Spectacular Sackler: museum’s greatest works up for “Re-View”

BY MATT HUTCHINS

Sarah Miriam Peale, “Still Life With Watermelon,” 1822.
Jackson Pollack, “No. 2,” 1950.

For the first time in its history, the Harvard Art Museum is displaying works from all its collections under one roof. The recently opened Re-View exhibition at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum features world-class items from throughout the history of civilization, combined in ways which evoke inspiring comparisons and reveal the continuity of artistic and cultural symbolism across thousands of years. The exhibition is divided into three main halls: European and American Art Since 1900; Asian and Islamic Art, 5000 BC to the Present; and The Western Tradition, Antiquity to 1900.

The Re-View exhibition comes at a crucial moment in the history of the Harvard Art Museum. The Fogg Museum, which opened in 1927 and has since served as home to some of the greatest art in the world, closed this summer for a major series of renovations which will not be completed until 2013. Thanks to the design talents of renowned architect Renzo Piano, this project promises to upgrade the aging facility with 21st century amenities and secure its position among the elite museums in the world. Piano’s prior accomplishments include the design of the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Whitney Museum of Art in New York, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, and the expansion to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, as well as numerous other structures around the world. When the new building opens, it will house the collected works of the Fogg, Busch-Reisinger, and Sackler museums.

During the period of construction, the Harvard Art Museum will be displaying the combined collections of its museums at the Re-View exhibition in the Sackler Museum on a rotating basis. The curators will strive to keep as many works as possible accessible to the public during this period of transition. The Re-View exhibition will serve as a forum for the interesting combination of works across time periods and genres. Each floor of the museum features its own exhibition, each with their own internally consistent artistic logic. The first floor shows works from the twentieth-century, including works ranging from post-impressionist and abstract paintings to massive post-modern installations. Diverse artists like Georgia O’Keefe and El Lissitzky, Gustav Klimt and Henri Matisse, Piet Mondrian and Jackson Pollack are shown side by side. Industrial pieces like David Smith’s Doorway on Wheels occupy the floor, and around the corner is Leonardo Drew’s enormous installation, Number 122. Immersing oneself in such a rich environment promises an opportunity to contemplate much of the twentieth century’s greatest questions and contradictions.

The second and fourth floors of the museum present two very different perspectives on the history of civilization. The second floor explores seven thousand years of Asian and Islamic art. The artifacts on display are timeless in their symbolism and beauty. Each object carries with it the spiritual and physical legacy of an empire and an age: Neolithic and Imperial China, Ottoman Turkey, Sixteenth-century Iran, and pre-colonial India are all present. Artifacts froma cross all of these diverse traditions are evidence of the role of crafts in the celebration and shaping of culture throughout human history.

The fourth floor creates a conceptual bridge between the first two by taking us through the whole Western experience, from Greek pottery to Van Gogh. If you enter from the stairs you will follow this progression in chronological order, beginning with Greek artifacts. The comparison here of ancient and modern works reveals the enduring strength of mythological images. A particularly striking installation shows Franz von Stuck’s Wounded Amazon alongside an ancient depiction of the Amazonomachy. Stuck’s work shows all of the twentieth century’s emphasis on sexuality, mortality, and cultural clash while incorporating the valor and symbolism of the ancient piece directly below.

The next rooms take us from the stylized depictions of Christ from the Middle Ages and Renaissance to the dark paintings of Rembrant, from the exceptional landscapes and still-lifes of the Dutch masters onward to the evocative works of the impressionists. The oohs and ahhs should be audible as you enter the last room to be surrounded by Monets, Van Goghs, and Picassos.

Re-View is an exhibition worth travelling long distances to experience. Every student at HLS, art lover or not, owes it to themself to drop the books for an afternoon and go down the street to see it.

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