Museum of Fine Arts director John Schloder used to say he didn't have enough space to exhibit about 90 percent of the permanent collection. He wasn't kidding.
"Unveiled: Rarely Seen Art from the Collection" is a deliriously packed, bring-it-on exhibition in the new Hazel Hough Wing that has emptied the vaults of almost 300 works.
Chief curator Jennifer Hardin has stacked paintings, drawings and prints up to the ceilings of the main, double-height gallery in an arrangement known as salon style. It was popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries, emulating the baronial rooms of the great private collectors of the 18th century who used it for maximum show-off effect.
We are more accustomed to viewing art in linear formation, one at a time, encouraged to study the specific qualities of each work, like a composed plate of discrete ingredients.
This is one huge tossed salad and best taken in big gulps. Rather than a wall label, each piece has a number that is matched with the artist's name on a gallery guide available at the entrance. The four walls flow fairly chronologically from early 19th century to contemporary, almost exclusively European and American. Most of the early artists will probably be unknown to you. They were to me, even though many were highly regarded in their time. Their culling from our current art-history A-list is an example both of changing tastes and closer qualitative judgments.
For example, there are several pastoral landscapes done by artists associated with the French Barbizon school, including one by Henri-Joseph Harpignies, who was popular at the turn of the century. He was a friend of Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, now considered a far greater artist. So the Corot has had permanent wall space for years in the museum while the similar Harpignies painting remained in storage.
W. Seaman? No idea who he was. But I love his mid-19th century Indian Maid Embracing Brave, a fantasy of American topography and American Indians.
Which is not to say a lot of the works are unimportant. In many instances they are like collateral materials that support major theses. We can see movements unfold and evolve as painting wended its way into the 20th century. Two walls devoted to our most recent past have more names we know: Rauschenberg, Rosenquist, Stella, Close, Mapplethorpe, Pearlstein, Dine, de Kooning, Lichtenstein, Albers. Their placement seems designed around harmonies of color and form. Unlike the earlier paintings, we have seen many of them before, during the museum's annual summer shows.
A smaller side gallery functions as an overflow room for everything from medieval manuscripts to self-taught artists.
Upstairs is a gallery for works on paper with drawings, prints and photographs. Many of them are rarely if ever exhibited, not because of their quality but because of their fragility. Some exceptional examples are a Renaissance drawing by an unknown artist; watercolors by John La Farge, Paul Signac and Maurice Prendergast; and prints by Edouard Manet, Henri Matisse, Georges Rouault and James Tissot. Hardin says that some were found unmatted, in boxes, during a three-year inventory and evaluation. She had a tough time culling about 50 photographs from the museum's large collection for this show, and some choice favorites are absent. But they have made way for some new acquisitions by Dianora Niccolini, Kenro Izu, Linda Conner, Gary Schneider and Lucien Clergue.
A community project
"Mrs. Stuart's Legacy," a second, smaller exhibition, was curated by Schloder to honor Margaret Acheson Stuart, the museum's founder, and the friends and family who rallied to stock the young institution with fine art. Several years before its 1965 opening, the museum was receiving gifts, and Schloder has grouped works chronologically according to when they came into the collection, beginning in 1962. The first were two Rembrandt etchings and one by Childe Hassam given by Mrs. Stuart. They began a steady flow that totaled around 700 works by 1965. Even though Mrs. Stuart clearly favored the European tradition, it was museum policy to accept any art that was of a high standard. So early on, the museum had representation in antiquities, art of Africa and the Americas and Asian art. In this exhibition we see the small core and broad scope that set the tone for the comprehensive collection the museum has today.
This is the largest number of works ever assembled for a show at the Museum of Fine Arts. But if you figure its holdings number almost 5,000, a lot remains to be seen, even discounting some art that probably is not up to today's snuff. It's humbling and moving, to see so much and realize that the majority of it was given to the community by individuals whose names we don't, for the most part, remember today.
The Oh-Wow work, best seen as you exit, is Peter Sarkisian's video installation, Extruded Video Engine #2. It's a molded plastic circular form embedded with colorful projections of machine parts and a narrative that snakes in and around it like ticker tape and emits R2-D2 noises. It was a gift from Mrs. Hazel Hough, in honor of her husband, Bill, who surprised her two years ago with the naming rights for the wing, and it is the most recent addition to the permanent collection.
Like the wing, it represents forward movement as the first video work owned by the museum. Like most of the art in the wing, it is a palpable representation of philanthropy's power and grace.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or email@example.com.