Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The New Harvard Museums – Day 2

By Charles Kessler

Happily, I went back to the Harvard Art Museums for a second day, and I was able to put aside my disappointment as described in my earlier post. So now the good things about The Harvard Art Museums.

They have enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and helpful guards – among the best I've ever encountered.
Jamu White, a guard at the Harvard Museums and an Art History graduate student.
Most of the inner exhibition galleries (i.e., the ones away from the atrium) are intimate, quiet, well-lit, and harmoniously proportioned.
19th–20th Century European Art, The Maurice Wertheim Collection. On the right is a two-sided 1901 painting by Picasso, and behind it (partly obstructed in this photo) is a famous Van Gogh, Self Portrait Dedicated to Paul Gauguin, 1888.
The Harvard curators did a remarkably good job of arranging the art in intelligible and often enlightening ways. Their achievement is all the more impressive because many of their donors contributed work with the stipulation that it be shown together in one room (the Maurice Wertheim Collection shown above, for example).

Which brings me to Harvard's collection – the best thing about the museum, of course. They have more art than Yale; in fact Harvard's collection is the sixth largest in the United States. (All the more frustrating that only a small percentage of it can be on display – let it go, Kessler.) And the collection isn't as encyclopedic as Yale's (for example, there is no pre-Columbian or African art). But they really do have a lot of great art.

Among the highlights currently on view are:

Three very early Picassos painted in 1901, when he was only nineteen years old. Harvard has an astounding 257 works by Picasso, including eleven major paintings.
Left: Pablo Picasso, Woman with a Chigon, 1901, oil on canvas, 27 x 18 ¾ inches unframed. This painting is on the other side of the free-standing painting in the Maurice Werthein Collection reproduced above. Right: Pablo Picasso, Mother and Child, 1901, oil on canvas, 44 ⅛ x 38 ⅜ inches.
A famous Van Gogh (which Gauguin, annoyed with Van Gogh, sold for three hundred francs):
Vincent van Gogh, Self Portrait Dedicated to Paul Gauguin, 1888, oil on canvas, 24 ¾ x 19 ¾ inches (Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Bequest from the Collection of Maurice Wertheim, Class of 1906).
A classic Mondrian – manifestly hand-made, imperfect, and very human (a characteristic of Mondrian's art that I wrote about here).  Note that none of the lines or rectangles in this painting extend across the entire canvas; nothing is tied down. The result is a relatively animated composition, unusual for Mondrian during this period, with lines and rectangles subtly shifting in and out of space.
Left: Piet Mondrian, Composition with Blue, Black, Yellow, and Red, 1922, oil on canvas, 16 ⅛ x 14 9/16 x 9/16 inches. Right: close up detail of the upper right. 
A late Cezanne, one of six Cezanne paintings in the collection. This work is breathtaking in its economy of means – just a few brushstrokes define the leaves and branches, and create light and air. And Cezanne here uses the unpainted canvas to create light the way paper is used in a watercolor.
Left: Paul Cezanne, Study of Trees, c. 1904, oil on canvas, 24 ½ x 18 ½ inches. Right: close up detail of the right side. 
A large number of Old Master paintings, of course, including this little beauty, reminiscent of the famous Tempest by Giorgione, Titian's teacher:
Attributed to Titian, An Idyll: A Mother and a Halberdier in a Wooded Landscape, c. 1505-10, oil on panel, 18 x 17 ⅜ inches. 
I haven't been able to discover why they felt it necessary to hedge on the attribution to Titian. The provenance goes back to 1848, and the work has been studied extensively. Do they think it might be a Giorgione? There's nothing about this on the painting's page on the Harvard website.

Some of the oldest and best-preserved Chinese bronzes I've ever seen:
From the left: Wine Vessel in the form of a Water Buffalo, 14 - 11th C. BCE; Guang Wine Vessel, 13th C. BCE; Yu Wine Vessel in Form of Two Owls, 14th - 11th C. BCE. (They're in a glass case; sorry for the reflections.)
Several large Max Beckmann paintings, including this striking self-portrait, masterful in its simplicity:
Max Beckmann, Self-Portrait in a Tuxedo, 1927, oil on canvas, 55 x 37 ½ inches. 
I am particularly taken with how powerfully expressive the hands are.

And finally, they have a surprisingly strong collection of contemporary and post WW II art, including major paintings by Clyfford Still, Frank Stella, Jackson Pollock, and a classic Joan Snyder from 1970:
Joan Snyder, Summer Orange, 1970, oil, acrylic, spray enamel, and graphite on canvas, 42 x 96 inches.
This work is from Snyder's best and most influential period, yet it is very difficult to see art from this period, even in reproduction.

And Mark Rothko’s Harvard Murals – a topic for a later post.


Kyle Gallup said...

Charles, why is it difficult to see art from this period?Also, interesting to read your comments on the Mondrian painting you've posted. I had an art history teacher in school that emphasized Mondrian's process. She talked about how 'poor Mondrian' sat in his studio looking at his paintings for hours, days, moving colored tape around the rectangle--looking for the exact, perfect placement...you've pick up on this mobile aspect in your comment here.

Charles Kessler said...

I assume you're referring to the difficulty of seeing Joan Snyder paints of that era — it's inexplicable. I once needed an image for a post I was writing and not only could I not find anything on line, but I contacted her dealer who was unable to help.

Yes, Mondrian's paintings of that period look very worked, and that's what makes them so human for me.

Kyle Gallup said...

I see what you're saying--I thought there was something about Joan Snyder's work it's--self that gave you trouble. Those are such beautiful pictures that I was wondering what you meant. Please excuse me, it was my misunderstanding.

Mondrian's work from that period doesn't look over worked to my eye but I see what you're saying. I think what Susan Denker, my teacher, was pointing out was Mondrian's working methods and that he was trying to get the pictures exactly as he wanted them--and that took time and struggle...Thank you very much for your post on the Harvard Museum. Much to look at and think about.