July 23, 2007

Museuming in Massachusetts

Last week was time for the annual July jaunt to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts! Beside visiting friends and neighbors, swimming in the delightful waters off Cape Cod Bay, and eating enough lobster rolls to satisfy my Nova Scotian heritage, it was a good opportunity to visit some of the terrific exhibitions now on across the state.

Beginning in the charming town of Dennis and the Cape Cod Museum of Art where, until August 5th, they are presenting "Gail Levin / Photographs: Hopper's Places & Cape Cod Connections". In 1976, Ms. Levin, a scholar on the paintings of Edward Hopper and a conceptual artist in her own right, set out to photograph the sites that Hopper had painted while he lived on the Outer Cape. This is a small but fascinating exhibition that gives great insight into Hopper's world and brings his paintings to life in an entirely new way.

After viewing Levin's documentary photographs, a trip to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston special exhibition "Edward Hopper :: The Ordinary Made Extraordinary" was definitely in order! This comprehensive retrospective of Hopper's work comprises 50 oil paintings, 30 watercolors and 12 prints, including some of his most famous works such as "Lighthouse Hill", 1927, "Chop Suey", 1929, "Early Sunday Morning", 1930, and the iconic "Nighthawks", 1942. Though his paintings can be dark and melancholy, they are nevertheless compelling and Hopper's standing as a Major American artist of the 20th Century is without question.

Moving across the street to the delightfully idiosyncratic Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was like stepping back in time. Isabella Stewart Gardner was a patroness of the arts, and in her lifetime amassed a significant collection of paintings, prints, sculpture, books and rare objects. Her dream was to present these works to the public in an appropriate surrounding, and on New Year's Day 1903 she opened Fenway Court, now re-named in her honor. This institution is unique in the museum world as she personally supervised the design of the building and gardens and the installation of the collection within. Her will stipulated that no changes were to be made to the interior design and so it has remained frozen in time to this day. While this preserves a certain charm and authenticity, the galleries could benefit from some improvements to the lighting, not to mention the security system so antiquated that in 1990 robbers made off with 13 masterpieces (the empty frames are still hanging on the walls). Nevertheless, a visit to the Gardner is a wonderful experience and there are many magnificent treasures to enjoy.

The next stop in this Massachusetts museum odyssey was a visit to Salem! Probably most famous for the witch trials in the 17th Century, Salem is also home to the Peabody Essex Museum, a surprisingly diverse and multi-cultural institution in the bosom of Yankee history. Featured this summer is the marvelous "Joseph Cornell: Navigating the Imagination", an exhibition co-curated with the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. Joseph Cornell was an American original (see my blog "The Extraordinary World of Joseph Cornell", April 30, 2007) and this important retrospective seeks to establish his huge influence in the worlds of modern art, film, poetry and design. On view are 180 examples of his magical boxes, games, objects and collages that will amaze and delight both Cornell aficionados and those just discovering his world.

While at the Peabody Essex, I took time to tour the "Yin Yu Tang" House. Built in the rural village of Huang Cun in Southeast China 200 years ago, this was the ancestral home of the Huang family. Eight generations lived within the walls of this pre-cursor to the modern apartment building. In the 1980's, through an agreement between the museum and the government of Huizhou, the house was dismantled, transported and completely re-constructed in Salem, Massachusetts. The results are fascinating. Visitors take a self-guided tour and are transported back to another time and a totally different culture and leave with a new understanding of life in China before and after the Revolution.

From the Atlantic coast to the Berkshire Mountains, it is time to visit the Williams College Museum of Art in beautiful Williamstown. A very special treat awaits in its summer exhibition "Making it New :: The Art and Style of Sara and Gerald Murphy". In many ways, the Murphys epitomized the Jazz Age. Born to wealthy families in Cincinnati and New York, their marriage in 1915 was a match made in heaven. After the birth of their 3 children, Sara and Gerald emigrated to Paris in 1921. Here they forged a new "moderne" lifestyle that became the model for F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel "Tender is the Night". The exhibition seeks to explore the relationships this famous couple had with other icons of the era - Pablo Picasso, Fernand L├ęger, Man Ray, Ernest Hemingway and Cole Porter to name a few. It is also an unprecedented opportunity to see 7 of the 14 oil paintings done by Gerald Murphy himself. By presenting personal objects such as letters, family photos and artifacts with works of art by their friends and contemporaries, the visitor is transported back to the glory days when the Murphys were considered "masters of the art of living". Sadly, the party came to an abrupt end with the stock market crash of 1929 and the untimely deaths of their two beloved sons Patrick and Boath. The legend of the Murphys continues to entrance however, and this fine exhibition is a testament to their influence on what we fondly look back on as the "Golden Age of Style".

The last halt in this whistle stop tour is also in Williamstown at the wonderful Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. Founded in 1955 by Singer sewing machine heir Sterling Clark and his wife to house their renowned collection of French Impressionist and American paintings, The Clark is also home to a world class center for research and conservation. Beside their magnificent permanent collection that includes superb examples by such luminaries as Degas, Renoir (over 30 paintings), Pissarro, Homer, Sargent and Whistler, the museum now features a special exhibition of pastels and drawings by Claude Monet. "The Unknown Monet" is the first show to explore Monet's works on paper, from his very early caricatures to later waterlily sketchbooks. Also on view is a selection of watercolors, drawings and prints by J.M.W. Turner and John Constable that has recently been bequeathed to The Clark from The Manton Collection.

Now that's a lot of art! Time to head back home and look forward to the next visit to Massachusetts and all it has to offer!

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