Tuesday, September 20, 2016


We were visiting the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. I bent over a display case in the Yellow Room, one of whose themes is music, to look at a letter, which I think was written by Brahms, but as I did so I noticed a small card in the corner of the case explaining that its contents were copies, since the originals would be damaged by the light. I was surprised at how quickly I lost interest in the case once I knew that.

 Blue Room from the Gardner Museum (www.gardnermuseum.org)
The Gardner Museum is a wonderfully bizarre place, designed by Isabella Stewart Gardner herself to house the particular art collection that she owned. She envisioned the museum itself as a work of art, so she specified where and how all the art was to be displayed. The museum was completed in 1903 and her decorating tastes are Victorian, and by today’s standards, she is into clutter. Of course, the museum professionals have built a modern wing where they can do it “right,” but the main part of the museum embodies the vision of a particular person shaped by a sensibility different from today’s. An exhibit while we were there featured some masterworks from the collection. A section of the museum was closed and they had placed (as it says in the exhibit description) “[a] select group of paintings and drawings in our contemporary exhibition space, [to be] seen up close and lit to best advantage.” We could indeed see the paintings, hung at gallery height with space between them, but the effect seemed generic compared to Isabella Gardner’s more idiosyncratic arrangements.

That same disconnect from the past may also be at work in my response to the letters in the Yellow Room. The difference between the real thing and an accurate reproduction of the thing makes me recall Walter Benjamin’s essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” written in 1936, and prompted by the rise of photography, sound recording, and film. The ability to reproduce a work of art raises the question of the role of the original. The problem has only intensified since 1936 with the creation of digitization, since the colors of a painting on a high definition screen glow from the inside and allow the examination at extraordinary detail.

This reproduction of Rembrant’s The Night Watch and this detail of the left eye of the central figure [though such detail is possible anywhere on the painting] are from the Google Art Project.

Benjamin talks about the real thing having an aura, and surely that is part of it. An original is something Rembrandt touched and being in the presence of the actual object gives me, at least, a slight tingle that resonates from the physical connection with an object created over 300 years ago.

 Night Watch Gallery --Eric Smits
The actual object today is in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, so the setting of the original is quite different from the one I see it in, a computer screen in a small second-story room in a house in northern Massachusetts. The context in which we see something has an impact on how we perceive it, even though that context is generally extraneous to the work of art. As my Gardner Museum experience reminded me, displaying art is itself art. Ultimately, however, we cannot look at a work of art in its original context because contexts have quick expiration dates; any film with the world Trade Center in the New York skyline has been changed forever. 

The ability of a reproduction to take the work of art out of context seems less damning than what reproducing implies about the object itself. To value the high quality reproduction, we must assume that the essential aspects of the work of art are being reproduced in the reproduction. We capture the color, the structure, the tones and shades, even the cracks in the texture. But each age has its own values, its own sense of what is important and what is unimportant, and we will leave out what we think is unimportant, and something is lost in the transmission across time. Only some fresh eye looking at the original will see it and point it out, and our eyes will be reopened to something we have become blind to, even when we look directly into its huge, enlarged eye.

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