Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Gardner Museum in Boston - My December Visit

By Charles Kessler

After fifty or so years of occasional visits to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, tolerating, and sometimes even being enthralled by the cluttered and chaotic way the art is installed in this Venetian-style palazzo, the eccentric installations finally lost their charm for me. Having recently read Sebatian Smee's inspiring article about the The Rape of Europa, the Gardner's famous Titian, I was looking forward to revisiting the painting up close and in detail – but I literally couldn't see it because the lighting was so bad and the painting was so dirty. 
Center: Titian, The Rape of Europa, 1559-1562, oil on canvas, 73 x 81 inches. Photography is not allowed in the museum, so I found this image (and the others) on the internet and adjusted it to better reflect what I saw. 
Unfortunately nothing can be done about it because Isabella Stewart Gardner's ninety-year-old will stated that everything has to be left EXACTLY the way she left it, including the lighting, flower arrangements, wallpaper, drapery, window shades — EVERYTHING. And they don't have enough money to properly take care of the art. Keep in mind, this is the institution whose security was so lax they were robbed of thirteen important paintings including three Rembrandts and a Vermeer. 
One of the paintings stolen from the Gardner Museum – Vermeer, The Concert, c. 1658-60, oil on canvas, 28½ x 25 ½ inches.
The loss wasn't just to the Gardner; their lax security resulted in a tragic loss to culture in general. 

As a result of my negative experience at the Gardner, and my positive experience with the new Barnes Museum where the work never looked better and where Matisse's great painting, Joy of Life, is no longer hanging in a stairway, I've come to the realization that owning art should not confer the right to determine how and where that art is displayed in perpetuity. Controlling cultural treasures during ones lifetime is enough – and even then there should be limits. The mere fact of owning an important work of art shouldn't give someone the right to destroy it, for example. 

Of course installations can be saved if they are historically or aesthetically important; or if a work is made for a particular location (as is the case with Sargent's El Jaleo which looks great in its alcove at the Gardner). It just shouldn't be left up to one person to decide FOREVER!
John Singer Sargent, El Jaleo, 1882, oil on canvas, 91 ⅓ x 137 inches.
But I doubt if there's any hope for change given our country's belief that property rights are sacrosanct.