Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum vs. Hearst Castle

I had the pleasure of visiting the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston this past weekend. As I walked around and mulled over this massive art, sculpture, book and ephemera collection, I couldn't help but compare it to the Hearst Castle, which is by all means more grand in scale (although Isabella's museum is nothing to sneeze at), but somehow lacks the heart.

Isabella clearly purchased these items to bring the arts to the United States, but she didn't do them under the guise of bald acquisition, as Hearst seemed to have done. She had the genuine intent of showing the works publicly so that they could be shared with everyone. She was also close friends with John Singer Sargent and Henry James, living amongst her artistic friends and displaying their work in her home. Hearst also hung out with and had affairs with celebrities, but I never had the sense that Hearst was as deeply involved in the life of his contemporaries as was Gardner.

Hearst's and Stewart Gardner's tastes definitely overlapped (consider the medieval tapestries) and both liked to design rooms in period styles. But there's something about the extreme opulence and dare I say stylistic vulgarity about Hearst's Castle that suggests that this was a man throwing money around, pillaging various antiquities so that they could be displayed in a home that would make him appear that much more powerful. The relationship among the display of the antiquities themselves was secondary.

Isabella, on the other hand, was just as much an acquirer, but she was far more of a curator, and her artistic eye and design sense is completely evident in the placement and relationship of all objects and rooms. It's likely it is no accident that the marble throne in the garden where she preferred to sit is flanked to the right by a Roman child's sarcophagus, perhaps a reminder of her only son who died at less than two years of age. Her huge collection of Madonna and child iconography suggests a very personal impetus for some of her choices.

The care with which she constructed her faux-Venitian palace is evident in ever corner. For example, a large swatch of her favorite dress hangs below Titian's Europa, suggesting a link between herself and the passion depicted in the work. It's clearly impossible to have known her, but as my mother pointed out, just going through the museum and noting the beautiful and personal arrangement of objects is enough to suggest that to know her through her curating is to love her. How could a person not be charmed by her bottles of sand she personally collected from the Sahara?

Isabella Stewart Gardner's museum is the primary labor of her lifetime, which begs for me the question: what makes a life? One could ask the same about Hearst, and although reading about him is fascinating, it doesn't personally inspire me in any particular way.

Recently I've begun to struggle with culture--a malaise has set in for me despite the fact that one of my most central lifelong interests has been cultural criticism. I link it to my advancing age as I trudge toward midlife and invariably ask, is this all there is? Is another minute of TV really worth it when we have so little time? Is my life just draining away as I participate in culture passively? How many damn Picasso paintings can I look at and still give a crap?

It has been a while since I've seen anything that moved me or was inspirational. (There may be irony there--can only a person who has had the luxury and fortune of seeing so many things become bored in this fashion?) Thankfully, Isabella Stewart Gardner's passion woke something back up in me--something that everyone can also intuit on display in this museum.

Our love can and does live beyond us. Our life's work does amount to something. It may not wind up in a museum of our own making, but we're here and what we do matters. I read an op ed piece in the NY Times today by David Brooks ("It's Not About You") that suggests that life isn't about finding ourselves and going out and doing something. It's about recognizing problems that need to be solved, and in dedicating oneself to such problems, one finds out who they are.

No doubt Hearst has left a legacy, but I'm less inspired by any problems he may have faced and solved. Isabella Gardner Stewart had the problem of loss (the death of her son caused her to nearly die of a broken heart--she started art collecting to assist in recovering from the tragedy), and she also saw a need for the evangelization of the arts in US culture (which lagged behind that in Europe). Her personal tragedy was most likely not fully mitigated, but she found a way back to passion and was fortunate enough to have the means to create an opulent world full of friendship and art. Her curatorial skills made her an artist in her own right. And what is art if not a means to inspire something else in others? Living life can be art in and of itself.

Hearst: 0, Stewart Gardner: 1