Friday, March 15, 2013

AWOL From A Wall

Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is not considered one of the world's greatest art museums.

But it may be the most compelling.

The museum, the vision of its namesake, was created from scratch around the turn of the 20th century (1903, to be precise) by the eccentric heiress. The building, its architecture, the collection, and exhibit design were all to Gardner's specifications. Its internal courtyard was designed based on Venice's Palazzi Barbaro.

It is truly worthy of the word "breathtaking."

If your name is Isabella, you get free admission. And there are other qualities that separate the Gardner from any other museum you will ever see. All of them stem from the stipulations by Gardner that the museum collection, display and arrangement remain in perpetuity as she designed. Upon her death in 1924, Gardner's endowment to run the museum stated that should anything be altered, the collection was to be sold and the proceeds donated to Harvard University.

That requirement has created perhaps the museum's most intriguing story. Gardner resided in the top floor of this four-story structure, and the building has an unprecedented intimacy. Art is not just hung on walls; sculpture, furniture and other historic, eclectic pieces are literally at every step of a visit.

It feels like Gardner's vision was that art is to be experienced wholly, not just from one staged area to another. Because the walls, grounds and traditional installations are continuous, the experience is immersive.

It's like going to Disney World -- you can't possibly soak all of it up in a single visit.

(Sorry, Mrs. Gardner, that I compared your life's work to a Florida amusement park.)

Some of the rooms are so congested with works that if you don't linger, you will surely miss something amazing. Additionally, the lighting for each display area comes from either natural sources, or room lighting purposely subdued to reduce harsh, damaging exposure. The rooms are shadowy; the natural light will vary not just from season and season and day to day, but moment to moment. This makes every visit to the Gardner very personal, unique and specific.


The museum grounds have been expanded beyond the main building, and it is there that the museum operators have been able to expand upon a collection and activities that a modern audience with changing attitudes since 1924 can find relevant.

The concept of a gift shop just didn't really exist in 1924.

But it's not just a gift shop that the new facets of the Gardner offers. There's a library and areas for learning, study and special exhibitions. The concept of the beautifully executed interior garden has been carried to the surrounding grounds also, and the new structure also has a dedicated space for the museum's horticultural work. Another spectacular feature is a concert venue, Renzo Piano-designed Calderwood Hall, that brings interesting, small acts to the stage. The structure's incredible vertical cube design includes three levels of single-row seating overseeing the performance stage.

One of the recurring programs is called "Avant Gardner."


In 1970, Parker Brothers unveiled a board game called "Masterpiece." I love board games and this one was fun; two dozen glossy, nicely reproduced images of famous artworks came with a deck of value cards that could be shuffled so that each piece would have a different value, including the worthless value for a forgery, for each game. Contestants then would try and acquire a collection from other players, not knowing if they were being cheated or oversold.

It wasn't a great game but the quality of the images was the main attraction. It exposed great art to young people, and that's a lot more valuable than learning how to blow up warships by firing random bombs.

I'm no art scholar. Art isn't my life. I see things that appeal to me, and that's what I like. At the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, I was lucky enough in 2008 to see an amazing collection of Kahlo's work. But what really hooked me was a painting by Mark Rothko. The starkness of its bold colors appealed to me.

Warhol's work is expressly American; I relate to it. In the unlikely place of Bentonville, Arkansas, I saw Rosie the Riveter; it is a treasure. In Dallas I saw a Renoir exhibit that was hypnotic.

Some art snobs will scoff at such simplistic appreciations. Art and artists are deeply important to these people.

But we live in a world where both types can agree that art is something that can be meaningful to the sophisticate and the inexperienced. It is something shared, a common ground that bridges the knowledge gap... or even the gender gap, the wealth gap or any other thing that divides us.

Which makes the Gardner's great tragedy even more painful to accept.


Among the museum's collection spanning millenia are popularly known works by masters such as Matisse, Whistler, Titian, Botticelli, Michelangelo. Original Dante manuscripts, as well as handwritten texts from Eliot and Oliver Wendell Holmes, are on display.

But I guess the work that touched me the most was a self-portrait by Rembrandt. The piece itself, while excellent, is poignant because of its position looking across the room at two large, blank frames. Beneath one of the frames is his name.

The frames are empty because early on the morning of March 18, 1990, two thieves disguised as Boston policemen conned their way into the museum, and stole 13 pieces valued at $500 million from the Gardner. Three of the pieces were Rembrandts, including one, The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, that was the artist's only known seascape. Coincidentally (or not?), Rembrandt's works were created almost 400 years ago, around the same time a city in the new world, Boston, was founded.

Works by Degas and Manet were also part of the theft. Vermeer's The Concert is perhaps the most single valuable piece that was taken.

The works remain missing, and the trail is ice cold, despite a $5 million reward for information leading to their recovery. The thieves were granted entrance (against museum policy) after 1 a.m. as St. Patrick's Day revelers neared closing time. The two amateur museum guards were quickly tied up and kept quiet while the thieves took their sweet time in the museum. For well over an hour they worked to liberate extremely specific targets; many works of greater value than some of those taken were left unmolested.

And then they were gone.


The Rembrandts were large works, and the empty frames make an astonishing statement. Against that backdrop, the Rembrandt self-portrait looking, mute and forlorn, at the rape of his work, perhaps forever, is heartbreaking.

It made me angry.

These artworks may have been destroyed -- a terrible possibility. They could be stashed someplace, decaying and wasted, as the criminals couldn't fence them or for whatever other nefarious reason. Or some rich waste of human life has them secretly displayed, stealing from mankind in a case of incomprehensible selfishness.


As the 23rd anniversary of the crime approaches, stories about the open investigation are beginning to bubble up here. But 23 years is a long time. As each day goes by, the trail goes colder, anyone involved  grows older, and the likelihood of anyone in the general public ever seeing this works in person shrinks.

The Gardner is not to be missed if you ever find yourself near Boston. You can spend hours there marveling at these magnificent creations.

You'll see the best part of humanity. And, sadly, the worst.

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