Friday, June 16, 2006

The Gardner Museum


Yesterday Anat and I went to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Now where to start with this? The museum is the brainchild of one very rich woman, who loved art (though I'm not quite sure how you could appreciate art by the thousands...) and wanted not only to own it but also to have control over how others experienced it. I don't know very much about this infamous woman, but at the museum her name is mentioned with the awe and recognition of a goddess. Her vision was to create a space for the pieces of artwork she collected and to arrange them not thematically or chronologically, but aesthetically.

We didn't tag along with any of the numerous tours that chased each other around the indoor coutryard through the four-wings of the museum, but I did manage to eavesdrop on snippets of the dosants' speeches. One woman was obsessed with the "connections" establishes by the museum. "Isabella loved connections," she said, "and she tried to bring those out in her arrangements. The fabric on the woman in this portrait's skirt echoes the upholstry on the chair below. The flowers she's holding are similar to those in the portrait across the room." And on and on. Another dosant was caught up on the words "emotion" and "motion", and couldn't avoid using them together in nearly every sentence as she described a painting of a flamenco dancer. (That was, actually, one of the coolest parts of the museum.)

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Isabella Steward Gardner was rich and bought a lot (and I mean a lot) of artwork. Then she build a huge house to hold it all, and arranged it all herself, and lived in the house (I think), and then said that after she died anyone could come and view her collection, as long as no one touched or moved anything. As a result the museum is very very creepy. It's like a haunted house. There are hundreds of chairs that no one is allowed to use. The place is dark and cluttered and overwhelming. There's a beautiful interior garden that no one may walk through. Yet somehow this place has to be maintained. Someone has to touch everything, dust everything, rake the un-used gravel walkways, weed the flowerbeds. Yet that presence is oddly absent. A few rooms were closed off for "refurbishment", but those were completely covered in black plastic as if their existence were nullified. All in all, the place felt like a haunted house, and the initial strictness of the security guards (no cell phones, not even silenced, no unworn coats, no bags, no umbrellas in hand) began to make immaculate sense.

The place was beautiful, but oddly so. It was one woman's idea of perfect aestheticism. An idea of perfection that died with Isabella Stewart Gardner in 1924. The museum's website claims it is a place, "Unchanged but certainly not stagnant." I am not sure whether that duality is achieved, but I certainly applaud them for trying.

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