The Art of Scandal: What might Isabella Stewart Gardner collect today? will be on exhibit at Childs Gallery, Boston, March 16 – May 14, 2016
What was so scandalous about the 19th century art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner? “Immortalized by Henry James in print and by John Singer Sargent on canvas, Isabella Stewart Gardner has remained an elusive original whose independent life and work shocked the Boston aristocracy she married into,” writes Douglass Shand-Tucci in his captivating biography of the famed “Mrs. Jack,” The Art of Scandal.
Adds the celebrated museum that bears her name, “The local press was both fascinated and scandalized by her,” not just by Gardner’s flouting of social conventions, but also the audacity of building a 15th century Venetian-style palazzo in Boston to house “one of the most remarkable and intimate collections of art in the world today” - and one open to the public! “Isabella Gardner installed her collection of works in a way to evoke intimate responses to the art, mixing paintings, furniture, textiles, and objects from different cultures and periods among well-known European paintings and sculpture,” and therein lies her true genius.
With The Art of Scandal, Childs Gallery projects Gardner’s life and spirit onto today’s art world, daring to imagine what she might collect were she still alive today. The exhibition features paintings, photographs, and prints by contemporary artists Abelardo Morell, Erik Desmazières, Raphaël Jaimes-Branger, Michael Bergt, Thomas Darsney, Adam Van Doren, Don Joint and Anthony Moore, among others. Gardner’s love of religious and classical imagery, Venice, Asian exoticism, and technical bravura is apparent throughout, with many works inspired by Gardner’s own collection, including paintings by Sargent, Whistler, and the masters of the Italian Renaissance.
What excited this singularly driven collector? “Art and religion were Gardner’s muses; social freedom and creative design her causes; and artists and intellectuals her friends and co-workers,” writes Shand-Tucci. When it came to buying contemporary art, he continues, “Isabella Gardner lived to be in a very real sense a modernist after all, but one most comfortable at the more conservative end of the modernist continuum.” And perhaps most progressive of all was her decision to integrate those contemporary works - in a way that often irritated scholars, Shand-Tucci reminds us – by relating objects “according to form and color and technique more than by period or place.”
That synthesis is precisely what contemporary artist Michael Bergt accomplishes in his exquisitely rendered egg tempera works based on Gardner’s beloved art themes of religion and mythology. “Mocked is inspired by the Hieronymus Bosch painting of the same title,” explains Bergt. “However, the Christ figure in my piece is completely different and based on a contemporary figure. I’ve always been intrigued by Bosch’s Mocked because the characters surrounding Christ are fantastic metaphorical profiles of evil personalities. Meanwhile, the Christ figure is passively awaiting the placement of the crown of thorns on his head. In my painting, the crown being placed on the head of Christ is in fact a metal studded collar that the model I painted might wear in real life. When I looked at the figure on the right in the Bosch painting, I realized he was also wearing a studded metal collar.”
While Mocked would look right at home in Gardner’s Early Italian or Raphael Rooms – magic realist painter Paul Cadmus favorably compared Bergt’s brilliant technique to Crivelli’s - she would have been equally drawn to the emotional and symbolic complexity of the work. Wrote Cadmus, “Here is an artist [Bergt] who is very serious indeed, one who believes that ART, his own certainly, should prod, should point out, should arouse thoughts, should make the viewer cogitate. . . . 'THINK!' He keeps saying. He says it without shouting, without raising his voice.”
Religious themes dominated many of Gardner’s earliest purchases, among them, a magnificent stained glass window. Designed by the preeminent printmaker Albrecht Dürer, The Self-Mortification of Saint Benedict portrays Satan unsuccessfully tempting Benedict to break his vows. Another epic battle between good and evil is the subject of Erik Desmazières’ tour-de-force etching/aquatint The Temptation of St. Anthony (1993). Inspired by celebrated draftsmen of the past – M.C. Escher, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, and Jacques Callot, whose 1635 Temptation of St. Anthony this work is based on – Desmazières has been described as “arguably the finest French printmaker of his generation,” recently honored with a retrospective at the Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam. With Gardner’s passion for mixing time periods and mediums, she would relish the idea of juxtaposing a paper print and glass window so similar in theme and masterful detailing. And as her husband Jack once served as treasurer of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, Isabella would have been pleased to know this work is part of their collection.
Some of the happiest times John Lowell (Jack) Gardner spent with his freespirited wife were in their home away from home, The Palazzo Barbaro in Venice. The art, the architecture, the opera – everything about the “city of bridges” tantalized Mrs. Jack, so much so that she encapsulated its history and essence in every corner of her Fenway Court palace. And how she delighted in the romantic watercolors of Venetian scenes by her great friend John Singer Sargent.
Also enthralled with Venice as a source of endless study is widely collected contemporary artist/author Adam Van Doren, whose impressionistic paintings and watercolors so beautifully evoke the city’s dreamlike quality. While the colorful daytime scene in Exterior of the Basilica is like a memory poem of the Piazza San Marco, Domes at Night captures the almost indescribable magic of a place that seems to float without anchor in the evening sky. How Gardner might reminisce in its presence: elaborate candlelit dinners, the smell of incense, and music that stirred the soul. Venice appealed to all the senses at once, something Gardner was keen to duplicate at Fenway Court.
Gardner once confessed to a friend, Shand-Tucci recounts, that “’when perplexed by an annoying problem’ she liked to go and ‘sit quietly before a beautiful object . . . the problem tended to solve itself in the process.’” One such beautiful “object” was James McNeill Whistler’s Nocturne, Blue and Silver: Battersea Reach, considered a bold purchase in its day for its daring abstraction and supposed “lack of finish.” But surely that’s what attracted Gardner most. Here was an acclaimed artist thinning his paint and quickening his brush strokes not to obscure the Thames night scene, but rather to depict it more accurately through a cloak of fog. It was mesmerizing.
Might Gardner have also taken a fancy to the highly original technique of the modern classicist Raphaël Jaimes-Branger? Celebrated for a whisper-thin, acid-on-silver leaf process of his own creation, the Venezuelan-born artist simultaneously looks backward and forward to magical effect. Trained at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, he was endlessly captivated by the great “painters’ painters” throughout history, such as Velasquez, Bronzino and Sargent. Figures from iconic works by those artists appear as ghostly, pentimento-like apparitions in Jaimes-Branger’s mystical silver leaf works - the images created not by paint, but rather the oxidation of metal. There is a humbling unpredictability to the process, explains the artist, whose hypnotic reimagining of John Singer Sargent’s The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit might be of particular interest to Gardner, Sargent’s muse, patron, and friend.
Pop art at Fenway Court? Perhaps if it was one of Alex Katz’s startling floral compositions, bursting with life and color, Asian-influenced in its immediacy. Isabella was a lifelong gardener and horticulturalist whose inventively landscaped courtyard never ceased to delight. She collected many paintings with floral motifs, and in a wide range of period styles.
And photography? Though it was slow to emerge as an art form in Gardner’s lifetime, she would have found Abelardo Morell’s camera obscura images of Venice simply irresistible. As the photographer explains his process, “In setting up a room to make this kind of photograph, I cover all windows with black plastic in order to achieve total darkness. Then, I cut a small hole in the material I use to cover the windows. This opening allows an inverted image of the view outside to flood onto the back walls of the room.”
One of those photographs projects an arresting image of Venice’s Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute onto the elaborately patterned wall of a luxurious palazzo living room on the opposite side of the canal. In this singular image, Morell encapsulates Gardner’s lifelong dream for her Fenway Court – transporting the majesty of Venice to her own home, inside and out. As Shand-Tucci writes, “Gardner’s work, so striking in its melancholy beauty, in its uncanny feeling for the modern mind’s almost cinematic need for shifting focus and cross cutting and double vision – at once so rich and so lucid, a dialogue between Old World decadence and New World vitality – is such that the world is not soon likely to pass it by.”
Childs’ exhibition marks the publication of the new and expanded edition of Douglass Shand-Tucci’s biography, The Art of Scandal: The Life and Times of Isabella Stewart Gardner. The author will be signing books at our exhibit opening on March 16th from 6:00 to 8:00 PM. The public is welcome. To preview the exhibition visit www.childsgallery.com. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for the exhibition price list.
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About Childs Gallery
Established 1937. Fine American and European Paintings, Prints, Drawings, Watercolors and Sculpture.