Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Day 30/60: Boston, Gardner, MFA

At the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, history trumps art. Her home has been preserved intact as it was at the time of her death in 1924 as evidence of the era and of her role as a patron of the arts.

For the art she collected, this is a disaster. The worst problem is that the rooms are so dark; the second problem is that masterpieces are located way above eye level or in a dark corner; masterpieces are mixed with work of little to no interest; no labels whatsoever are permitted because she didn't have labels when it was her home. Scanning the label cards looking for the names of important artists, then scanning her elaborate arrangements to find the one you want gives you a neck ache. They have a couple of important works by Botticelli, a few by Veronese, quite a bit of Sargent, with the most famous being El Jaleo, a very large and important piece which thankfully is very well displayed. No photography allowed. Lots of people took an interest in the furniture, knick-knacks, and faded tapestries.

The house has pleasant Mediterranean styling, arranged around a courtyard covered by a glass roof. The courtyard has fountains and statuary and potted plants; it is roped off.

Architecturally the museum is interesting because their large new wing is yet another project by Renzo Piano, the fave of museum directors across the land. The purpose of it is to broaden the cultural scope of the museum: it has a gourmet restaurant, a first-class performance space, apartments for artists-in-residence, gallery space for those artists. Dan thought it was a great building. I guess that is true, but I'm getting a little jaded on his style, which features a lot of cables and thin steel supports, kind of a stick-like look, like the masts of boats in a harbor, combined with lots of glass. I sort of long for solid wood, or even solid concrete.

Entrance to new wing of Gardner Museum
Dan's photo
The restaurant was excellent. I had the unfortunately named dogfish—a type of fish that Dan and his fishing buddies would throw back when they were salmon fishing. Whatever. It's a very light white fish, and they served it with ratatouille and a bouillabaisse sauce. That is what I call good food. Dan enjoyed his steak salad as well. He drank a Stella and I had a cappuccino.

Then we walked a couple blocks to the MFA Boston. The new American Wing just about knocked me over. They have a lot of work by John Singer Sargent, and it appears that he could do anything he wanted with paint. Though society portraiture was his claim to fame, I'm just crazy about his Impressionist landscapes. That gallery was really a thrill. Dan loved the gallery shared by Winslow Home and Thomas Eakins. There was an amazing and huge history painting by Thomas Sully which has been not been on view for several years, and looks freshly restored. Martin Johnson Heade in bulk, every one perfect. Dan worked for a long time on the huge group of paintings by John Singleton Copley. In a few hours we were exhausted, though we hadn't even finished the American Wing.

Entrance to Museum of Fine Arts
Jan's photo
Paul Revere by John Singleton Copley, 1768
Dan's photo
Watson and the Shark by John Singleton Copley, 1778
Dan's photo
Timothy Matlock by Charles Wilson Peale, 1790
Dan's photo
The Fog Warning by Winslow Homer, 1885
Dan's photo
Salem Harbor by Fitz Henry Lane, 1853
Dan's photo
The Tea by Mary Cassatt, 1880
Dan's photo
Mrs. Frank Millet by John Singer Sargent, 1885-86
Dan's photo
The Bone Player by William Sidney Mount, 1856
Dan's photo

I am rather keen on starting a museum visit with an infusion of caffeine and sugar. I had a latte and a cinnamon roll at the cafe in the lovely, soaring atrium of the new wing. I took the opportunity to study the architecture. The building was designed by Foster and Partners, one of a half-dozen star architects on the contemporary scene. You may recall that Foster did the Millennium Bridge, the courtyard of the British Museum, and a building called The Gherkin in London, and in Berlin, a dome for the Reichstag (parliament building); in Washington, DC, a glass cover for the huge courtyard of the National Museum of American Art. We are especially interested in him because he is also the designer of the new Apple headquarters which is planned for a site a few blocks from our home.

My first reaction to this building was that it was kind of flat, almost disappearing, unimposing. The exterior is clad in a similar stone to the old building and continues some of its basic shapes in a more elemental fashion. But then I noticed that bands of windows allow glimpses of neoclassical sculptures from outside; very intriguing. In the interior, the 3-story atrium creates a transition between the old and new parts of the museum. The roof is an ingenious sky-light that delivers clear, even light. I came to have a lot of respect for the way the building creates a good space without calling attention to itself.

For me, John Singer Sargent is the star of the MFA. This time I discovered a huge mural project he had done for the museum. How I had missed this on previous visits to the museum I can't imagine. His versatility is very impressive, but I still like the intimate, Impressionist scenes, like an artist at work in his one-room flat.

I started with early 20th c. American art: Sloan, Hopper, O'Keeffe, Benton, Curry. Quite a concentration of Arthur Dove. I zipped through the European section; Dan noticed some things I missed. I got a picture of a swell Pannini, though; all Pannini is swell.

We had a perfunctory lunch in their undistinguished cafeteria; both of us had the salad bar. Quick and cheap. Then we separated again, each of us hunting for art photos for our collection. We intersected now and then. We both made a run through Contemporary Art.

At 3:00 I stopped for another latte: $4.25 in a different lobby bar. It was in another atrium, a long, long, narrow atrium, very high with a barrel vault glass roof the entire length. That Foster is subtle.

The latte enabled me to enjoy the last hour of the hunt. The day before I didn't stop till I was half-dead, and the snack bar had just closed, making the last hour rather tough.

Today I spent the last hour back in the American wing. That was the most satisfying part of the museum to me. I rephotographed many of my favorite things, just in case.

The Transit line was up and running and got us back to Aelwife station for $2.50, as compared to $22 for a cab yesterday; plus it was much safer, though not at all scenic, of course.

Then Dan had a brilliant idea. "Let's walk over to Summer Shack. We can get the shuttle to pick us up there after dinner." I had exactly the same dinner as two nights before: meatloaf without gravy, mashed potatoes, green salad, Diet Coke; too good. Dan tried the swordfish; the quality of fish was better but he objected to serving the fish on top of the mashed potatoes.

The hotel shuttle picked us up on its 7 p.m. run to the station. When we got in Dan uploaded his photos, but I was a goner. Collecting art photos is an exhausting hobby.

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