Summer Learning 7: MA Art Museums

Inside the museums, infinity goes up on trial
Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while
But Mona Lisa must’ve had the highway blues
You can tell by the way she smiles – Bob Dylan, Visions of Johanna

How fortunate I am to live in Massachusetts, where in anywhere between an hour and three hours on the highway I can find myself at an art museum. This summer I took advantage of this opportunity and visited four Massachusetts museums, which I’ll write about in this post.

The courtyard at the Gardner

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

The Gardner is an elegant gem located in the Fens area of Boston. I spent a lot of time there completing sketching assignments in my late 1970’s undergrad time at nearby Mass College of Art and Design (Mass Art). Consequently, I don’t visit there very often, but when I do, I am filled with nostalgia and the same wonder I felt forty years ago, yet with an appreciation acquired over many years of viewing art and architecture. I was at Mass Art for a meeting the week after my school released for summer vacation. I had a little time following the meeting before commuter traffic kicked in, so I walked over to the Gardner.

The empty frames where the stolen paintings belong

The Gardner is well known for the art heist in 1990. Most visitors find the story fascinating, and appreciate the empty frames that mark the loss. From the Gardner web page: In the early morning hours of March 18, 1990, a pair of thieves disguised as police officers entered the Gardner Museum and stole 13 works of art by world-renowned artists such as Rembrandt, Vermeer, Manet, and Degas. The works, including Rembrandt’s Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee (his only known seascape) and Vermeer’s The Concert, are worth more than $500 million. This remains the biggest unsolved art theft in world history.

Giuliano da Rimini
The Virgin and Child Enthroned with Saints

I am drawn to the religious work of the Gothic and Early Renaissance periods because of the gold leaf embellishments and the narratives within the biblical depictions. The Gardner Museum has a wonderful collection of this work.

Virgin and Child with Saints Paul, Lucy, Catherine, and John the Baptist
Simone Martini

I love the bright palette of this Fra Angelico piece:

The Death and Assumption of the Virgin
Fra Angelico

And this Botticelli:

Virgin and Child with an Angel
Sandro Botticelli

A piece that caught me by surprise at the Gardner was the pieta depiction in terra-cotta (clay) – a bas relief. This caught my attention because this clay technique is one I have never explored and I am inspired to begin exploration.

Lamentation of Christ
Giovanni della Robbia

I’m sharing this one simply because of the expression in the man’s face. And it’s by Raphael.

Portrait of Tommaso Inghirami

It was a pleasure to see again this spectacularly understated piece by John Singer Sargent – the painter of white on white:

Incensing the Veil
John Singer Sargent

Visiting the Gardner Museum the week after school got out for the summer was a tonic well needed. The end of the school year is always very busy and brings mixed emotions. Fatigue – for the cleaning, grading, and ordering of next year’s supplies before the year is through. Gratitude – for the opportunity to spend my days with eager and curious middle schoolers – 500 of them over the course of a school year. Loss – for the departure of an entire grade level class of students as they move up to seventh grade and no longer have art class with me. Reflection – on the school year as a sum of its parts, the good, the bad, and the challenging. Joy – for the summer that stretches out before me to do with whatever I wish, whenever I want. Yes, a quiet hour or two in a place filled with beautiful things and the stories they tell was a great way to kick off summer vacation.

Museum of Fine Arts

The variety of artifacts on display at the Museum of Fine Arts guarantees there is something for everyone to see and enjoy. As a member there I have had the pleasure of touring the museum many, many times over the years – often alone, yet also with friends and family from out of state or with children. Especially my own son for whom “let’s find all the pictures with cows in them” would keep him entertained and engaged for hours when he was young.

I take advantage of my membership at the museum with short visits to specific exhibits when I’m in Boston for something else. I had two occasions to visit this summer, one after presenting TABnology at MassArt, the other before a meeting with MAEA in Winthrop.

On my way into the museum via the Fenway entrance after the TABnology presentation, I noticed the Japanese Garden was open, so entered softly to take in the quietude. When open, it provides an oasis of peace and calm in the middle of the city.

Japanese Garden Tenshin-en – Garden in the Heart of Heaven

Once inside I made a beeline for the Gender Bending Fashion exhibit, which I had been wanting to see for a while. It was phenomenal:

Record album jackets from artists who bent the binary

The MFA has created a soundtrack to the exhibit on Spotify here.

This gallery was so beautifully arranged and included seating, giving me time to sit and contemplate the powerful and thought-provoking display

Walking out of the exhibit, I reflected on my memories of the young faces of my students who I know and have known to be LGBTQIA+. I wished they could all see this show and be dazzled by the ‘no boundaries’ ideas and fashion possibilities it documents. More than ever, I reflected on the importance of my young students knowing allies at school.

Another interesting exhibit I enjoyed that evening was the Mural: Abstraction on a Major Scale, featuring two works by Katharine Grosse and Jackson Pollack. Mural is the title of the Jackson Pollack painting, the largest he ever made. The Katharine Grosse piece is huge and unbounded by frame, cascading down from its tethers at the ceiling to the floor in sweeping swashes of color.

Mural by Jackson Pollack 1943

Untitled by Katharina Grosse

Detail of Untitled by Katharina Grosse

There are certain spaces and pieces at the MFA that warrant many return visits. Some of them are below:

Rotunda paintings by John Singer Sargent
Inside the museum, looking up the rotunda steps
Josiah McElheny: Endlessly Repeating Twentieth Century Modernism
All Art Has Been Contemporary by Maurizio Nannucci

My second visit to the MFA this summer was before an MAEA meeting in Winthrop. A lot of my art teacher friends had recommended the Toulouse-Lautrec and the Stars of Paris exhibit, so the afternoon before the meeting, I went to see it.

Having been to Paris just last year (lucky, I know) I was pretty well caught up on the artwork of the Impressionist painters and others from that time. To be honest, I don’t love the “moment in time” shows that the MFA produces, where they combine fashion, history, and artwork in the exhibit. They seem to be geared toward the greater audience and mainstream interests. Believe me, I totally understand the importance of bringing in new audiences and sustaining support and interest from large numbers of patrons. I just want to see the artwork and can put together the rest of it myself really. Anyway, I went to see it, and it was just as I expected it to be. All of that being said, I really enjoyed seeing one particular photograph:

The photograph above is of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec by Patrick Sescau. I love seeing photographs of artists. Especially when I think about how many famous artists predated photography. There is something about feeling like I know them so well through their artwork and then putting a face to the artwork changes everything. Or maybe it humanizes them beyond their artistic voice.

And then I came upon this image, a promotional poster Lautrec had created for the photographer, Sescau, to advertise his work. This more than humanized the artists, it spoke to an interchange or bartering between them, each having a skill to share for mutual gain. It made me smile.


We had been in western Massachusetts to participate in the New Horizon event in Williamstown (previous post here), so spent the night in the area. I can’t help sharing that we stayed at a Howard Johnson hotel (for some reason we got a big kick out of this)! Here are a couple of kitschy items from the lobby:

The thrill that staying at a “HoJo’s” was for us, our visit to MassMOCA was pretty awesome, too, as you might expect. There were a few really excellent shows going on, including Cauleen Smith: We Already Have What We Need. This is a dynamic multi-media exhibit involving tchotchkes, lights, sounds, projectors, and monitors. It fills a large room. Here is an example of the filming as well as the projection of what is being filmed.

I was really taken by this exhibit. Having been immersed over the past year in the development of the new Media Arts Frameworks for Massachusetts, the Media Arts have been on my mind in every museum I visit. This exhibit epitomizes our current definition of Media Arts. I’ve also been developing lessons for Media Arts with iPads for the classroom. I think my students and I can do this – this combining of still figures with light and film. I haven’t yet experimented, but I think it’s possible  with a green screen app. Stay tuned this school year to see what we come up with.

Another fantastic show at MassMOCA is the Suffering From Realness exhibit, curated with works by a number of artists. A common denominator in most of the shows I’ve seen this summer as well as many of the performances I’ve enjoyed on stage is the current political discontent and commentary on the discord. This is a great example, as described in the museum website: Ultimately, this exhibition aims to create a space of understanding and empathy. Because, despite political tension, people are engaged— crying out for something better.

This is a thought-provoking exhibit, sometimes gritty, sometimes sarcastic in its wry commentary:

Requiem by Vincent Valdez and Adriana Corral

I can’t get enough of this social commentary Punch character work by Robert Taplin:

Punch Stopped at the Border by Robert Taplin
Detail of Punch Stopped at the Border by Robert Taplin
Punch Does a Magic Trick by Robert Taplin
Punch Makes a Public Confession by Robert Taplin

And this large oil painting work by Vincent Valdez:

Dream Baby Dream by Vincent Valdez
Detail of Dream Baby Dream

This profound exhibit and these rueful works validate the discontent I’ve been feeling over the past few years, expressing a sadness and wistful desire for something better.

The other show that was engaging in a different way was Trenton Doyle Hancock Mind of the Mound: Critical Mass. As you walk into it, you become immersed in color, shape, and form. It is at once whimsical and surreal, yet there is edge to it, too.

In stark contrast is a neighboring gallery in which artist Spencer Finch has installed repetitive light fixtures, creating a space both elegant and romantic.

As we were about to leave the museum, we glanced into the courtyard area just as Chrissie Hynde from The Pretenders was cleaning her sunglasses. She had a performance there later that night.

Institute of Contemporary Art

I had the great pleasure of visiting the ICA with two of my granddaughters after a walk around the Seaport to see the Air, Sea, Land installation by Okuda San Miguel.

My beautiful granddaughters and a beautiful Boston view

Once inside the museum, we went right up to the Less Is A Bore exhibit. From the ICA website:

The exhibition considers how artists have used ornamentation, pattern painting, and other decorative modes to critique, subvert, and transform accepted histories related to craft and design, feminism, queerness and gender, beauty and taste, camouflage and masquerade, and multiculturalism and globalism. More recent artworks in the exhibition chart both the legacy and transformation of these trajectories.


From one gallery into another
The Sisters Zénaïde and Charlotte Bonaparte by Kehinde Wiley, who also painted Barack Obama’s National Portrait

We really enjoyed sitting in these magnificent chairs.

The pieces in this show were so exciting to view. There were surprises everywhere as we went from space to space. Designs were carried out to the fullest possible extreme of ornamentation and embellishment. It was delightful.

One of the beautiful spaces at the ICA is the seating area with the giant windows overlooking the harbor. Especially when sitting there watching the rain outside while you’re all safe and dry inside.

As an art teacher, visiting art museums is an obvious way to learn or freshen up on content learning. I am so fortunate to live in a state abundant with museums. Because summer is not over yet, I also expect to visit a couple more museums, including the Cahoon Museum in Cotuit, where there is an exhibit of Sailors’ Valentines that I’m eager to see. I also want to get to the DeCordova Museum, another holding of the Trustees of Reservations, whose New Horizon I mentioned above.

I have visited art museums this summer with an eye on new media, looking for ways to make art education contemporary for my middle school students. I found inspiration in the Cauleen Smith: We Already Have What We Need exhibit.

What I hadn’t anticipated is the inspiration that found me (when I wasn’t looking) in the exhibits Gender Bending Fashion and Suffering From Realness. Political commentary, gender expression oppression, immigration reform abuse, racism, gun violence and military might are the contemporary issues in all of our lives today, including the lives of my young middle school students.

I’m remembering the morning of March 14, 2018, when in observance of the Parkland Shooting National Walkout Day, about 40 of our nearly 900 students chose to walkout, while the rest of the school observed a moment of silence in classrooms. As I stood alongside those who had walked out, I felt weighted down by my role as teacher and the responsibility of helping my students navigate the often troubling world around them, yet somehow protect them from becoming despondent or too agitated about it. That and the many varied home and family circumstances from which they evolve. I realized what a delicate dance it is to teach other people’s children.

As an art teacher, one of the most important aspects of my job is to help students develop their own unique, artistic voice. Traditionally, this is accomplished through exposure to the skills of art making and practice to develop them, because there is nothing more frustrating to an artist than to have ideas and be held back from expressing them by a lack of ability. Sometimes we learn techniques by looking at the work of the masters, sometimes we learn from investigation and experimentation. When it comes to the introduction and contemplation of ideas and themes within artworks and art worlds, we have such a huge array from which to influence or be influenced as we prepare curriculum. My museum experiences this summer will undoubtedly shape and ultimately define the artists and ideology my students are exposed to this year.

I used a song lyric from Bob Dylan to open this post. When I began writing, it seemed completely appropriate to a post about museum visits. Now that I’ve worked my way through writing it, I’m thinking that a better fit would have been this one:

The battle outside ragin’
Will soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’ – Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A Changin’

This post is part seven of a group of posts about my self-directed professional development in the summer of 2019. To see the others, search Summer Learning or 2019 Summer PD

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