The Institut Tessin’s collection was founded in 1933 on the initiative of art historian and cultural council at the Swedish Embassy in Paris, Gunnar W. Lundberg (1903—1986), and was donated to the Swedish State in 1971. Today the collection is managed by Nationalmuseum, and part of it is on permanent display at the Institut Suédois in Paris. It includes, among other things, Alexander Roslin’s iconic paintings. Works by Adolf Ulrik Wertmüller and Louis-Jean Desprez are displayed in the Queen Kristina Room of the Institut Tessin. The Tessin collection consists of about 500 paintings, 5,000 works on paper, sculptures, medals and old books.
Large museum collections, magazines and exhibition rooms as motifs have inspired artists over the centuries. The very first paintings on the theme portrayed collections and individual collectors. One of the most famous was Hieronymus Francken II (1578—1623), who captured the mood of cabinets of curiosities on canvas. He depicted the art on the walls and tables with exotic objects, showing how the proud owner conversed with his impressed guests.
In the early 1900s, artists began to analyse collections and develop philosophical and even critical works. Marcel Duchamp created miniature collections, Boîte-en-valise (1935—1941), which contained versions of his own and his colleagues’ works. The whole collection could be packed in a bag. Marcel Broodthaers created a multidimensional and performative installation Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles [Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles] which was first exhibited in 1969. The fictional museum commented on the museums’ ways of collecting, classifying various objects, writing labels and press releases…That is, on the language of the museums.
This language has become a source of inspiration for artists such as Mark Dion, who is known for his ‘archaeological’ finds in places such as Venice and London. His scientific discoveries are exhibited as valuable objects in expensive booths… but what we are looking at are pieces of plastic, cigarette butts and debris. Dion sees museums as time capsules. Fred Wilson, meanwhile, shows what museums do not usually display — shackles from the slave era together with silver objects, a pillory along with expensive period furniture. Invisible and embarrassing stories are made visible.
In addition, museum language can be approached through roles, constructions and hierarchies. Andrea Fraser’s Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk (1989), which questions and even parodies the art museums’ valuation system, is a good example of this. Fraser has taken the role of the museum guide and allows visitors to follow her tours that contain unexpected choices.
How to look at the art collection depends on one’s point of view, which Hans Haacke and Joseph Kosuth have shown in their conceptual and razor-sharp analyses. Haacke examined the Victoria & Albert Museum’s collection in his exhibition Give and Take (2001) and discussed the collection’s colonial history. Kosuth, in turn, created the installation The Play of the Unmentionable (1990) at the Brooklyn Museum in New York. He challenged our conventions by showing quotes and works in thought-provoking, even provocative combinations.
Peter Johansson’s installation The Labyrinth (2019) collects a lot of all this: what expectations do we have when we visit a collection? What do we see? How do we behave? And what happens when traditional rules no longer apply? He creates new conditions for old rituals, gives us an opportunity to see the world with new eyes.
The dialogue with our cultural heritage and our art collections is necessary in order to learn from what has been and was created before, but which still has relevance.
Susanna Pettersson
Director General at Nationalmuseum & Associate Professor in Museology