But now I was curious. How many had we actually visited? With my usual dedication to number counting I began to build a list slightly over 130 with almost 60% of them overseas. Not surprisingly France accounted for 25% of the list. Almost half of our total received repeated visits.
Fortunately for me, my husband shares my passion for viewing art as well as the endurance to spend whole days immersed in that activity. I recall a seven hour visit we had at the Prado in Madrid. Exhausted in both mind and body we were trudging back to our hotel, contemplating a Spanish siesta, when we stumbled over a lovely gem of a museum, the Thyssen-Bornemisza. It closed in two hours. A sidelong glance at my husband confirmed he could muster the energy for another two hours and off we went.
afternoons at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts as well as a visit to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The MFA is a stellar museum that I had never been to so it was a rare treat. John Singer Sargent was a citizen of the world who called many cities home, but did some significant work in Boston. Upon entering we discovered the ceiling murals commissioned from Sargent in 1916 for what was then a new museum building. In addition to a large collection of Sargent paintings, drawings and murals, the museum also has an exceptional contemporary exhibit which reflected thought and artistry, something we do not always find in contemporary exhibitions. We were particularly drawn to a work hanging overhead by Tara Donovan created solely out of styrofoam cups. The form and material interacted with the light to create something much greater than one might imagine. Between Sargent and Donovan we spent a lot of time looking up.
The Isabella Stewart Gardner is a very eclectic museum which has a Sargent painting of its founder that I had only seen in books. Her husband so disliked it that it was not shown until after his death. There is something rather special about standing in front of the original. In addition to these wonderful offerings, we took particular pleasure in the unexpected discoveries at the Pucker Gallery and the Boston Public Library.
The conference had the forethought to arrange a visit to the Pucker Gallery following a film on Samuel Bak. The gallery represents Bak who now lives in the area. Bak came from Vilna, now Vilnius, Lithuania where he and his mother were among the 200 survivors of a city of 70-80,000 Jews. Nuns hid them during the war. His father was murdered shortly before the end of the war. Bak's talent was recognized at an early age and he was invited by the poet Abraham Sutzkever to exhibit his artwork in the ghetto at the age of nine. Although he wasn't in a camp, he heard the stories of others in the DP camps and that influenced his work. After the war he studied art in Poland, Germany and Israel. His work has a number of themes; pears, chess pieces and a childhood friend who died in the Holocaust reappear frequently. Pears were common in Vilna and his stepfather used to play chess with him.
At the gallery there were many pieces on display and accessible on panels that could be pulled out. Upstairs a display of his work filled the walls. Pucker shared stories about Bak's history and the meaning of symbols that reappear. It was a rich immersion into the work of an amazing artist.
As we wandered around Boston we came to the public library. We entered the new portion which while certainly functional lacked the magic of the original which we entered through a connecting courtyard which felt like the many cloisters we had visited in Europe. Around the grand staircase we found murals by de Chavannes representing the muses of Greek mythology. In the Sargent Gallery we found an impressive series of murals titled the Triumph of Religion. The theme was based on the idea of religious freedom and ran into a bit of controversy that caused Sargent to abandon his last painting of The Sermon on the Mount. The paintings begin with the religions of “pagan gods” and then depict Judaism and Christianity. The focus is on the study of religions, not on religious worship, but the controversy arose when Sargent depicted Synagogue and Church. Synagogue was depicted as a blindfolded older woman while Church was depicted as a beautiful young woman. The Jewish community of Boston objected that his depiction demeaned Judaism. Sargent, puzzled by the controversy, was drawing on depictions in Christian art which typically show Synagoga as blindfolded and holding a broken lance, suggesting it was vanquished by Christianity. They represent the inherent bias of Christianity as they are depicted in a church narrative.
I found it interesting that the Jewish community of Boston was sufficiently established to object vocally, perhaps the best argument that some measure of religious freedom did in fact exist at that time. An interesting side note relates to another unexpected Sargent discovery of ours in the War Museum in London. There is a powerful painting called Gassed which depicts the blinded soldiers during the war. Done at the same time, it is argued by Sally Promey in Painting Religion in Public: John Singer Sargent's "Triumph of Religion" at the Boston Public Library that its influence can be seen in this painting.
If you get to the library make sure to visit the Edwin Austin Abbey murals on the The Quest of the Holy Grail. The library offers tours of the artwork and architecture. And if you are interested in learning more about Sargent and his work, two books which offer excellent background are David McCullough's The Greater Journey and Deborah Davis's Strapless.