“This really will be a conversation, not a lecture,” said Professor Nancy Scott (FA), one of whose specialities is Modernism in Europe and America. The guided conversation was the second in a series, “Through Lines” at the Rose Art Museum, that aims to bring knowledgeable art experts into the museum to talk about a few selected works of art. Scott’s “Through Lines” focused on the connections between pieces of twentieth century modernism, giving insight into the museum’s significant collection.
So much information is not given in the title cards next to paintings; there’s no way to know the stories behind the artworks from just reading the artist’s name and dates. For example, the influence of Alfred Stieglitz, a patron of the arts who was instrumental in bringing avant-garde European art to the United States.
In the first room of “Passage,” we glanced at a photograph of the hands of Alfred Stieglitz. Stieglitz, who later married Georgia O’Keeffe, was a renowned photographer and gallery organizer in New York around the turn of the century. As a patron of the arts, he was instrumental in bringing avant-garde European art to the United States. Stieglitz helped evacuate artists from Europe as the First World War broke out, one of whom, Marsden Hartley, has work on view at the museum.
“Music” (1920) by Florine Stettheimer depicts a dancer performing in the middle of an arctic scene, perhaps to the tune of a piano player off to the right, illuminated by “wonderful dripping, incandescent spots of light,” as Scott called them. The painting is stage-like: “They’re addressing us in some way,” she suggested.
We then moved onto “Musical Theme (Oriental Symphony)” by Marsden Hartley from 1912-1913. “As one of my students said, he is in love when he paints this,” Scott said, then telling us how Hartley had fallen in love with a German soldier, who died during the war.
She showed us a picture of one of his later works,“Portrait of a German Officer” from 1914. The contrast is striking, bright Cezanne-inspired colors in “Musical Theme” give way to a much darker and grim palette.
Returning to the painting, Scott related the story of how Stieglitz had helped Hartley escape Europe as the war loomed. She helped us dissect the other influences the work reflected: Gertrude Stein, Kandinsky, Paul Cezanne. “This is the foundation of twentieth-century modernism,” she said.
We turned to a painting by Juan Gris, “The Siphon”—“This is our best Cubist painting,” Scott said. “This could be the whole tour.” We lingered there for several minutes, unpacking the layered, collage-like quality of Gris’s fractured depiction of a seltzer bottle on a table in a cafe. “There’s so much going on here, but you have to kind of tease it out,” Scott said about the painting. “I love to work on it with the students.”
“The whole thing about Cubism is that it’s there and it’s not there,” she said. There was a “flickering, kind of in-and-out quality,” to the painting—it was our job to attempt to reconstruct the pieces.
Scott explained that “The Siphon” and Hartley’s “Musical Theme” had been at Brandeis since before the Rose existed. “Did they hang in the President’s office?” a philosophy professor joked. But the stories of how paintings came to the Rose are fascinating—in some ways mirroring that of Brandeis; as the Rose’s collection grew, so did the University.
For example, our next work, Asger Jorn’s “The Vegetable Cell and its Private Properties,” was donated to Brandeis by a pair of brothers who made their fortune off an Elvis songbook. Their donation, comprised of Jorn’s work, de Kooning’s “Untitled,” and pieces by Robert Motherwell, helped to put the Rose on the map.
“The Vegetable Cell,” Scott said, is “one of the works that’s rarely on view” but very popular with students. Two canvases arranged vertically, it’s a series of multicolored dots that crackle with energy and seem to give life to a curling black form. It was suggested that perhaps a biology professor could come make a literal interpretation of the piece—maybe science and art can come together.
After viewing Marisol’s “Ruth” (1962), a sculpture rendition of Ruth Kligman—who, I learned, survived a car crash that killed her lover Jackson Pollack—we briefly discussed two large pieces of very abstract work by Harvey Quaytman on the back wall. “We have never had these on the wall before,” Scott said. She compared them to “an arc or a portal,” saying that “They draw me into this other place.”
The walking tour helped me to learn a good deal more about the Rose. The institution has such a rich history that’s not easily available.
Perhaps they might find a way to disseminate these fascinating, insightful contexts—from Stieglitz to Elvis to Pollock—to a broader audience, either through video or audio or written guides. There’s so much to know and explore, and in an unguided tour, you’re just getting the tip of the iceberg. But I’m thankful for this “Through Lines” series because every time I visit my appreciation for the Rose grows just a little bit more.