Like many of the first cities of the American colonies, Boston is rich with history even as it retains a young, vibrant population by virtue of its reputation as a preeminent college town. This wide range in historical representation extends to its visual arts scene. In three days, I visited three major art institutions in Boston (the Harvard Art Museums were closed for renovations): the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Each museum was completely unique in just about every aspect, from the kind of art it exhibited to the building in which it was presented. Visiting one museum each day, I got to see a completely different wing of the large art museum that is Boston.
Day One: The Institute of Contemporary Art
Of my three excursions to Boston’s great art houses, my least favorite by far was my experience at the ICA. It resides on Boston’s waterfront, an exceedingly sleepy area of the city’s eastern tip. The building itself, which was renovated and opened with major fanfare in 2006, did not impress me that much in terms of its artistic quality as a work of contemporary architecture. In its overtly fervent effort to be able to have majestic photographs of the building as it resides perched before the Boston Harbor, it ignored its façade opposite that facing the waterfront, giving all who approach it from the land instead of the water an eyesore of a big grey box. On the side that does sit before the harbor hangs a dramatically projected cantilever of the institute’s top floor, but with this single cantilever and no counterpoint offered to it in any other part of the building, it looks strangely out of place and loses any potential expressive effect. Admittedly, the view of the harbor that the large rectangular window provided proved to be incredibly magnificent, but if a building relies on its surroundings for almost all of its beauty, that can’t say much for the building itself.
All of the art in the ICA resided on its fourth floor (not much bang for its buck, considering student admission costs $10), and what little was on display contained few surprises. The one piece on view that really interested me was a five-channel video installation made in 2008 called The End by Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson. The installation is set up so that viewers walk into a large black room with five large video screens covering the walls and enveloping the viewers in the moving image on all four sides. The videos each show the same two men dressed like fur traders—complete with raccoon-tail hats—situated in various locales within the Canadian Rocky Mountains. In each video they hold different instruments: in one, there is a piano; in another, there is a drum set and an acoustic guitar; in a third, one of the men plays an electric guitar; in a fourth one plays a drum set and an electric guitar; and in the fifth it pairs an acoustic guitar with a banjo. Each movie begins to play at different times, one by one, like individual instruments entering into an orchestral piece. At first, the videos sound like they are separate, mutually exclusive “music videos” of sorts, with the men playing quaint little folk tunes. But as the music progresses, suddenly all the videos are in synchrony, and the same two men in each video play in one collective band producing one overall song. The videos last thirty-six minutes, but the amazement that overtook everyone, including myself, made time dissolve before this simple, unlikely symphony. The ingenuity of the video almost makes it worthwhile to visit the ICA.
Day Two: The MFA
The MFA, located near the Fenway on Huntington Avenue, is a behemoth of an edifice, containing over 450,000 works of art from just about every art historical period and geographic location. I spent most of my time in the Ancient Near Eastern art section, which was quite impressive in what it revealed about a culture that never ceases to amaze me. On this particular encounter with the long-gone civilization it occurred to me that the nations of this era mastered elegant yet complex design in the various objects they created for religious rituals and daily life. One particularly intriguing example was a silver drinking cup in the shape of a fist, made by the Hittites around 1400-1380 B.C. The cup was made in the shape of a fist most likely to represent the Hittite hieroglyph that signifies strength, possibly with the idea that the drinker of the cup would gain some. I love that its creator did not just make a cup in a conventional shape and then carve a fist into it, but actually made the cup a fist, then manufactured it in a way to still be functional as a drinking cup. It’s a brilliant, surprisingly sophisticated design choice for a culture as ancient as the Hittites, especially since ancient cultures seem so rudimentary in other ways due to their relative lack of technological advancement.
Of course, the MFA contains more than just ancient art, including several quite famous artworks as well as not as famous but equally incredible ones. Long story short, if you ever find yourself in Boston, you would certainly be remiss to pass up the opportunity at paying this mammoth of the art world a visit.
Day Three: The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
The Gardner Museum is truly one of a kind in the world. The only place that barely approaches it in similarity is the Barnes Foundation, but even this comparison does not do the Gardner justice. Isabella Stewart Gardner was a wealthy socialite who traveled around the world and founded her own museum, open to the public, in 1903. She had the building in which the collection is housed custom-built in the style of a Venetian palazzo, making it feel when one enters the museum as if they have truly entered into another world. Every room in the museum has a unique arrangement of art objects. No room is specifically organized by culture or historical epoch; instead, artworks of all mediums, times and places are grouped together to create artistic ensembles that reveal the aesthetic qualities of each individual piece that probably would not be revealed if they were organized in the typical museum layout. Words really cannot describe how stupendous the experience of visiting this place is, it is that original and different from any other art collection on earth. And the fact that it lives here, in the United States, makes it even more wonderful for its accessibility, since so much of the world’s greatest art can only be found in Europe.
The best painting in the museum, in my opinion, is Christ Carrying the Cross, an oil on wood work completed circa 1505-1510 by an artist in the circle of Giovanni Bellini. It captured me because even though it obviously has a religious purpose, it is emotionally stirring in a way that transcends religious piety. Its unique cropping of the cross and Christ gives a close-up view on his face to the exclusion of additional figures or landscape. The fact that it shows Christ crying, instead of merely in intense pain, makes viewers stand still.The pain that Christ experiences is surprisingly more amplified with this depiction of the Crucifixion than the typical representation of the iconic event, in which we see Christ’s entire body along with mourners at the foot of the cross. This is the most powerful depiction of the Crucifixion that I’ve ever seen because looking at it makes you feel as if it is only you and Christ alone in the world, sharing this private moment right before he is about to be hung up to die in a way that will consume hours of unfathomable pain. The intimacy and aloneness with Christ is further emphasized by the black background and the fact that Christ appears to be in motion. It seems as if he is about to walk out of the frame; but then he slightly slows his step just to be able to look at you and share your gaze for one significant moment before he leaves to commit an act of courage that surpasses the capacity of any human.
Stepping out of my time machine and returning back to the real world (or at least as close as Swarthmore can be to the real world) only made me nostalgic for what I had the great fortune of seeing in Boston. I can promise any art lover that a pilgrimage to Boston is worth every penny, because there is nowhere else one can dwell in the world of Ancient China directly juxtaposed with the discourse of John Singer Sargent and still have time to visually hop over to the Old Kingdom of Egypt in the same hour.