We weren’t supposed to care who the chosen painting was by. We were to look at it out of context in a gallery that has been organized by period, place, and style. We were forbidden to glance at the label even, for fear that the name, title, date, and description on the label would prejudice our opinion, color our perception, blur or double our vision. We had gone our separate ways, the four of us, like the six or seven other quartets and quintets of colleagues had that day at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA). Each group had been directed to wander away from the courtyard where we had convened and into whatever quiet gallery caught our eye as we meandered down the hallway, bouncing from wall to wall, magnetized by modernist photographic collages, Mesoamerican sculptures, or dark Dutch portraits.
The idea, said Jessica Davis, director of the Arts in Education program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education where the lot of us do development work, was to agree on one work of art that would be interesting to play the game with, preferably a piece that no one in the group had seen before, or at least didn’t remember having seen or spent much time in front of before. Most of us had been pretty well bombarded by the MFA’s ad campaigns for its blockbuster shows and knew the museum well enough; so it wasn’t likely that we’d be looking at a sunlit Monet haystack, at the Boit girls in the opulent Sargent painting, or at Van Gogh’s bold portrait of the postman Roulin. I wondered if the groups might be in for first encounters with Turner’s Slave Ship, Gaugin’s Tahitian mural Where Do We Come from? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, or Millet’s tall painting of the young reaper, and hoped my own group would end up looking at something I seldom spend time with on my own frequent visits to this museum. A picture by Church, Cole, or Bierstadt, say. A painted ceremonial wooden mask made in Mali around the time the evangelical Islamic caravans made their way around the Sahara to West Africa via the Sahel. Or a Chinese scroll painting of sages drinking cups of plum wine by moonlight under a pavilion in the waterfallen mountains.
Taking the day off from work to be together in the sorts of learning environments we advocate, publicize, and raise money for all day in our jobs at the Ed School, we’d spent the morning at the Boston Arts Academy, a charter high school near Fenway Park that’s headed and staffed by our alumni. We’d sat in on classes in humanities and the arts in groups formed at breakfast in the conference room. We’d witnessed the first lunchtime open mike of the school year, featuring a hellacious jam by a fusion band, a saltry Latin American gospel solo, and a gutsy rendition of a top-40 “bad girls” song. We’d had our lunch catered by the taquería El Pelon on Peterborough Street in the Fenway District. And we’d been led in a heady pep rally for holistic educationurban, public, multicultural, portfolio- and multiple intelligence-basedby headmistress Linda Nathan and her amiable crew of artist-teachers. Not till then did we walk across the Fens to the MFA to meet Jessica Davis and a few of her Ed.M. students from the Arts in Education programyoung women with backgrounds in museum-education and artists-in-the-schools programs.
Jessica explained that her students would lead us in the uncompetitive and headclearing art-appreciation exercise, known as the Generic Game, that she developed in the early 90s when the program was getting off the ground. [The Generic Game is described in Jessica Davis’ The MUSE Book, copyright 1996, President and Fellows of Harvard College] Before we knew it, all 30 of us were standing in our respective groups before paintings and answering, one at a time, the preliminary general questionDo you like this work of art? Why? Why not?; the three simple questions meant to elicit descriptive responsesWhat colors do you see? What objects and images? What actions?and the several associative questions that follow naturally from the elicited observation of concrete detail:
Does anything you’ve seen remind you of something in your own life?
Is this picture true to life? How “real” is it?
What ideas and/or emotions does it express?
How do you think the artist felt while making it?
Does it make you feel one way or another?
Do the pictures in the vicinity resemble it? Differ from it?
Not yet knowing the title, what would you have titled it?
Have you learned anything from it by answering these questions and hearing your friends answer them?
Then it would be time for a repetition of the preliminary question, repeated in hopes of hearing an indication of something learned and enjoyed by the students the game is designed forstudents who, it should be remembered, are not usually college-educated grown-ups but children whose families generally do not cross Huntington Avenue to frequent the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, on Saturday afternoons in the spring.
Before the outdoorsy painters from the Hudson River School, doing in paint what the Transcendentalists in a sense did in ink, made a fresh American art of clean light, wide mind, and native intelligence, some say there wasn’t much to look at in U.S. studios that couldn’t have been seen in London. The painting my group chose seemed on first glance to be from that “academic” painting period. There was something murky, pious, and stale about it. But we did as Jessica asked, one by one evoking every detail of the huge picture.
We noted the predominance of solemn brown in the desertscape stretching to a distant horizon, above it the dark cloud cover broken by parallel slits of gleaming yellow and grayish blue sky. We marked the glacial blue of the majestic mountains to our distant rightthe same ice-blue in the cloak of the diminutive figure kneeling toward the desertscape from his rocky foreground position under a gnarled brown tree. We saw the ice-blue trickle of a stream slipping from a craggy nearby slope to our right, a stream apparently feeding the dim pond in the lower center of the picture, just a little way beyond the tree. And we picked out some blacka raven or crowswooping down to the kneeling figure with a beakful of bread from the top of the barren tree, where another raven or crow waited with another scrap of bread.
Thanks to the patience and observance demanded by the Generic Game, we collaborated to decode the painting’s visual symbols. We noticed that the snowmelt from the distant glacial mountains, in addition to lending a celestial aspect to the glacial robes of the prostrate prophet, appeared to be the background source of the foreground trickle, and therefore the primary feeder of the paltry pond that was going to sustain this man for a while. We saw that the man’s inconspicuous presence in this vast landscape emphasized his humility. We saw that the poor ascetic’s staff waiting beside him on the hard ground was as knotted and gnarly as the black birds’ tree. We figured the man was some sort of prophet, a Biblical figure who’d had the decency to stop and give thanks to the Lord for letting him stumble upon some fresh water and altruistic birds after who knows how many days in the desert of the distance.
We agreed that obviousness is an obvious weakness of this picture, yet couldn’t help but admire the pious painter’s ambition and skill anyway. That is to say, none of us liked the painting as much as we liked having had the chance to explore it. But what would we have titled it? The Ravens? The Desert Wanderer? St. Someone of the Blackbirds? I wasn’t taking notes, and I don’t now remember.
I never would have guessed that it was Elijah in the Desert by Washington Allston. I knew vaguely who Allston wasthat he lived near Central Square in Cambridgeport for a time, that he’s said to be the one American painter after whom a town (yes, Allston, MA) has been named, and that he painted historical allegories and the like. But that’s about it. I learned from the caption that Elijah was the MFA’s very first acquisition when the museum opened in 1870, and learned on visiting the Cambridge Historical Commission recently that Allston spent the final 13 years of his life (1830-1843) at Magazine and Auburn Streets, where an oval blue plaque in white lettering marks the site of his house and studio. He was “a grand, somewhat shadowy gentleman,” according to one account, who liked his “snug, commodious little mansion” in the “Sublime Port” until his inspiration waned on his still-unfinished masterpiece, Belshazzar’s Feast, and he began to feel that painting there, even with his view of the Charles as yet uninterrupted by triple-deckers and highrises, was like being “a bee trying to make honey in a coal-hole.”
In the 15 years I’ve lived down the street and around the corner from Allston’s place in Cambridgeportfirst in a stucco apartment building, then in a triple decker, and more recently in humble but handsome houses built a decade or two after Allston’s
deathI must have walked across the B.U. Bridge and through the Fens to the MFA a couple hundred times. Usually it’s Saturday or Sunday and I’ll stop along the way to work on a poem, at a coffee shop in the winter or under one of Frederick Law Olmsted’s crabapple trees near the Muddy River in the summer. After an hour or two of tinkering, juices not quite spent, the afternoon waning, I’ll pack my notebook and head for the West Wing entrance, which a gangly and fearsome DeKooning beast with lumpy limbs doth guard.
I can’t help but like the blockbuster special exhibitsthe early Picassos, the retrospective Homers, the luxurious portraits of Mary Cassatt’s homely and rich friends. Someday, it’s true, I hope to see an MFA brochure misspell Claude’s last name Money; but I still loved the paintings of the Waterloo Bridge I’d never seen before. So I’ll go to the blockbuster du jour, or I’ll wander into the contemporary gallery and see a fantastic show I didn’t even know would be there. Fabulous Polaroids by a Latin American teacher at the Massachusetts College of Art, just up the street, whose name escapes me. The greatest hits of cutting-edge glassblowers. Michael Mazur’s luscious prints and colorful new paintings. I’ll float into the Hudson River School room and squint at the Abenakis camping with their canoe on the shore of Lake Chocorua in the White Mountains, in a painting done when the vacation migrations of Boston Brahmins had only just begun. I’ll drift along the glass, aquarium-like cases of ceremonial West African masks thinking about the meaning of them to the African Americans of Roxbury who seldom cross Huntington Avenue to enter this institution.
Then I’ll go to the clean and wide-minded 20th Century American modernist-painting room to find the complementary light Georgia O’Keefes and and dark Arthur Doves; the slick and bland Sheelers; the colorful and action-packed Hans Hoffmans and Jackson Pollocks; and an aerial Alexander Calder mobile made of wire and colored balls.
My wife’s brother is game. A former violinist, he knows more about music than anything. But he appreciates almost any artistic effort, sometimes even the results, and has the natural and nurtured curiosity about history and culture that it takes to be a good museum-goer. Also, he’s a craftsman from way backweaver of baskets, whittler of arrowsso aesthetics are essential to him, especially those with a utilitarian trait. His taste runs toward the traditional and the “representational.” He may not be into the painting I have in mind for him and two total strangers I’ll apprehend at the museum. But the point is to give the painting a chance to be admired.
It’s a painting by Stuart Davis (1892-1964), the ornery Constructivist who spent summers in Gloucester making the lighthearted nautical paintings of Cape Ann dock scenes and fishing boats displayed in that town’s historical museum last summer.
I spot a couple in their 20s over there in the corner looking pretty happy about Arthur Dove’s quirky, cartoonish depiction of a water tank on a hill that I happen to get a kick out of myself. (She’ll turn out to be a painting student at Mass Art and he’ll turn out to be nicknamed King Robothead.) When I ask if they’d like to play an art-appreciation game, with quiet shrugs they seem to comply. It’ll only take a minute, I say.
I lead them to the partition where the designated Davis painting hangs, block the caption with my notebook, and grin sheepishly, pointing at the piece. They look a little puzzledat the painting, not at meso I start right in with the preliminary question. The painting student, who’s just a bit grumpy, says she already hates the color scheme. King Robothead, a tall and friendly guy, doesn’t care much for the painting on first impression. And my brother-in-law would like to withhold judgment for now.
Next they rattle off the six distinct colorsorange, yellow, red, blue, black and white, bold and bordered colors, like construction-paper cut-outs more than paints, says oneand make an effort to identify the objects the odd shapes seem to suggest in a painting that is already resisting interpretation. That black coil on white might be the suggestion of an ear, says someone. Those blue and white round things in a wavy row might be beach balls, says another. That might be a bird’s beak. There’s a shovel over theremaybe. Here’s a gate, sort of. And here, perhaps, is a shield. And is that curl a monkey’s tail?
One thing’s so obvious about the painting that no one mentions it: The colorful and crazy patternsstripes, dots, squiggles, zig-zags, bars, and spiralsare all painted onto the overlapping geometric shapes that structure the background. Only a couple of the images trespass onto other-colored planesand when they do they change colors. That leaning white square that’s behind it all, on top of which the layers of images lie, is a rhombus, says my brother-in-law. I see rectangles, spheres, and lopsided parallelograms all over the place, decorated by a cacophonous diffusion of suggestive shapes that, again, aren’t quite “things.” No one knows quite what to make of it all, or quite what it specifically refers to, if anything, and I don’t tell them what I know about it from previous gazes. They see that it’s bold and playful, decidedly not subtle; confident, festive, and ostentatious; that the painting and the painter come off as arrogant, even; that it’s generally similar to other abstractions at this end of the gallery. King Robothead wants to title it Driven to Distraction; the painting student wants to tease it with a title like Untitled, followed, she says, by a number like #47 or #82; and my brother-in-law, appreciating the dynamic interplay between the inexplicably expressive and disturbingly elusive individual images, wants to call it Action Compartments.
Knowing the title of the painting and the interests of the painter already, I start to see in the images what an MFA gallery guard named Rose, herself a painter, would later describe as “rhythm symbols.” Stuart Davis was an urban socialist and political activist like Ben Shahn, in the hopeful and high spirit of the times. The painting can be seen, or maybe heard, as a jubilant jazz rendering of street-life, a celebration of dissonance and diversity. The others start to see that too, and start to hear the “rhythm cymbals,” if you will, clanging a bit more loudlybut not really until I’ve shown them on the caption that the painting’s really titled, no kidding, Hot Still-Scape for Six Colors7th Avenue Style.