Campus & Community

Making connections: A special evening for Harvard faculty

5 min read

“The arts are something we all care deeply about, whether we are artists ourselves, whether we are social scientists, or whether we are scientists,” Senior Vice Provost Judith Singer told an audience of about 120 Harvard faculty of all stripes and ranks gathered at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum.

It was one of those rare Harvard events that bring together faculty from across the University.

“Making Connections: A Special Evening for Harvard Faculty” was sponsored by Singer’s office Nov. 18 to give junior faculty an opportunity “to get to know and feel part of this community,” as she put it. It was also an opportunity for selected faculty members from several different disciplines to talk about individual works in the Harvard Art collections and what they mean to them.

In addition, the evening was an occasion for the curators of the Harvard Art Museum to remind their guests that although a major renovation is under way, the museum is not closed but still very much available as a resource for the entire University community.

“We very much want to build bridges across the University,” said Singer, whose full title is senior vice provost for faculty development and diversity and James Bryant Conant Professor of Education. “We decided in the provost’s office that there were too few opportunities for faculty across the University to get together for activity that they would find intellectually stimulating and also just engaging at a personal level. … I’m pleased to say we have representation from every faculty at Harvard University.”

As Lori Gross, associate provost for arts and culture, explained, the provost’s office asked half a dozen faculty members “to pick out one piece of art that they feel particularly engaged with, and start a conversation about it.”

The first presentation was by Hans Tutschku, professor of music. When asked to be one of the evening’s presenters, he knew exactly which work he would talk about: László Moholy-Nagy’s “Light Prop for an Electric Stage (Light-Space Modulator).” Moholy-Nagy was one of the leading figures of the Bauhaus movement, which was based in Tutschku’s hometown of Weimar, Germany. Created in 1930, “Light Prop” was one of the earliest kinetic sculptures. Tutschku first encountered the work in photographs as a 21-year-old, and was so captivated by it that he wrote a piece of electroacoustic music about it. “It’s the quintessence of his ideas about space, light … and the industrialization of art.”

Tutschku composed his musical piece “out of the imagination,” he said, without ever having seen the sculpture in motion. But in honor of the occasion, the kinetic sculpture was turned on as Tutschku’s piece was played in the gallery. Carefully placed spotlights on the floor helped the sculpture project ever-changing patterns of light and shadow onto an expanse of white gallery wall between canvases by Charles Sheeler and Georgia O’Keeffe. (At a couple of points, however, the sculpture, which doesn’t often get to “perform,” required some judicious coaxing from Peter Nisbet, Daimler-Benz Curator of the Busch-Reisinger Museum, to keep it moving smoothly. He worked on it discreetly with some highly specialized tools he pulled out of his pockets, one of which appeared to be a Roosevelt dime.)

The five presentations after Tutschko’s ran more or less simultaneously. Joseph Koerner, professor of history of art and architecture, held forth on Max Beckmann’s “Self-Portrait in Tuxedo” (1927), just adjacent in the gallery to the Moholy-Nagy piece. Hashim Sarkis, Aga Khan Professor of Landscape Architecture and Urbanism in Muslim Societies, talked about Allan McCollum’s “Collection of Ten Plaster Surrogates” (1982-91). Margaret Livingstone, professor of neurobiology, spoke about some Buddhist reliefs, and Laurel Ulrich, 300th Anniversary University Professor, talked about a Native American bow in the University collection.

And all the way up on the fourth floor, Kathleen McCartney, dean of the Faculty of Education and the Gerald S. Lesser Professor in Early Childhood Development at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, spoke about “Madonna and Child” (c. 1901), an early Blue Period canvas by Pablo Picasso. It’s understood to be a portrait of one of the prostitutes with venereal disease whom Picasso saw in the Saint-Lazare prison-hospital in Paris. But as McCartney noted, “If you look at it, it’s very Madonna-like, isn’t it?” The veiled woman holds her child, who looks knowingly out at the viewer. The contrast between the sacred and profane, the Madonna and the prostitute, is key to the painting, she suggested. Another contrast: “The feet are grotesque but the face is beautiful.”

A third contrast, “the one that interests me the most as a developmental psychologist,” McCartney said, “is the comparison between the mother’s face and the child’s. The mother is serene … but the principal gaze is that of the child — he’s skeptical, as if he were asking, ‘What are you doing here?’”

The Fogg is closed for a major renovation designed by international superstar architect Renzo Piano, due to be completed in 2013. It will unite all three of Harvard’s art museums — the Fogg, the Busch-Reisinger, and the Sackler — in one facility.

But meanwhile, a selection of works from the University’s collections is on long-term view at the Sackler as an exhibition called “Re-View.”