Exploring the concept of a vernissage as an artist’s right of passage
Before the 1880s, the concept of art for public viewing was uncommon. Artists typically painted for the rich, and rarely exhibited their work in public. In contrast, art in the 1960s was all about consumerism, showing off to the public and making a statement. Artists threw elaborate parties and viewed art as a reason to gather and a product to sell.
It was at this time that the term ‘vernissage’ became popular, despite having been around since the 1880s. The origin of the word is French and translates directly to ‘varnishing.’ It was initially a reference to the day before an exhibition opened, when artists were allowed to touch up and varnish their work. Nowadays, vernissages mark the opening of an exhibition and invite the public to celebrate the occasion with the artist(s) and people involved.
With a background in anthropology and a profound interest in the arts, I have come to interpret the concept of a vernissage as a right of passage for artists. The way I see it, holding a vernissage is a way to legitimize one’s work by exposing the art in question to an audience, possibly for the first time. When a vernissage takes place, the artist’s work is subject to critique by all those who visit, peers and professionals alike. Being an artist isn’t just about creating work; it’s about sharing that work with others, capturing their attention and making them think. A vernissage is a celebration of an artwork’s first step into the world.
Imagine the life of a painting, for example. It is created, maybe quickly, or maybe over a long period of time. Eventually it is finished and the artist may come back some time later for touch ups, but meanwhile it sits in a studio. Some paintings have the fortune of being commissioned and travel directly to a new home. But thinking back to those pieces that wait in studio; what becomes of them?
Most artists dream of a vernissage to show off their work. When the time for a vernissage comes, an exhibition is curated, or organized, in a way that forms a relationship between the blank gallery space and the artwork itself. The positioning of the artwork in a gallery is key. There is a reason behind every piece’s placement. It could have been in any other spot, but it’s there. Why is it there?
At a recent art-education lecture, Mélanie Deveault, who designed the education program at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, spoke about her role in the curation of some exhibitions, namely the Be/Love installation during the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition in 2016. For Be/Love, Deveault was tasked with portraying the museum as a safe space against homophobia and transphobia. She said the paintings selected for the installation were truly random. Deveault and her team asked members of LGBTQ+ organizations in Montreal to create poetic associations with random artworks. The written work associated with the paintings in the Be/Love installation accompanied the main exhibition, Focus: Perfection – Robert Mapplethorpe. Their physical layout proved to alter the interpretative perspective of the artwork. All in all, the placement of artwork is suggestive. I think it is important to remember that vernissages and exhibitions are carefully curated to inspire an aesthetic response from the viewer.
Two weeks ago I wrote about Queer & Peace at Dawson College, organised by the Dawson Peace Centre. The Peace Center has held some pretty amazing vernissages prior to Queer & Peace, which featured performances by drag artists. In the fall of 2016 the Peace Center organised a traditional pow-wow for the opening ceremony of Sken:nen. Vernissages are more than art viewing, sometimes they can be full on parties, celebrating the work of the exhibiting artist or artists.
To get a better idea of the multifaceted concept of a vernissage, I decided to reach out to artists whose work I’ve previously written about in The Concordian. I also spoke with a non-BFA student who had her work shown in a vernissage.
Laurence Pilon, a recent BFA graduate and practising artist, recounted her vernissage experiences, both as a student and as a practising artist. “I remember being encouraged by professors to go to a lot of vernissages or openings,” she said. “Most of the time when I did so, I felt inadequate, out of place. I think that feeling is just normal, and it slowly goes away as you get to meet more people.To me, art students who attend vernissages demonstrate a clear sign of commitment and seriousness”.
Pilon added that she believes vernissages are not just for those with a background in the arts. “Vernissages are events that exist to facilitate conversations around the work that is presented,” she said. “During these events, visitors usually have the opportunity to meet with the artist or artists and the curator, ask questions and/or communicate their appreciation in-person. Although, it is true that for artists, curators, collectors and other professionals of the milieu, these receptions are a way to support their peers and to express their engagement into the art community.”
Julia Woldmo, a current painting and drawing student at Concordia, added that vernissages as semi-private viewings can be elitist if the only people invited are friends of the artist or part of the “art world.” Vernissages should be where “art people” and the public can congregate to view, celebrate and discuss the works first-hand, she said. “They’re like parties, a place to build buzz about the show,” Woldmo added, “It’s like how people gather with friends to celebrate birthdays … people gather to celebrate the birth of a body of work that comes together as a show. It’s all very exciting and deserves to be celebrated, observed, and critiqued.”
When I asked a former photography student, who requested to remain anonymous, about her graduate group exhibition and associated vernissage, she said the experience was both exciting and stressful. “Exciting in the sense that it was my first time showcasing my work to the public, and I wanted to know others’ opinions,” she said. “The stressful part of my exhibition was the concept of showcasing them. […] I wanted to show as much of my work as possible, but at the end of the day, I had to carefully curate the images I wanted to use and be happy with the set-up.”
The way she sees it, a vernissage is a “gathering of people in the community with the purpose of looking at artwork together to understand and celebrate artist’s work, while having free wine and cheese!”
A few upcoming vernissages taking place over the next few weeks:
- Fine Arts Faculty Biennial 13 at Warren G Flowers Gallery on Feb. 15 at 5:30 p.m.
- The Dollhouse at the End of the World at Ymuno Exhibitions on Feb. 17 at 4 p.m.
- Joueurs: Serge Murphy and Jean-Francois Lauda at the Fondation Guido Molinari on Feb. 22 at 5 p.m.
- The Opening Act: A Survey of Jan Xylander Exhibition Posters at Atelier Circulaire on Feb. 22 at 5:30 p.m.
Graphic by Alexa Hawksworth