NEW HAVEN — What are the most beautiful museums in America for looking at art? Any top-five list would have to include the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth and the Yale Center for British Art.
Both were designed by Louis I. Kahn (1901-1974). Each is celebrated for its ingenious embrace of natural light, its just and homely proportions, its honest structure, and its use of plain but beautiful natural materials.
My own personal favorite, the Yale Center for British Art, reopened this month after a 16-month closure. One of only three museums Kahn designed, it was his final work, and it wasn’t completed until shortly after his death. It stands across the street from his first commission, the Yale University Art Gallery (opened in 1953). The inevitable comparison reveals just how much he learned in the interval between.
Kahn was a genius at harnessing light. He had a knack for choosing warm and harmonious materials, and for achieving an effect of intimacy even in large, institutional buildings. He was also a profoundly moral architect.
Truth to material, simplicity of design, transparency of structure: These were, for him (as for many other Modernists), ethical principles as much as aesthetic ones. As the first director of the YCBA, Jules David Prown, once wrote: “every decision in [a building’s] making, large or small, represents [for Kahn] a choice between right and wrong, true and false.”
Many aspects of the YCBA’s design — including its external proportions — conform to the so-called Golden Section, most easily described as the ratio 5:3. As a result, the building has a clarity and simplicity we think of as timeless. But in its denial of ornamentation and its avoidance of artifice, it is also resolutely modern.
The collection housed by the YCBA — the greatest collection of British art outside the United Kingdom — can seem an anomalous fit with Kahn’s unblinking modernity. Its real strengths (paintings, sculptures, and works on paper from the mid-16th to the 19th centuries) are not at all modern.
But the marriage begins to feel supremely suitable when you consider the fundamentally ethical character of British art through the centuries. This, and almost everything else that is peculiar to British art, is best explained by two events that had a catastrophic effect on visual culture in Britain.
The first was the Reformation. The second, a century later, was the English Civil War. Both upheavals saw the systematic destruction of artworks across the British Isles.
After Henry VIII’s break from Rome — and from a Renaissance culture that had done much to inspire the fruitful early stage of Henry’s reign — almost every sculpture and every painting was removed from every parish church in the land.
Holy images were shipped to London to be publicly burned. Religious ceremonies, the calendar of saints’ days, and visual artifacts of every kind disappeared, all for the sake of a puritanical fidelity to truth over falsehood, and an obedience to “right” over “wrong.” Despite widespread illiteracy, the belief that images could be used to instruct the populace in religion was abandoned. The Word replaced all. For the Word was Truth, and images were false.
A suspicion of images has pervaded Anglophone and northern European culture ever since. Traces of it can be detected even in Modernist art and design, which favored abstraction over representation, and which branded decorative and illustrative art ideologically unclean.
The 16th-century conflict in Britain — or its political correlative — is dramatized in one of the first paintings on display in the center’s new, chronological hang. It shows Henry VIII on his throne, handing the sword of state to his son and heir, Edward VI, with the future queen Elizabeth standing regally by his side.
Henry’s other daughter, Mary, and her Spanish husband, Phillip II, meanwhile, are shown on Henry’s other side. Diminished and mincing, they are attended by Mars, God of war and chaos, while Elizabeth and Edward are attended by figures representing peace and plenty.
As propaganda, it’s fairly straightforward. But it represents the beginning of an important story not just about the struggle for power in Britain but about British art.
With religious and mythical subject matter cut from their repertoire, artists in Britain had little choice but to turn to portraiture, a genre that was so openly in service to power and propaganda that it was scarcely considered art.
The artists who excelled at it were rarely British. For more than a century after the Reformation, almost all the most notable painters working in Britain — Holbein, Ketel, Rubens, van Dyck, Gheeraerts, Lely, and Kneller — were imports.
The new hang at the center embraces this reality, and tries throughout to emphasize Britain’s relationship to the outside world. The early galleries include great things by the Flemish-born Gheeraerts, the Dutch painter Claude de Jongh (his “View of London Bridge” is marvelous), the Flemish Rubens, the Bolognese painter Benedetto Gennari, and the German-born Kneller.
As part of a three-phase project to conserve the building and restore Kahn’s original vision, synthetic carpeting has been replaced by naturally dyed wool; the walls have been lined with fresh Belgian linen; and the oak paneling has been scrubbed. Dividing walls that used to meet the floor have been elevated a few inches to enhance the sense of openness. Critical behind-the-scenes functions have been overhauled.
More works are on display than ever before. The so-called Long Gallery, which is exactly that, has been returned to its original conception as a teaching and study gallery. It has been hung salon-style, floor to ceiling, in clusters that revolve around themes. They can be quickly taken down and replaced with other works for teaching purposes.
The rest of the galleries, which harmonize rich light browns with shades of gray and textures of concrete, travertine, linen, and wool, look better than I’ve ever seen them.
The display itself reminds you of the huge impact that Paul Mellon, the center’s far-sighted founder, has had on the appreciation of British art globally. His interest in such 18th-century artists as Joseph Wright of Derby, Johan Zoffany, and George Stubbs helped revive those wonderful artists’ reputations.
Arriving at the series of galleries studded with 19th-century works by John Constable, J.M.W. Turner, Richard Parkes Bonington, and Thomas Lawrence, you see with renewed clarity how consequential was the shift in British art toward landscape, and what an enormous, often unacknowledged impact those four artists in particular had on the continent — especially in France.
The international aspect of British art is everywhere in evidence. Great things by artists usually considered American, for instance — Benjamin West, John Singleton Copley, James Whistler, and John Singer Sargent — are on display.
The visionary, spiritualist strain in Britain, which went on to have such a big impact in America, is also represented, with superb things by William Blake and Samuel Palmer, and by various Pre-Raphaelites (in whom Mellon, however — like me — was less than in love).
Among modern artists, Mellon favored Henry Moore and Ben Nicholson. There are many works by both (although I prefer Ben’s dad, William Nicholson, represented here by a single still life) and there are also terrific things by Gwen John and Vanessa Bell.
Many works that form the second-half of the 20th century — including paintings by Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Howard Hodgkin, David Hockney, and Damien Hirst — are here on long-term loan.
A floor of the museum is set aside for temporary shows, in this case “Modernism and Memory,” a selection of works from the collection of Rhoda Pritzker (1914-2007). Some are part of a gift of more than 100 works by the Pritzker family; others are on loan from the part of their collection they still own.
This temporary display rounds out a museum-going experience you’re unlikely to forget in a hurry. It’s extraordinary, when you think about it, that another Kahn building and an even vaster collection, is right across the road.
Yale Center for British Art
1080 Chapel Street, New Haven. 203-432-2800, britishart.yale.edu.Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
An earlier version misstated the length of the museum’s closure and included a caption that misidentified the photographer for the library court.