The most remarkable aspect of the Hurst Gallery is perhaps Norman Hurst himself. His passion for the past has fostered this unique space on the corner of Mt. Auburn St. and Plympton St.—a mainstay in Harvard Square for 23 years. An expert in antiquities and a member of the Antique Tribal Art Dealers Association, Hurst has been an appraiser, consultant, and dealer of fine art for over two decades, boasting an extensive repertoire of scholarly writing on non-Western art. Maintaining a permanent and rotating collection of art and artifacts, the objects Hurst purveys range from pre-Columbian and Graeco-Roman to Aboriginal Australian and Chinese.
Presently intermingling with Arctic ivory and sub-Saharan weaponry are delicate and finely wrought Japanese woodblock prints. Although the Hurst Gallery has previously offered such works, the enormity of the collection as well as the rarity of many of its pieces deserved its own exhibit. The warm and inviting upstairs space in which they were recently displayed was a plush compliment to the lithe and delicate prints. Produced during Japan’s Edo period (1603-1867), the works surveyed a time in Japan’s history when the country was virtually isolated from the rest of the world. Ukiyo-e: Designs from Three Centuries was an exhibit of over sixty works, of which a considerable portion were generated from the Hurst’s recent acquisition of a New England estate.
The art of Ukiyo-e translates to “pictures of the floating world” (or “buoyant world.”) Portraying the urban pleasures of Japanese society, the visual successes of the prints extol deft skills in drawing, painting, color, and line. Several remaining gems from the recent exhibit are currently making their way downstairs into the Hurst’s first-floor gallery. These subtle reflections of the manners and customs of Edo Japan are now interspersed with figurines, scimitars, and throwing knives. Included in the shuffling will be oft-encountered masters’ works as well as rare and original designs. Through such variety and juxtaposition, the experience offered by the Hurst Gallery is continually deepened.
Other exhibits at the gallery have whetted appetites for photography, the many faces of Buddha, and even paintings by modern Indian masters. If the Discovery Channel or National Geographic is enough to spark interest in cultures past, certainly there is no dearth of wonderment in interacting with real relics. A recent exhibit of ancient glass at the gallery—Vitrum Antiquorum: Ancient Glass from Boudoir, Bath and Board—spanned three millennia in Western Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. The iridescence of much of the glass owed its exuberance to the chemical reactions taking place within and around the objects since the Byzantine era. American artist Louis Comfort Tiffany was inspired by such iridescence, creating his own iconic, lustrous glassware. Inspiration abounds in such a space, filled with objects once crafted and handled by ancient and primitive societies.
There is something very satisfying about brushing up against items of use and worship extant for hundreds and thousands of years, even if just to spite Pop Culture’s beautiful flashes in the pan. Craftsmanship is as precious as are those talented individuals who help to preserve it, and it is to the likes of Norman Hurst that we owe the exceptional opportunity to believe in something.