the Royal Academy are quite grand and sophisticated, and I wanted to try to make people feel, with just a few details, that they might be outside”.

    This presented a real creative challenge. Unlike the large, hangar-like spaces of some of the galleries he has worked in, the Academy’s beaux-arts galleries – with their wooden floors and ornate gilded ceilings - are less of a blank canvas.

    “With the Musée d’Orsay and Grand Palais, you have an enormous space in which you actually have to be the architect as well, because you end up creating the walls and the spaces and deciding how big each different room is going to be. At the RA, the spaces are more or less all given.”

    One of the first decisions he made was to replace the usual gallery seating with something more suited to the exhibition’s theme.

    “I had the idea to use garden benches very early on. You can’t treat the floors nor the ceiling, so furniture seemed a good way of doing it, and we were very fortunate that Barlow Tyrie – the company that makes this beautiful teak furniture – generously agreed to lend us all of that.”

  • Installation view of the Making a Garden room in 'Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse' at the Royal Academy of Arts

    Installation view of the Making a Garden room in 'Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse' at the Royal Academy of Arts

    Photo: David Parry

  • A garden shed aesthetic


    Placing the exhibition’s archival materials together in one room (pictured above) was Carsen’s idea.

    “I find that the way in which you look at major paintings is completely different to the way you study books and printed material and photographs, so I asked Ann whether we couldn’t put most of this material into one room, which we could then treat in a certain way, rather than zig-zagging back and forth and diluting the experience of these incredible paintings.

    “She agreed with me and we found a way to do that, in the gallery called Making a Garden. It’s like the greenhouse of the whole exhibition.”

    These photographs, letters and horticultural journals are presented in “cold frames” – the glass boxes that are used by gardeners to protect delicate plants from cold weather. In the centrepiece of the room a lush bed of (faux) plants and flowers blooms under a glass case, while rows of small pots containing seedlings fill each of the corner displays – a little “tongue in cheek”, says Carsen.

    Again, the material of the cases was carefully chosen. “I made the choice to do them in tongue and groove” – the style of timber often used for garden sheds. “They’re not sophisticated, sleek, beautifully plastered boxes, but this material which makes you think subliminally of the outdoors – as does the untreated, unpainted teak of the benches and the chairs.”

    Setting the scene with colour


    One of the most complex tasks in designing an exhibition is choosing the paint for the gallery walls.

    “It’s very important to find not just the right colour, but also the right paint. I’ve discovered that better quality paint takes the light in a certain way and absorbs it. We used a particular paint made with natural pigments that I discovered in France, which has a beautiful way of absorbing the light.

    “The most luminous elements are of course the pictures, but the walls have a depth to the field of colour which I think makes it feels natural and not artificial. You shouldn’t really notice it – it should just feel right.”

  • Inspired by gardens


    “When it comes to designing an exhibition, it isn’t just a question of what colour you’re going to paint the walls, it’s how people move within a space, and how they experience the paintings,” Carsen says.

    With this in mind, he took inspiration from the world of garden design – breaking up the Academy’s largest gallery by creating a temporary room within a room. Visitors moving from one space to the next find unexpected vistas opening in front of them.

    “The best garden designs, whatever style they’re in, manage to achieve that element of surprise.”

    Carsen himself experienced moments of discovery and revelation as he worked on the exhibition.

    “Joaquin Sorolla, his works were a complete discovery to me. I love that picture of Tiffany (pictured above) because it’s a psychological study of this person, but in a garden setting.

    “I was amazed at how many of the pictures I really enjoyed as they went up on the walls. I would go back into the rooms and see them again when their neighbours went up, to see if I felt differently. It colours the way you read them.”

    As the installation process enters the final stretch, getting these juxtapositions right becomes key. This involves working closely with both the curators and the art handling team.

    “We worked again and again and again on the layout, but when the pictures went up, we changed our minds about the positions of a couple of them. You have to be completely alert – once some of these pictures are hung, you can’t change their position so you really have to imagine it. We had templates of the pictures but we still found that we had to make one or two adjustments.”

    For someone so at home in the world of the stage, this final act in the exhibition process has a familiar feel.

    “There’s a similar rhythm to theatre, when the opening night is coming and you want to be ready in time – it’s quite exciting. And then you wait just to see what it feels like when there are people in the exhibition, because you have this amazing privilege to be seeing it alone.”

    Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse is in the Main Galleries of Burlington House until 20 April.

    To find out more about the Barlow Tyrie garden furniture used in the exhibition, visit www.teak.com.

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