Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 5-7 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard-copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."

TWO GOOD REASONS TO VISIT BOSTON

January 7, 2015

Tags: Renzo Piano, Goya

Francisco Goya y Lucientes (Spanish, 1746-1828). Witches' Sabbath, 1797-1798. Oil on canvas, 43.5 x 30.5 cm (17 x 12 in.). Lent by Fundación Lázaro, Galdiano, Madrid.
In December, I visited Boston for two good reasons: to see the Goya exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, and to see what Renzo Piano hath wrought, in his redesign of three Harvard museums. I’m sorry that I’m not reporting on my visit earlier, because the Goya show will only be up until January 19.

Still, that is the way it always is over the holidays—everything else goes by the board, and at the end of it, we all emerge fresher for the respite from daily duties and ready to charge anew into the Ewigkeit (aka eternity).

HARVARD’S THREE IN ONE

To take the more permanent development first, I began with three Harvard University museums: the Fogg, the Busch-Reisinger, and the Arthur M. Sackler.

The Fogg was known for its wonderful holdings in European and American art, with emphasis on the Italian Quattrocento, 17th century Dutch painting, and 19th century French and British art. (I can still remember falling in love with Ingres upon seeing that master’s works at the Fogg between my junior and my senior years in college, when I was attending Harvard summer school).

The Busch-Reisinger was built around art of the Germanic-speaking peoples, from medieval sculpture to 1920s abstraction, while the Sackler has one of the most significant collections of Asian art in the West, along with works from classical antiquity, Islam and India.

When I heard that Renzo Piano – or, to be more specific, the Renzo Piano Building Workshop -- was going to unite the three museums under one roof, I thought that I would be greeted with a modernistic entryway that would cover up and mask the entries of the three buildings, forcing one to promenade from one to the other under an all-over sort of modernistic – or rather, pomonian --portico.

This, after all, is what Piano has done with the Morgan Library and Museum in New York, forcing the visitor to enter through a pomonian promenade in which tea tables & contemporary art are prominently featured, while the galleries displaying real art are hidden away in corners or on an upper floor.

However, I was pleasantly surprised to see that instead of uniting three museum buildings, what has been done instead is to unite the three museums’ collections under one roof. The combined institution is now officially known as "The Harvard Art Museums."

Moreover, the entrance to that single building is still the Fogg’s original 1927 neo-Georgian façade that fits in so nicely with most of the rest of the buildings on Quincy Street--while not affronting the one truly modern building on that street, the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, designed by Le Corbusier and opened in 1963.

This is not to say that there aren’t contemporary-looking accretions to the Fogg’s original exterior, but they are on top of it, in back of it, and to some extent along the sides of it. They are, in fact, so inconspicuous from the street that upon my first visit there, I overlooked them altogether.

Plunging inside the building, I found so much there to see – and mostly to admire – that when I took off to catch a train to the suburbs (where I was spending the night with a college friend) I never realized I’d missed anything.

Still, the press packet that had thoughtfully been given me when I got my entrance ticket included photographs of the pomonian aspects of the exterior.

My college friend also talked to me about the ramp in back, and how it continued the ramp of the Carpenter Center, so the next day, after I’d taken in Goya, I headed back to Cambridge to see what I’d missed.

I have to say, in all honesty, that I am still more impressed by the interior, and by the way that the works of art have been installed. I am very happy with the skylights that allow natural light into the original Fogg’s central Calderwood Courtyard, but from the outside almost all of the contemporary additions look a little overdone & fussy. Hey, maybe that’s only because they are up against Corbu, and that is tough competition.

The Calderwood Courtyard is lovely, though. In addition to its ceiling having been raised to five floors (with the skylights on top), the Renaissance-style travertine marble colonnades surrounding it on the first and second levels have been cleaned: they now glow pinkish gold instead of dirty gray.

There are tables & a little teashop on the ground floor here, open to anybody even if they don’t want to buy a ticket to see the art, and at three corners of the courtyard, entryways lead off to different art collections.

The young man who provided me with my ticket and the press packet helpfully explained that the third floor has the special exhibitions galleries, the teaching facilities, and the oldest art. On the second floor is the next oldest art, and the newest is on the ground.

I accordingly took the elevator to the fourth floor, and saw one of the two inaugural special exhibitions: I decided I could do without the Rebecca Horn show, feeling (rightly or wrongly) that I’d already seen enough Rebecca Horn to last me a lifetime. On the other hand, I was very much intrigued by “Mark Rothko’s Harvard Murals” (through July 26).

This exhibition uses an innovative technique to try and enable viewers to see the original colors Rothko employed, in the early 60s, for a group of murals of which five were originally installed in the penthouse dining room of the university’s Holyoke Center.

The murals have faded over the years, and this show, which also includes many related smaller studies, uses noninvasive digital projection that makes these red, orange, black & purple paintings positively glow. Whether mere paint could ever have been as florescent as the reds and oranges in this presentation, I’m inclined to doubt, but anyway it makes for a lively show.

Heading on down to the lower floors, I rapidly skated from one gallery to another, quickly becoming aware that I couldn’t see everything there was to see in these new, vast spaces, given the limited amount of time I had available. I do think that I saw enough to get some idea of the methods behind the hanging (or lack of it).

For the most part, the displays from the different museums are hung in their own, individual galleries, but now and again, works from the different collections – and even different periods – have been interspersed. Sometimes this works; sometimes it doesn’t.

On the third floor, in a gallery surrounding the opening down to the courtyard, is a vitrine dedicated to “The Female Body.” Most of the small-scale female nudes here are (if I recall correctly), from the Sackler, and include chastely and austerely lovely, vertical Cycladic and Roman antiquities, but then – lo and behold! – in amongst them, we have a whorish, voluptuously-proportioned, reclining 20th century sculpture by Gaston Lachaise (which I guess must be from the Fogg). Anyway, it just DOESN’T belong.

I would be more willing to accept it if I thought that some sort of formal comparison was intended, in the manner of Albert C. Barnes, with the modern and ancient images harmonizing with each other, but alas, all I get out of this awkward combination is some politically correct hommage to cultural diversity. Boring.

Similarly, a little further along this same gallery is a row of heads: one from 16th century Venice, one from the Oba tribe in Africa, one Bodhisattva, one head from pre-Columbian Peru and one from ancient Rome (two from the Fogg, two from the Sackler, and one from the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology).

The range in artistic approaches here is admittedly wide, but the range in facial types and features is even wider—making the whole display, in my opinion, look more like a fugitive show from a natural history museum than a display of art in its own right.

On the other hand, some of these out-of-context comparisons work very well. Among the winners, I would particularly recommend – in the Quattrocento gallery -- the way that the stunning linden wood 15th century German “Saint Anthony Abbott,” by Tilman Riemenschneider from the Busch-Reisinger is hung between two worthy & nearly contemporary paintings from the Fogg, the Italian“Saint Jerome in the Desert” by Filippo Lippi and the Flemish “Saint Jerome in his Study” by Joos van Cleve.

Each of these three works is very characteristic of its origins, and accordingly very different in style from the others, yet the three compliment (and complement) each other.

Also very effective is the way that French, English and American paintings of the 18th and 19th centuries (albeit mostly from the Fogg) are often (though not always) interspersed with each other. One fine example is the juxtaposition of three bust-length oil on canvas portraits of women – one by the London-based Whistler, one by the quintessentially French Renoir, and one by the Yankee Eakins.

During these periods, there was already so much interaction between these three cultures that such juxtapositions make both artistic and historical sense.

There was so much else to see, though, that I just will have to leave my viewers with the advice to give themselves more time to see it all than I did. This is so not only because this is now the permanent collections of three museums brought together, but also because the building that houses them is so much bigger than any of its predecessors: many works now on view were, I suspect, mostly kept in storage before the renovation.

There’s lots of David Smith on view in one of the ground floor galleries, and also – higher up-- a marvelous little sticky-out porch from one side of the building entirely devoted to twelve – count ‘em, 12 – bozzetti (small preliminary studies) by Bernini. DELICIOUS!

To say nothing—in one of the predominantly 19th century French galleries -- of the wonderful color in “Arab Horsemen Carrying Away Their Dead,” by Théodore Chassériau.

When I was in grad school, I did a paper on how John La Farge, the American Romantic painter, popularized Delacroix in America, and La Farge raved about this little-remembered follower of Delacroix. Now at last I was able to see why.

GOYA AT THE MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS, BOSTON

On the second day of my visit to Boston, I went to “Goya: Order and Disorder” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (through January 19).

Its curators are Stephanie Loeb Stepanek, curator of prints and drawings at the museum, and Frederick Ilchman, chair of its department of European art.

I went with high hopes, as this was billed as “the largest retrospective of the artist to take place in America in 25 years,” with 170 paintings, prints and drawings. And I have been a fan of Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828) for so long that I can’t remember not admiring him.

The press release for the show also promised 21 works on loan from the Prado, but obviously the Prado has a lot more Goyas that I ever dreamed it had, because don’t go to this show expecting to see any of the paintings for which the artist is most famous.

There’s no nude Maja here and no clothed one, either, no family of Charles IV, certainly not “The Third of May,” nor even “Saturn Devouring His Son.”

Instead, what we have is approximately 40 mostly small to medium-sized and mostly lesser-known oils on canvas, 70 prints, and 50 unique works on paper. One hesitates to call these unique works on paper all drawings, as many were done with a brush and an ink wash instead a crayon or a pencil, but – like the prints – they are mostly in black and white or brown and white, and equally small.

The remaining 10 pieces in the show are either tapestries or small oils done on various metals.

Chronology has been thrown to the winds in the hanging of this show. Instead, the works are grouped exclusively in terms of their subject matter, and the entire show is hung in eight carefully programmed galleries, each with a title rather pedantically identifying it by its subject matter (or matters).

Thus, the first is entitled, “Goya Looks at Himself,” and the second is “Life Studies” (subdivided into “Childhood,” “Couples,” “Looking at Women,” and “Aging”). Next, we get “Play & Prey” (again subdivided into “Women at Play,” “Bullfights,” and “The Hunt”).

A fourth, small gallery with miscellaneous images seems to have been titled “In the Balance” (I gather from the press release, though I didn’t make a note of it myself), and the fifth, a very large gallery, is devoted to “Goya’s Portraiture.”

Sixth comes “Other Worlds, Other States,” a catchall title again suggesting that the curators were running out of categories. Here are works portraying “Lunacy,” “Witchcraft,” “Dreams,” “Superstition,” “Christian Devotion” and “Clerical Hypocrisy.”

Seventh is “Capturing History.” This gallery has a modest selection of Goya’s images reflecting political events, most notably the Peninsular Wars of 1807-14 (a series of conflicts incorporating the first Spanish war of independence and the Napoleonic invasion of Spain).

The eighth and last gallery would appear to bring the wheel full circle, since again it is entitled “Solo Goya.” Actually it’s only another repository of odds and ends, with text blocks titled “Swarms,” “Buoyancy,” “Visual Riffs” and “Power Play.”

The final work that the viewer is left with, at the exit, is a big (10’ x 7’), dull altarpiece showing the “Last Communion of Saint Joseph of Calasanz” (1819). This unctuous work is totally lacking in the piss and vinegar that Goya could dispense in such lordly fashion—nor is it distinguished for its painting technique.

In this gallery is also to be found the “Seated Giant” (by 1818) that the museum is using to promote the show in posters, press releases, etc. With the giant’s cloudy, muscular back turned toward the viewer, it is indeed a moody, haunting image – and in the posters, etc., it looks like a good-sized painting.

However, it turns out to be only a small, black and white aquatint, measuring 11” x 8”, so it loses a lot of its impact on actual inspection. I don’t deny that it’s a most impressive piece, but it can’t be exactly news to local visitors, as it’s owned by the MFA Boston.

Call me a dodo, but I miss the use of chronology in the hanging here. If the works had been exhibited in something resembling the order in which they’d been created, they might have told the story of a gradual unfolding of genius.

We could have shared in the dynamic of an evolution from the gifted but still idealistic neo-classicist of the late 18th century, with his idyllic tapestry cartoons of peasant folk, developing into the brilliant court painter combining magnificent brushwork with masterful impartiality toward his eminent subjects, and finally passing with age and deafness into the increasingly bitter and passionate satire of the “Disasters of War” and the murals from the House of the Deaf Man.

Instead, what we get is a series of groups of similar subjects by seemingly different artists – or should I say, different illustrators? As Goya’s style, especially in his paintings, evolved, these groups become more like little group shows, with a little bit of this and a little bit of that, than a chronicling of the endeavors of a unique individual.

Please don’t tell me that the chronological method of presentation is too “familiar.” If indeed this is the largest Goya retrospective in 25 years, then there must be a whole new generation of art-lovers out there who may be meeting him for the first time. Here they get nothing that tells them about the development of his style.

I mean, I realize that "style" is a dirty word in Pomonia, but to me and my friends in Modernia, style matters more than subject matter. In fact, it's ultimately not what an artist depicts but how it is depicted that determines whether it lasts or not.

How many dozens or even hundreds of Madonnas were painted in Venice in the 16th century-- and why do we only care about those by Giorgione, Titian, Tintoretto & Veronese?

The difficulty in appreciating Goya’s magnificence in this show is magnified by the way that it also mixes up the media in which the works are executed. Thus in each little group, we may get a painting or two combined with several drawings and/or prints.

As the paintings tend to be medium-sized to (in a few cases) rather large, while the prints and drawings are small to tiny, this combination makes for very fatiguing viewing.

One always wants to stand back, in order to properly view the oils, but then one has to scrunch up close to see the drawings and prints, finally turning to one side to squint at the labels to see where each item came from and when it was created.

When I say “where each item came from” I mean above all that Goya’s two unforgettable series of prints, “Los Caprichos” (1797-1798) and “The Disasters of War” (1810-1820), have been cut up into bite-sized and (so the curators evidently hope) easily-digested little pieces.

Individual pages are sprinkled throughout the show, with no suggestion of their original context (beyond the labels). Also sprinkled throughout the show are many often superb drawings, apparently also from dissected sketchbooks.

I will admit, it can initially be very interesting to see how Goya handled the same subject on different occasions and in different media. As the same kind of presentation is offered, though, over and over again, it loses its novelty value.

Still, Goya was just such a fantastic artist that there are vast amounts to see and enjoy in this absorbing show.

If you are interested in drawing, there’s no doubt that he was a master draftsman, and the many little drawings and prints will delight you. It is amazing, how many clever fancies, fantasies, and pinioning of popular foibles he managed to achieve.

If you’re more interested in painting, there are those 40 oils on canvas to enchant (to say nothing of the handful of smaller oils on metal). The sixth (large) gallery of portraits should provide a large amount of such pleasure.

Although for the most part, the identities of the sitters are of lesser interest, virtually all the pictures here are good-sized oils. Their brushwork is powerful and their color, luscious.

There are also some startling & often lovely oil portraits in the second gallery, especially of children and elderly women.

My own favorite gallery, though, is the very first one, for several reasons (not least the hanging, which keeps works on paper separate from paintings).

Commanding it is a large (8’ x 10½ ’) and most impressive early oil, the “Family of the Infante Don Luis” (1784). Half-way between “Las Meninas” and the family of Charles IV, it too features a royal grouping combined with the artist at his easel.

Even more impressive is another early, though only modestly-scaled painting, “Self-Portrait While Painting” (17” x 11”; about 1795). The artist is standing at his easel, with palette in hand and a head-dress illuminating his work space by candles. He is gazing not at his work, but out at the viewer.

I can’t tell you exactly why, but this painting absolutely bowled me over. Maybe it’s the supreme poise displayed and the self-control, combined with a memorable gentleness that makes it so exceptional. For me, it’s the best painting in the show.

Also very intriguing in this first gallery is an early drawing that anticipates (and is shown next to) Goya’s most famous graphic image: “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters,” from “Los Caprichos” (1797-99). This very similar drawing is entitled instead “The Artist Dreaming” (1796-1797).

“The Artist Dreaming” suggests to me an interpretation for “The Sleep of Reason” that differs from the one I had previously assumed.

“The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” suggests that we should all stay awake and rational because otherwise horrible things would happen to us, especially political ones. But “The Artist Dreaming” suggests that such “monsters” are to be welcomed in the interests of creating more imaginative art.

Indeed, another thing really irritated me about this exhibition (although I repeat that my irritation shouldn’t discourage anybody from attending it). This irritating thing is the complete absence of period-appropriate intellectual context in the commentary on the walls (wall texts as well as individual labels).

Goya started out in the neo-classic tradition with a fervent commitment to the rational foundations of the 18th century’s Age of Enlightenment. “Los Caprichos” is very much in this tradition.

At the same time, and especially as he grew older, he embraced the Romantic dedication to the emotions, the imagination, the supernatural, nature, the devout Middle Ages, and every possible human eccentricity.

As I see it, this Romantic orientation is primarily responsible for his interest in portraying seemingly bizarre subjects like witchcraft, insanity, and even superstition.

In omitting any reference to the neo-classical and even more importantly, the Romantic, the organizers of this exhibition make Goya look like some kind of a nut case, with a personal and therefore neurotic appetite for the weird.

Have they never even heard of the Romantic and the neo-classic? Or did they deliberately suppress these allusions in the interests of seeming suitably pomonian?

Either explanation makes me sad. As with the eradication of concern with style, it suggests the same sort of loss of a common font of knowledge that accompanied the decline of ancient Rome.

Fortunately, we still have Goya, who triumphs over all the obstacles raised by the onset of barbarism. And among the images that the museum makes available for reproduction, and that stands out for me, is the “Witches Sabbath” (1797-98).

Though it’s an early work, with subdued, dulcet brushwork of the artist’s earlier and more idealistic period, it can also be called pre-Romantic, in the same approximate time frame as the “Urfaust” of Goethe, Rousseau’s sentimental novels and Ann Radcliffe’s gothic romance, “The Mysteries of Udolpho.”

How else can we locate such a suave, goat-bodied Satan, surrounded in a moonlit glen by playful witches of all ages and conditions?

Together they have crowned him with a garland of laurel – or possibly blackthorn, yew or yet another plant associated with that ultimate in the piquant: evil.