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Old Friends, Well Met

Master Paintings from the Fogg Collection at the Fogg through July 1

By Eleni Constantine

THIS JUNE, the Fogg will celebrate fifty years of being the Fogg--where it is and what it is. Harvard's self-defined teaching museum has already started to honor its building on Quincy St. with a collection of Master Paintings (of Europe and America) from its permanent collection. Creme de la creme, and there's a lot to milk. Indeed, most of the paintings here are well-known from reproductions: those that are not great works or by great artists seem to be either great works or by great artists. One gets the somewhat eerie sensation of being at a party with a bunch of old friends who have brought along their friends. The exhibit, moreover, is designed so that after an hour or so in this pleasant familiar company you'll not only like, but know them--character, background, and influence. The initial effort of extending oneself to a new friend is rarely so worthwhile.

Instantly recognizable and brightly welcoming, the washes and stripes of Morris Louis expand the Fogg's inner courtyard space. Stepping to meet you next to the Louis canvases, the tangled intricacies of Jackson Pollock's thrown paint--a metaphor for the paradoxes of the '60s--evoke memories of time only recently lost. The paintings on the side walls are less immediately accessible. One is an early work of a major living artists, whose expanding and developing talent has not yet been completely disse ted by critics and historians; the other a work by a painter whose stature does not warrant his being much appreciated by the public, but who is important to art students as an influential figure. Frank Stella's Red River Valley (1958) and Washington Allston's Diana in the Chase exemplify these two trends in the Fogg collection. The interests of art appreciators and art historians have often conflicted at the Fogg, but the present hanging of the lobby is an emblem of their cooperation.

This is how the Fogg should always be arranged. The instinctive reaction to the masterly arrangement of the exhibit grows as one walks through these rooms. For this "family" celebration, the Fogg's guest list of paintings that should be included must have been awfully long, but the hosts of this art get-together have managed to fit in as many as possible, and indeed have turned the potential problem of overcrowding to advantage. The paintings are displayed so that they inform each other; like well-placed guests around a dinner table, they engage naturally in conversation. The juxtaposition of the 1783 Portrait of Benjamin Thompson, by Gainsborough, with Copley's 1788 portrait of two colonels, hung directly below, reveals the English master's direct influence on American painting. The contrast between the gentlemanly rendering of the English officer and the frank force of the American portrait highlights the differing achievements of the two artists. Seymour Slive and Sydney Freedberg have done an expert job in selecting and hanging the paintings in a progression which allows each work to contribute to the understanding of those around it; John Audubon's family of turkeys reflects the French artist Oudry's earlier Blue Herons, literally and figuratively.

The paintings have been hung so that the varied architecture of the Fogg's galleries shows each group to its best advantage. The medieval beams set in the ceiling of the large room to the right of the courtyard inspired art historian Millard Meiss, during his brief term as director of the Fogg, to arrange the entire space in a medieval mode, mounting Romanesque capitals on low semi-detached pedestals projecting from the wall. The Fogg's fourteenth century Italian paintings were arranged in the areas between columns and framed by medieval chests set below. Undaunted by tradition, Slive and Freedberg replaced the small medieval works with larger seventeenth century canvases--a group which is better fitted to the room and more representative of the Fogg's strengths. (The early Renaissance works, among them gilded gems such as Fra Angelico's Crucifixion, are now contained in a small grey-blue jewelbox of a gallery upstairs.)

These are indeed Master Paintings and the emphasis should be on the plural. Like a Russian doll which twists apart revealing an identical painted doll, inside of which is another painted doll, until the repetition becomes a marvel, the rooms of the exhibit each open to show another artistic entity, another group of--yes, again--masterpieces. Unlike Russian dolls, however, these paintings demand individual recognition. Old favorites compete for attention: Ingres's Odalisque a l'Esclave, Degas's Cotton Merchants, David's Portrait of Sieyes, Rembrandt's Head of Christ, Rubens's Quo Ego, Poussins's Holy Family...these call insistently for the observers to immerse themselves in the world set up by the painting, to enter, look, note and depart. No one observant could refuse them. But there are new discoveries here, too--and they are perhaps even more intriguing, because less famous. Ammi Philips's Portrait of Harriet Leavins (1815) strikingly modern in its primitiveness; or Ingres's Study for Andromeda, a fascinating closeup of a lone marble woman that lets you see how Ingres sculpted his figures to achieve that smooth sensuality of form; or Monet's Fish (1870) whose glinting gold and silver scales formed of his brushstrokes, are the perfect fusion of technique and subject; or Sargent's Breakfast...

It's hard to stop. One of the achievements of this exhibit is that it is not bounded precisely by space or time. After July 1, when it officially closes, many of the paintings will remain in view, though in other parts of the Fogg. The exhibit officially starts in the courtyard and ends in an upstairs gallery, but it spills over into other spaces of the museum; Degas's Danseuses Derriere Un Portrait, for example, mediates between an Ingres "Master Painting" and another exhibit of Degas sculptures, an almost effortless transition.

MASTER PAINTINGS from the Fogg Collection exhibits and points up the defining themes of the Fogg's place and purpose. Subtly, the exhibit celebrates and idealizes the Fogg's physical and intellectual structure. The building was designed in imitation of a Renaissance palazzo--and the spirit of this exhibit is uniquely Renaissance: a syncretic selection of "the best." The impression is enforced physically. Walking through the linked upstairs galleries it's easy to imagine yourself strolling through the suite of a fifteenth or sixteenth century patron of the arts, some Italian prince, perhaps. "That's my last Duchess painted on the wall."

However much the Fogg's collection may resemble that of a Renaissance man, a connoisseur, it is also unforgettably the collection of a teaching museum. The range of paintings exhibited and the manner in which they are arranged is educational in the best sense of the word. It's not just that the exhibit is an art history survey in miniature, but that works of this quality leave you with a sense of transmitted vision. About suffering, or anything else, they were never wrong, the Old Masters.

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