CAMBRIDGE — Put one of the world’s great collections of art together with some of the smartest, most thoughtful curators and art historians, give them a great building to play with, and what you get, it turns out, is the new Harvard Art Museums.
No one should be surprised that the result is first-rate, especially when you consider that the museum on Quincy Street has been closed to the public for more than six years: plenty of time to get things right.
The depth of Harvard’s art holdings — a quarter-million objects, give or take, lately enhanced significantly by a flurry of gifts and acquisitions — is well-known. Architect Renzo Piano’s enhancement of the old Fogg Museum’s beloved internal courtyard, in a building that has been otherwise extended and radically overhauled, is likewise easy to appreciate.
The coherence of the spaces, so unlike the heterogeneous galleries spread across historically dissonant buildings at the Yale University Art Gallery, is noteworthy, an impressive solution to the challenge of bringing Harvard’s three art museums — the Fogg, the Arthur M. Sackler Museum (for Asian, Islamic, and Ancient art), and the Busch-Reisinger Museum (for Germanic art) — under the same roof.
But what comes as a shock is the aesthetic force and intellectual audacity of the new hang. The overriding impression is of lucidity, surprise, and spirited investigation.
In one sense, this is Harvard being true to its best self. But it’s also the art museum being true to its own specific identity, established when it moved to 32 Quincy Street in the late 1920s, as America’s premier teaching museum: a place for close-up looking at objects, and for attempts at understanding those objects in a wider context.
Art is made from stuff — stuff that you can hold or touch; that changes over time; that carries evidence of the hands that shaped it, and of the minds and hearts of the people who directed those hands, and of all their various circumstances. Even with its natural intellectual bias, the new Harvard Art Museums appears intent on honoring that stuff as stuff.
In emphasizing this side of things through its spacious study center, its multiple teaching galleries, and its conspicuous conservation labs, the museum has returned to an approach that fell from favor in universities in the 1980s and ’90s, when theory was in the ascendant and stuff was frankly a bit of an inconvenience, an embarrassment. The institution has brought back an almost connoisseur-like focus on actual objects — not at the expense of ideas and theories, but as their keel and rudder.
As an example of the innate appeal of stuff, it’s hard to beat jade, a material that cannot be carved using metal and must instead be shaped with abrasives. Harvard has the finest collection of archaic Chinese jade objects outside of China. Shaped as disks, dagger blades, and figurines, all in different hues and shades, a selection here in one of several ground-floor galleries that introduce us to the Sackler’s holdings looks stunning.
Adjoining galleries contain early bronze and ceramic tomb objects and sculptures, and, in a beautiful space open to the exterior on two sides, a selection of early Chinese, Korean, and Japanese sculptures.
An attempt has been made to organize the entire hang chronologically, with objects getting older as you ascend through the museum. These early Asian works muddy that guiding principle, as does the gallery of Impressionist, post-Impressionist, and modern works from the Maurice Wertheim Collection on the same level. But the variety of objects on view on this very accessible entrance level does just what it should: It amuses the bouche, so to speak, and shakes up expectations.
The postwar and contemporary galleries have a cerebral aura. They are superior to comparable efforts in this field at the Museum of Fine Arts, but less impressive by a wide margin than the displays at Yale, which is uncommonly blessed in postwar art.
The first gallery establishes a lively tension between forces of creation and destruction in art across continents. Joan Miro, who talked about “detonating” his canvases and “smashing” Cubism, has a large painting hanging near a canvas covered in strips of burnt bark by Italy’s Alberto Burri. Burri’s post-Hiroshima vision of destruction as creation came out of Jackson Pollock’s so-called “action painting,” and Pollock (represented here with a great drip painting) was in turn inspired by Miro’s biomorphic surrealism.
Harvard owns the largest collection of works in all media by the great American sculptor David Smith (outside of Smith’s estate). His pieces, including three of only seven that he made in sterling silver, are laced throughout the lower floor galleries, and here can be found in the context of Pollock, but also of Louise Nevelson, Ellsworth Kelly, and Richard Diebenkorn.
Two paintings by Josef Albers from his “Homage to the Square” series lead us into a gallery with works by Agnes Martin, Sol LeWitt, Jasper Johns, Joseph Beuys, Georg Baselitz, Nam June Paik, and Ed Ruscha, among others. A third gallery, laid out sparely, has works focusing on the body as a politicized entity, by Kerry James Marshall, Kiki Smith, Mona Hatoum, and Robert Gober.
New England has long lacked a place to see a concentrated, high quality introduction to cubism, the table-turning early 20th-century art movement invented by Picasso and Braque. So linger, if you can, in the gallery that includes a lineup of cubist paintings by Juan Gris, Gino Severini, and Picasso (his cubist “Portrait of William Uhde,” on loan from Emily Rauh Pulitzer, is a stunner), as well as three paintings of village rooftops. The first of these is by Picasso, painted seven years before cubism; the second by Braque in the year he concocted cubism under the spell of Cezanne (and in the same village, L’Estaque, that Cezanne had painted); and the third by Man Ray, seven years later, when he was still working in the US.
The sequence gives us a foretaste of an approach that becomes more evident throughout: combinations of works that remind us of flow-on effects, connections across time, and the spread of ideas across continents.
Galleries devoted to surrealism, social realism, and a loosely expressionist vein of figurative painting and sculpture follow in quick succession, with wonderful things by Smith, Miro, and de Kooning, as well as Georgia O’Keeffe, Max Ernst, and Joseph Cornell. Smith’s “Medals for Dishonor,” a loan, is a highlight in the social realist gallery. Harvard’s great Max Beckmann triptych, “The Actors,” puts an exclamation point on an engaging narrative.
It also points the way to the Busch-Reisinger’s 20th-century holdings, which fill several dazzling galleries on this same ground level. Lovis Corinth’s “Portrait of the Sculptor Friedrich” dominates the first gallery, which also includes a stained glass window by Max Pechstein, a Gustav Klimt landscape (“The Pear Tree”), and paintings by Edvard Munch and Erich Heckel.
A terrific introduction to German Expressionism follows, with Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s unforgettable “Self-Portrait with a Cat” in clashing oranges and pinks (and with a new, historically accurate frame) and an extraordinary double-sided painting — one side figurative, the other abstract — by Johannes Molzahn.
Five bronze sculptures by German modernists are on display in an adjoining gallery. It’s one of a series of Piano’s so-called winter gardens: small, glassed-in boxes that are drenched in light from outside, affording lovely views and a measure of mental respite. A similar winter garden upstairs has a ravishing display of terracotta bozzetti by Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
A gallery dedicated to the Bauhaus and its network of connections illustrates the museum’s determination to mix up all kinds of objects, from paintings by Piet Mondrian and Lyonel Feininger to sculpture by Moholy-Nagy, collages by Kurt Schwitters and Hannah Hoch, and a magnificent tapestry by Gunta Stolzl.
But let us wander upstairs. The fun is just beginning.
The galleries displaying works from the Middle Ages include a stained glass window from Canterbury Cathedral showing a scene from the life of Thomas Becket; the only known painting of Saint Dominic from the century in which he lived (the 13th); and a gothic head attributed to Guillaume de Nouriche.
A glass-covered drawer in one of many natty niches between galleries shows engravings by Albrecht Durer beside gorgeously painted renderings by George Mack of those same engravings, mounted on parchment vellum. The combination suggests tensions between the treasured aura of original painting and the obvious advantages, in terms of distribution, of reproducible facsimiles in these very early days of the print revolution. Similar issues arise later in the hang, as 19th-century photographs made to look like paintings and paintings made to look like photographs hang side by side.
One expects smart curators to combine different kinds of objects in displays of modern and medieval art, as well as Asian, African, and Islamic art. But it’s rare to find museums willing to show European Old Master paintings in the same galleries as works on paper, simply because prints and drawings — for conservation reasons — require lower light levels than paintings, which tend to look best in natural light.
The new Harvard galleries buck this tendency. You can now see, for instance, a rare Titian drawing of a landscape just a few feet from what may be one of the great Venetian’s earliest paintings, a soft (and damaged) Giorgionesque work featuring moody landscape elements. Titian’s huge woodblock print, “The Submersion of Pharoah’s Army in the Red Sea,” hangs nearby.
Inevitably, compromises have had to be made. Some paintings look dim in galleries where the lighting is lower. In compensation, many that benefit most from natural light hang on walls that front onto the light-filled courtyard. But inside the galleries, the gains are great. To see Titian’s treatment of landscape alongside, for instance, Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s ravishing drawing of a wooded landscape is a treat. It hints at the rich dialogue between Italian and Northern European traditions that was such an important feature of the Renaissance.
One of the highlights of the early Renaissance galleries is a row of three versions of the Crucifixion, by the great Sienese painters Simone Martini and the brothers Ambrogio and Pietro Lorenzetti. The Florentine Fra Angelico’s limpid Crucifixion, made a century later, hangs nearby.
Director Tom Lentz and his curators have opted for intelligent lucidity over bazaar-style crowding, and as a guiding principle I think that this was the right choice. That said, the space given to art from the Islamic world, one of the museum’s great strengths, felt insufficient, as did the adjoining gallery devoted to art from South and Southeast Asia.
Still, the thinking behind the Islamic displays, with its emphasis on calligraphy fanning out into many other art forms, is clear and instructive. And many of the objects, including tombstones borrowed from Harvard’s Semitic Museum, several pages from early copies of the Qu’ran, and a display case of fritware ceramics, are breathtaking.
A highlight is the much beloved manuscript painting by Sultan Muhammad of “Earthly Drunkenness” from the 16th-century Persian Safavid court. But perhaps the most singular Islamic object of all is a recently restored 16th-century Ottoman dish with flowers and foliage. A recent gift by Edith Welch in memory of her husband, the great Harvard scholar Stuart Cary Welch, it is the most famous such dish in existence. Its saz spray decoration and color combination of demure green, vivid turquoise, faded aubergine, and deep blue will knock your socks off.
Nearby are galleries devoted to Japanese screens and paintings (including some paintings of beauties from the Robert and Betsy Feinberg collection, a hugely significant recent gift), Chinese paintings, and Buddhist sculpture.
A return to the Western tradition then leads us through art from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, where European and American paintings are combined not just with works on paper, decorative arts, and sculptures, but also with early photographs.
Provocative combinations and juxtapositions abound. A display of Northern European works ropes together prints and drawings by Rembrandt and Lievens with an oil sketch by Rubens and a recently acquired painting by Van de Velde the Younger.
A brilliant display case, with pullout drawers beneath, introduces us to the varieties in form and uses of silver across cultures, emphasizing trade and exchange. In the same vein, a Native American wampum wrist ornament is displayed alongside a British silver monteith (a bowl for cooling glasses) in chinoiserie style. Both were made for trans-Atlantic trade.
There are portraits of leaders — American (George Washington by Gilbert Stuart), Native American (Little Elk by Charles Bird King), and European (Napoleon by David) — that trigger reflections on the representation of power. And two stunning galleries combining Classical with Romantic styles include paintings and drawings by David, Ingres, Gericault, Chasseriau, and Moreau, all of whom are represented in depth.
A gallery combining 19th-century landscapes in various styles by Whistler, Homer, Bierstadt, and Courbet with a Civil War photograph showing the grisly aftermath of Gettysburg by Thomas O’Sullivan electrifies links between landscape, style, and nationalism. And we say goodbye to the 19th century with an unusually international take on late Impressionism and painterly tonalism, with paintings by Sargent, Mariano Fortuny, and Munch alongside works by Degas (painted in New Orleans) and his American friend working in France, Mary Cassatt (all nine states of her color print, “The Bath.”) An almost shocking charge runs, too, between Degas’s sculpture, the “Little Dancer Aged 14,” and Rodin’s wildly erotic bronze “Iris.”
I’ve left precious little room to describe the wonderful ancient galleries one level up. They are divided into discrete displays divided by region, complemented by smart and provocative groupings in the colonnades around the courtyard.
In a few places, 19th-century, modern, or contemporary works have been thrown in to the mix, to demonstrate the extraordinarily far-reaching influence of ancient art or to demonstrate contrasts. Thus, a Rodin sculpture — all thwarted musculature and psychic compression — breaks up a display of more harmonious marble figures. And a marble carved by Louise Bourgeois adds a very modern disturbance to the same display.
Highlights of these galleries include a second-century Fayum funerary portrait of a woman; a section of a Roman sarcophagus with men fighting Amazons; and a terrific full-body portrait of the Emperor Trajan from 2d-century Rome.
Harvard Art Museums is back, at last. Its distinguished collection is once again accessible to all of us — and in ways it never was before.