Campus & Community

Sackler hosts ‘Re-View’ exhibition

6 min read

Treasures from the Harvard Art Museum together for first time

In June, with an ambitious renovation in mind, Harvard closed the doors of 32 Quincy St., a stately fixture on campus since 1927.

But by 2013, the University’s three art museums — now collectively known as the Harvard Art Museum — will take up residence there in one major facility.

The move will integrate disparate collections from the Arthur M. Sackler, Fogg, and Busch-Reisinger museums. It will also ease conservation efforts, underscore a University-wide education mission in visual culture, and improve for viewers and scholars alike the accessibility of Harvard’s more than 260,000 works of art.

In the meantime, a representative fraction of the collections will be available to the University community and the wider public, said Thomas W. Lentz, the Harvard Art Museum’s Elizabeth and John Moors Cabot director. “We very much wanted to counter the notion that we were going to drop off the radar screen for five years.”

Ergo: “Re-View,” a distillation of the University’s diverse art collections that has been two years in the planning. The long-term exhibit opens this Saturday (Sept. 13) at the Sackler on Broadway, the one University art museum unaffected by a renovation Lentz called “very complex [and] very expensive.”

“Re-View” is also a kind of preview, he said. It will showcase the sort of visual and intellectual synergies that a combined collection will inspire at the new Quincy Street space.

“This exhibit represents a first step towards thinking about how the three collections can be in greater dialogue,” said Lentz. “How they can begin to talk more effectively and more imaginatively with one another.”

Curators from all three museums designed the first-time combinational show as a compact representation of the familiar, the pedagogically rich, and the previously unseen.

The ground-floor gallery will show European and American art since 1900. Visitors can enjoy once again the eccentric cheer of Emil Nolde’s “The Mulatto” (1913) and the stylish calm of Max Beckmann’s “Self-Portrait in Tuxedo” (1927).

The second-floor galleries allow a glimpse of the Sackler’s treasures of Asian and Islamic art, from 5000 B.C.E. to the present.

A seated Buddha from eighth century China gazes back at you, his rounded chest ready to heave out a breath held for more than a thousand years. On a nearby slip-painted Meiping bottle, dark butterflies hover, ready to alight on a peony that flowered in the 13th century.

But the visual centerpiece of the second-floor display is a child-size horse of lead-glazed earthenware. Its erect knotted tail, arched neck, and open-mouthed whinny makes it as fierce as the real thing was in second century China.

“Standing Saddled Horse with Roman-style Bridal Ornaments” is also a good example of how “Re-View” so succinctly puts the art on display into context, making education — if not enlightenment — inevitable. Such large Arabian horses, the caption points out, were favored over native Mongolian ponies — and the Roman bridal gear was a sign of early Western influence on China via the Silk Road.

On the fourth floor, a series of galleries invites the viewer into the resonant presence of painting, sculpture, and objects from mainly Western traditions, starting with antiquity through the 19th century.

With so much art going into relatively little space — “We erred on the side of including more,” said Lentz — each gallery is a puzzle palace of artful adjacencies.

Some of the juxtapositions are surprises to curator and viewer alike, said Harvard senior lecturer on history Ivan Gaskell, the Margaret S. Winthrop Curator in the Painting, Sculpture, and Decorative Arts. Others are intentional, he said.

In one gallery, Gaskell arranged a 1916 bronze model of Daniel Chester French’s Lincoln Memorial just opposite a bust of Longfellow by Edmonia Lewis. She’s the 19th century black and Native American sculptress whose Boston patrons were once the cream of the abolitionist movement.

In the fourth-floor space, viewers can also see the wild Nemean lion of classical lore be strangled twice by Hercules: once on a ceramic Greek amphora from around 500 B.C.E. (which also illustrates the black-figured, incised-detail silhouette technique of that era) and a second time just steps away, in an energetic oil-on-panel of the same scene, painted around 1639 by Peter Paul Reubens.

In the next of seven bright rooms of art, the viewer gets to see Hercules in a less heroic guise — dressed in a woman’s bonnet and jewelry, in a vividly detailed painting done by Lucas Cranch around 1535. (The bearded strongman, as punishment for killing a friend, had to dress and work as a woman for three years.)

The artful juxtapositions of “Re-View” are technical too. In one fourth-floor alcove, viewers can see side-by-side examples of watercolors rendered over graphite on white woven paper. Winslow Homer’s 1881 “Fisher Folk in Dory” looks tight and detailed next to John Singer Sargent’s soft-edged and light-filled “Artist in the Simplon” from 1910-11.

Gaskell called the three-museum show “an exercise in how all the collections cohere.”

“Re-View” is also a celebration of works that for years have been favorites at the Fogg and elsewhere.

Visitors can savor anew Sarah Miriam Peale’s “Still Life with Watermelon” (1822); gaze at Winslow Homer’s “Pitching Quoits” (1865); marvel at the hulking pastel potency of Franz Marc’s “Grazing Horses IV” (1911); feel the pre-Impressionist calm of Jean Frédéric Bazille’s “Summer Scene” (1869); and study the weight of sadness in Rembrandt van Rijn’s “Bust of an Old Man” (1672).

In the fourth floor’s last gallery is preserved most of the Fogg’s Maurice Wertheim Collection. It’s a familiar and still stunning brief tour through the brushstroke worlds of Monet, Degas, Dufy, Rousseau, Manet, Renoir, Picasso, Gauguin, Matisse, and Cézanne.

Only here can you see (and nearly hear) the long-gone clop of a carriage horse on the Nice boardwalk in Henri de Toulouse Lautrec’s “The Black Countess” (1881), a work of astonishing energy for an artist then just 17 years old.

“Re-View” — with its blends of the familiar and the strange — is an attempt to collect and extol “the history of visual thinking and creativity,” said Lentz. “It’s a test run on a very small scale of what we hope 32 Quincy St. will be when it reopens.”