Harvard has always been a nursery school for the arts; it trained art expert Bernard Berenson, who later fell in love with the smiling ladies of the Italian Renaissance, and inspired Isabella Stewart Gardner, a Boston matron who attended Charles Eliot Norton's fine arts lectures only to become one of the most eccentric patrons of the arts and builder of her own gargoyled museum. And now, the Fogg Art Museum is boasting its proud parentage of another avid student. Joseph Pulitzer, Jr. '36, grandson of the founder of the St. Louis Post Dispatch and the Pulitzer prizes.
Whatever the Fogg's pretensions, with champagne openings and funereal flowers, the painting and drawings in this modern collection finally tell us more about the man, his taste and lack of taste, than any cocktail conversations do. And when the people get out of the way, we can learn a lot from looking at the pictures.
This part of the Pulitzer collection, acquired since 1958, does include contemporary artists, but the choice excels more in the older 20th century masters than in the young of the 60's. For example, Ernest Trova's images of falling men--symbolic protruding bellies on smooth, molded gold forms--are pleasing rhythmically but do little to encourage the viewer's further exploration. In contrast to Trova's rather redundant imagery, are such masterpieces as Picasso's Cubist Portrait of Wilhem Uhde, Miro's playful, surrealistic compositions, Giacommetti's unique delineation of space in portraits, and the Russian, Naum Gabo's eliptical construction of string and plastic.
Although Picasso's Uhde seems to be a frontel bust, the lapels of his jacket flip through spatial planes in the Cubist tradition of dislocating space. The head too assumes a multitude of positions, as if the artist is superimposing several perspectives on one surface, a photographic technique in oil, providing an insight into the more complex facets of this particular character.
Another artist who seems to incorporate photographic principles is the Italian master draftsman. Alberto Giacometti. Giacometti's portraits appear layered; white lines contouring a head on a dark background seem to be a stack of negatives. Naum Gabo also emphasizes space, but he works with three-dimensional materials. By winding strings around transparent plastic, he defines an ellipsoid within a rectangular boundary. As Picasso took the viewer through space with uncanny juxtapositions of his subject's position. Gabo constructs his space by pulling us into the elliptical void as well as asking us to follow the contours formed by the elegant curves of the plastic thread that area from the edges of the plastic frame.
Joan Miro plays with curves and lines more as writing than as contours of space, but his calligraphy does not deny the spatial qualities of linear forms. His Woman In the Night provides the viewer with the sensation of being watched by a three-eyed, large-footed smiling female form, whose physical balance is as precarious as the barbell forms floating and swinging around her. Done on a white background with black objects, the work recalls the Japanese brushpainting and calligraphy that influenced many of the surrealist artists. The seducing elements of Miro's works are the imaginative and playful gesturing that he performs on the canvas.
In the same mood are Paul Klee's Collection of Signs. Southerly which illustrate the inventive variety of the ways two lines can be crossed to indicate a direction. Many of the signs bleed their black edges into the watercolor of yellow and orange warmth. Matta, represented here by a large crayon and pencil drawing from 1939, brings into view the biomorphic qualities of his surrealism.
Pulitzer's collection roots in the traditional--Rodin bronzes. Degas' dancers, and an enchanting portrait by Gustave Courbet. But the same tendencies toward the traditional that provide such great work, hinder Pulitzer's choice; the artists of the 60's look unexciting compared to the Master Photographers next door who treat their medium with a clarity and fervor. And although Pulitzer's masters shine, his efforts to furnish answers to problems of the creative eye, barely ask the primary questions. With Harvard's new committee to investigate the situation of the undergraduate, arts program, the Fogg will acquire more progressive tastes, that will recognize the truly provocative from the merely contemporary.
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