There are probably almost as many reasons for collecting works of art as there are for producing them in the first place. To the painter, the mind of the patron is something of a mystery. To the father of the work, its raison-d'etre is clear and inevitable. But those who consider themselves amateurs, if not connoisseurs, more often than not have other ideas. The most puissant dealers have proven to be agile psychologists, time and time again.
There are those who collect out of a love for art itself, out of enthusiasm and out of conviction. Then there are those who collect with enthusiasm but with more advice than self-assurance. There are those who collect purely and simply to invest. There are also those to whom art means prestige of one sort or another. Yet, over a substantial period of time, the character of collecting itself has changed considerably.
With the coming of inflation, the income tax, mass culture and the popularization of art, the grand old Age of Acquisition has pretty much gone forever. If there are prophets in our midst to rival the Steins, the Caillebottes, the Camondos of the past, they have yet to reveal themselves. The free-swinging eccentricity of an Alfred Barnes was unique in its own day; the complexities of this decade make such a thing still less probable. And the ways of a Frick, a Havemeyer, a Johnson are, together with so many luxuries of a rococco era, simply impractical.
For all this, however, a new focus on collecting has emerged during recent years. While important French canvases have been finding more or less permanent homes in museums and smaller groupings, while old masters have made themselves still less accessible, a greater number of people than ever before have become interested in acquiring original works of art. Reproductions are sometimes better than nothing, but they rarely approach accuracy and, above all, they are many times removed from "the real thing." So, whether from a sense of the genuine or just a sense of possession, (which has always played a part in art collecting) the annual Christmas Show institution of the galleries has become a year round affair. Where paintings are often beyond limits, lithographs, etchings and sometimes even drawing, provide a happy compromise.
The current exhibition at Fogg reflects the interest and enthusiasm of Harvard undergraduates in the pursuit of quality. There are paintings here, as well as drawings and prints; there is also an occasional hint of the presence of parent collections amidst examples of more direct commitment and sacrifice. But, in any case, the element of choice and decision is present throughout.
It is precisely in respect to taste and commitment that this exhibition makes an interesting entity. In terms of quality the overall effect might be better. In fact it might be a great deal better. In relation to much of what here reflects the decisions of the student as collector, there have been multitudes of opportunities offered by the Cambridge galleries themselves which seem to have gone unheeded. And in any grouping of large numbers there are bound to be mistakes. But far more important is the fact that Harvard student collectors seem to follow their convictions and preferences with spontaneity and without recourse to pre-digested commandments of taste.
There are works in this exhibition, evidencing a complete gamut of preference, from an opus by Durer to American contemporaries. The latter might well be more in evidence than they are; but, of course, here one's decision is riskier. Matisse constitutes safer territory.
There are certain works of art, like the two portraits of Baudelaire in the exhibition, (a lithograph by Rouault and an etching by Manet), which sum up the pleasure of collecting. Perhaps motives of sentiment lie behind these choices as well as aesthetic discretion. This is perfectly legitimate. Rouault and Les Fleur du Mal strike a rich chord. It is just this sort of thing which lends collecting an added charm.
Perhaps the art world of today suffers from an overdose of dogma in the guise of selectivity, from rigidity posing as uncompromising choice. At Fogg's current show there may be many hits and many misses. But the picture, in toto, comprises one of the healthiest group shows we have seen for a long time. That, in itself, constitutes a success.