First look at Harvard Art Museums
Newly-opened merged collections cover a wide range of periods and styles
After a six-year wait, the red brick college down the road finally opened its Harvard Art Museums, a merger of three museums encompassing a history of world art, uniting them under a single glass roof.
The Museums combine the Arthur M. Sackler Museum’s collection of Asian, Middle Eastern, and Mediterranean art, the Fogg Museum’s European and American art, and the Busch-Reisinger Museum’s Germanic paintings. The award-winning architect Renzo Piano, who led the renovations, created space on the upper and lower floors of the 6-level structure for state-of-the-art conservation and seminar rooms in addition to 250,000 works.
The museum’s Quincy Street entrance leads to a wide-open courtyard with a clear view of the arcades on each level. Light filters in from the pyramidal ceiling, playing over much of the beautiful interior. Walk forward and you’ll see a gallery open to Chinese and Buddhist art. Look left or right and you’ll find the modern and contemporary art, a nod to the very rough layout of traversing back in time as you walk upward.
A Georgia O’Keeffe painting on the wall of the rightmost gallery of the first floor presents a disconcerting surprise. “Red and Pink” is the only representation the artist has on display at the Museums, and it provokes a visceral reaction in its light and dark flame-like tongues that resemble human tissue.
Light plays a major role in the special exhibition entitled “Harvard Murals” by Mark Rothko. The thin layers of paint on these abstract murals, which were originally commissioned for Harvard’s Holyoke Center, have faded so much that they merit unique conservation techniques. Large projectors bathe some of the murals in individualized, algorithmically determined wavelengths to capture the murals’ original rich colors.
Yet another special exhibition was created by avant-garde contemporary artist Rebecca Horn. She showcases a collection of her art entitled “Work in Progress,” that include costumes, films, photographs, and sculptures in a mix that is at once strangely eclectic but, as she stated, “all interlocks.”
The Prospect Street entrance opens to another work by Horn, a specially commissioned kinetic sculpture called “Flying Books under Black Rain.” A white wall is covered in sprays of black paint from a nozzle in the top corner, and three books attached to the wall open and close, triggered by the approach of a spectator. The patterns of paint and subtle movements are mesmerizing, highlighted by the fact that the art is always in formation.
You also don’t want to miss the Museums’ fantastic collection of Impressionist art found predominantly on the second floor — Monets, Renoirs, Cézannes, and Degas from the Fogg collection are all immediately recognizable. “Charing Cross Bridge: Fog on the Thames” by Monet is composed almost entirely of hazy blues, greens, and violets, reducing the sun to a pale orb feebly trying to break the mist.
A particularly striking monochromatic oil on canvas by J.G. Vibert entitled “Apotheosis of Louis-Adolphe Thiers,” an exact replica of a color version in Versailles, is housed in a nearby gallery. Scattered in the middle of these galleries are multiple miniature cast-metal sculptures by Rodin. One sculpture, my personal favorite, was made deliberately headless and armless, highlighting a sense of stability and freedom in its wide stance.
The Harvard Art Museums were clearly made with attempts at community and student outreach. By appointment, visitors can request works for examination in the Art Study Center on the top floor, allowing lengthy interaction with objects including those not displayed in the galleries. There are also University Galleries next to Horn’s and Rothko’s exhibitions; these are frequented by Harvard students pursuing studies in fine arts.
I’ve passed over the other eras of art that the Museums represent, but its collections of Medieval, Ancient Greek and Roman, and Middle Eastern art are all spectacular. While there are no specimens of African, Native American, or South American art, the Museums are a worthy addition to Harvard’s lineup of cultural institutions. You might choose to complete your cultural tour with a visit to the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, just a few blocks away.