Last week my wife and I headed up to Boston and Hartford for a quick vacation to visit some old friends and to do some sightseeing. We lucked out on the weather, which had been raining days upon end before our trip, but was only raining intermittently while we were traveling (a big improvement, according to the locals).
On Sunday we explored Boston’s Museum of Fine Art, a fantastic museum that is both manageable and diverse. It is presently undergoing some renovations and/or additions that make navigation, however, slightly detour-filled. I recently read The Invention of Painting in America, a brief meditation in three lectures on how painting developed in America. It has a number of images from the MFA that were a pleasure to see in person, including this Copley painting (which is delightful, except that I hate squirrels given the past damage they have done to my house).
Henry Pelham (Boy with a Squirrel)
According to author Rosand, when Copley presented this painting (via Benjamin West) to the Society for Artists in England, West’s reply was: “…at first Sight the Picture struck the Eye as being to liney [sic], which was judged to have arose from there being so much neatness in the lines, which indeed as far as I was Capable of judgeing was some what the Case.”
I had forgotten that one of my favorite paintings of all time, Sargent’s “Daughters of E.D. Boit”, was in the Boston MFA and so was very excited to come across it in the gallery. Unfortunately, its current positioning leaves it subjected to a distracting glare coming from the adjacent gallery’s natural lighting. This is one of those paintings that cause you to stop in your tracks (as it did when I saw it at the Met some years ago).
Sargent's "Daughters of E.D. Boit"
The museum was featuring a Dale Chihuly exhibition which was packed, fun, and more interesting than I had expected. In the adjacent store, a fascinating video demonstrated the hard, sweaty work by a team of experts that goes into producing these complex assemblages of curved, colored glass.
Dale Chihuly at MFA in Boston
MFA has a many other treasures, including a few that I stopped to take quick photos of (top-to-bottom: Cornelis Bega, Edward Hopper, Norman Lewis):
Cornelis Bega, Edward Hopper, Norman Lewis
After MFA, we proceeded a few blocks away to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, which I have to say was a disappointment. It seems that she was more of a hoarder than a collector and most of the works of art are hung in bad light in ways that simply aren’t meant for you to appreciate the works themselves (to be fair, the museum is undergoing a renovation that may improve the lighting). Rather, you’re supposed to be impressed, I suppose, by the density of the hanging. Unlike Barnes, however, there’s not much excitement, not that many great paintings, and not a lot of coherence to the quirkiness. One standout, however, is the beautiful courtyard that you can view from three levels and four sides throughout the building. However, no photographs are allowed on the premises 🙁
That night we took in a Red Sox game against the Cubs at Fenway, my first time at the great ballpark. I didn’t have a rooting interest and for safety reasons remained non-committal. Sox fans were well behaved until around the 5th inning, when a group of women who had been doubling up on beers all night began abusing a poor Cubs fan behind us. Red Sox won 5-1.
Red Sox vs Cubs at Fenway, May 2011
On Monday we walked around Cambridge, taking in both Harvard Square and just a bit of MIT. Mostly I was looking for bookstores. Harvard Square wasn’t as cute as I remembered it, but Raven Books was nice.
View from the 2nd floor of the very nice Starbucks at Harvard Square
The MIT Press Bookstore (as I remember from a long-ago trip to Beantown) is awesome, with tons of fascinating books on my subjects of interest: psychology, science, art, and design.
On Tuesday, we hit the galleries and shops on Newbury Street. The highlight was the Barbara Krakow Gallery, one of the few on the street that focused on well known (to me, anyway) contemporary artists. My wife and I loved the Kate Shepherd and Anni Albers show, especially Shepherd’s new use of puzzle compositions of laser-cut wood. Also on the street are several co-op galleries (I think) that exhibited some high quality representational paintings in a variety of genres; there are also some secondary galleries with things like Chagall prints, of which I’m always suspect and not particularly interested. At the end of the street we hit the Boston Common, where we paused just long enough for this photo:
On Wednesday we drove out to Hartford and visited the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, a pleasant, medium-sized museum with a focus on early American art but which also includes a decent collection of more modern and contemporary work and which featured a small but very worthwhile exhibition of Monet waterlily paintings. I enjoyed the Sol LeWitt wall paintings in the lobby:
Sol LeWitt Wall Drawing at Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford
On the last day of our trip, we took a slight detour to visit the New Britian Museum of American Art, a smaller museum that focuses on American art with strengths in colonial portraiture, Hudson River School paintings, American Impressionism, and the Ash Can School. We arrived early Thursday morning but the musuem was already open and absolutely packed with school children on field trips who were zooming around the galleries and in some cases being asked to identify which paintings they liked best, voting by the placement of small cards on the ground in front of their choices. It’s great to expose the kids to the art, though I was terrified for the docents as I watched children dart here and there just a few inches away from the precious paintings!
The New Britain Museum of American Art
The highlight of the museum (in addition to a complex Thomas Hart Benton mural) and one of the draws to our visit is Graydon Parrish’s “The Cycle of Terror and Tragedy: September 11, 2001“, which amazingly gets very little mention on the museum’s website (you have to search with Google to find their blog with details). (Parrish is an Austin, Texas, based classical painter who founded an online forum where I’ve participated in a few discussions about the nature of art and related matters.)
The painting is truly a master piece and, as you would expect, is much better to see in person than in reproductions. One can immediately appreciate the massive amount of effort, planning, and technical excellence required to implement the monument (nearly 18 feet wide and more than 6 feet tall). For me, the response to the painting is different from other monuments with which I’m familiar. At the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, for instance, the seemingly endless list of names etched into the black wall (with mourners taking rubbings of those names) hits you viscerally in the gut. A similarly lachrymose reaction grabs you at the Oklahoma City monument where the repetitive forms of empty chairs and a reflecting pool remind you immediately of the personal losses incurred. Parrish’s memorial is a more intellectual thing, requiring some decoding to make sense of it, and as such, the emotional reaction isn’t as direct. What are we looking at here? How do the two twin towering figures represent both Terror and Tragedy? Why are the innocents holding the toy planes? Ironically, though I’m personally very interested in metaphor as it’s related to cognitive psychology, I’m somewhat linguistically challenged when it comes to artistic allegory, a type of metaphor where the figures of a painting symbolize something else, requiring a complex interpretation to get at the artist’s meaning. Nevertheless, I was fascinated with the overall construction of the painting, the perfect composition, and completely refined (yet not too crisp), all-over treatment of the canvas. In particular, one of the fallen figures virtually spills forth from the surface into the gallery:
Detail from Graydon Parrish's "Cycle of Terror and Tragedy"
Finally, following our visit to New Britain, we headed home, unsuccessfully avoiding pre-holiday rush hour traffic due to a massive backup at the George Washington Bridge that Google Navigation was unable to direct us around. Four museums, many galleries, meals with three separate long-missed friends and their spouses, and a baseball game: a very nice trip, indeed!
View from our hotel in Boston, from The Prudential Center to Copley Square