Portrait of a Man: Govaert Flinck and the Rembrandt School

Categories: Student Projects

The following paper was researched, written, and presented as a public lecture by Carolina McGarity ’17, the museum’s 2014-2015 Robert F. Reiff Curatorial Intern.

Introduction

In his Portrait of a Man, [fig. 1] Govaert Flinck uses very Rembrandtesque elements and style. One such element is chiaroscuro, or the dramatic use of light and shadow to heighten the sense of drama. The portrait is generally dark, especially in the solid background and in the garments worn by the sitter. The sitter’s complexion, illuminated by the light, is very fair with ruddy cheeks, and his hair is curly and red. He has a wispy mustache and a thin white scarf. As in many of Rembrandt’s self-portraits, Flinck’s sitter is wearing a beret. More

The Persistence of Memories: Art as Portkey

Categories: Prose

We humans have a habit of storing memories and feelings just about everywhere. The house, the car, the cat, articles of clothing, coffee mugs, lost teeth, and locks of hair. Really, anything will do as a repository for the moments in our lives that we would rather not forget. I have drawers and boxes full of things that I can’t bring myself to discard on account of the memories I’ve associated with them—trinkets I’ve bought while traveling, stuffed animals my girls no longer covet, threadbare shirts from meaningful periods in my life—all sorts of objects d’ordinaire that still, all these months or years hence, instantly reanimate sacred memories, the crosshatched shadows of my former self. Whatever’s within easy reach—physically, mentally, visually—is fair game to be transformed into a visceral flash drive to hold the thoughts and scenes of life that I hope will endure.

I find works of art often nominate themselves for this sort of duty, perhaps because I so often turn to art in moments when my soul is in need of reflection, or, perhaps just as likely, because art is so naturally adept at capturing the common denominators of human existence.

Thomas Cole’s 1829 painting The Subsiding of the Waters of the Deluge holds the ghosts of a fair few of my feelings related to the 9/11 attacks, in part because it was included in an exhibition we were mounting at the time, but more so for its apt depiction of, literally, a watershed moment. As must Noah have thought, so did I at the time, that the world would never be the same.

Left, Thomas Cole, The Subsiding of the Waters of the Deluge, Right, Johannes Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring

Left: Thomas Cole, The Subsiding of the Waters of the Deluge, 1829, oil on canvas, 35 3⁄4 × 47 3⁄4 inches. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C., 1983.40. Right: Johannes Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring, c. 1665, oil on canvas, 17.5 × 15 inches. Mauritshuis, The Hague, Netherlands.

Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring immediately sets me to contemplating the durability of consciousness and the possibility of other lifetimes. On one level, her likeness reminds me of a pre-school classmate for whom I had a fondness, the earliest memory I have of the warmth of friendship and indeed one of the earliest memories I have from this life. On a more esoteric level, though, I have a vague but unshakeable sense that I know her from another time—from her time—so the very sight of her invariably leads me to wonder about the timelessness of my own soul.

Winslow Homer, Eight Bells

Winslow Homer, Eight Bells, 1886, oil on canvas, 25.2 × 30.1 inches. Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, M.A.

My most recent fine art horcrux is Winslow Homer’s Eight Bells. The painting, in the collection of the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, is a moving monument to the average Joes of the late nineteenth century seafaring life. The etched version, arguably one of Homer’s best, graces our collection and, with its more dramatic cropping and forefronted figures, is to my mind a more intimate, more incisive rendering of the moment. And it’s been on my mind a lot these last few days.

Winslow Homer, Eight Bells, etching

Winslow Homer (American, 1836-1910), Eight Bells, 1887, etching on paper, 19 3/8 x 25 inches. Collection of Middlebury College Museum of Art, Vermont. Purchase with funds provided by the Christian A. Johnson Memorial Fund,
1986.060.

This time last year I was spending with my father what would be the last two weeks of his life. Frail from illness, he was more or less confined to bed rest, so I spent many hours sitting with him in his room surrounded by the few treasures from his life he chose to keep close. One of those items was the ship’s clock from the schooner Cordelia E. Hays, captained by his grandfather at the turn of the century, and as my father’s sense of time was now beginning to fade it was my job to make sure that the clock was wound daily.

My father, like his grandfather, had a lifelong relationship with the ocean, and he keenly enjoyed recounting tales of his travels while serving in the navy as well as time spent aboard his own vessels. He was also an astute student of naval history, and he had a particular fascination with the Titanic that went beyond a mere thirst for learning. As do I with that pearl-earringed girl, so too he had a sense that his connection to the Titanic may have been more timeless than he in this lifetime could explain. And that ship’s clock, whose chime had brightened his house faithfully every half hour throughout his adult life, was his daily reminder of the ways in which the ocean had animated his sense of purpose.

The chiming of a ship’s clock is a mechanized version of a longstanding tradition stemming from the basic function of keeping time and marking the changing of the watch while at sea. One bell is struck at 12:30, two bells at 1:00, three bells at 1:30, and so on until eight bells at 4:00. Then the watch is changed and the cycle repeats starting with one bell at 4:30, etc. In Homer’s Eight Bells we see two fishermen at the eight bell watch using octants to find their latitude by measuring the peak height of the sun at local noon. (Here’s a video showing how it would have been done.) Homer’s sensitively rendered depiction of the scene forces us to recognize the task not as another mundane moment in the life, but rather as one of the rituals that impart a sense of hallowed order to the day.

In addition to marking the end of the watch, eight bells can sometimes be struck to mark a sailor’s death, a poetic euphemism for the end of his or her watch. This latter symbolism is what brought Homer’s etching to mind then as it does now. There, on the coast of Maine, not even a stone’s throw from Prout’s Neck where Homer spent the last years of his artistic career, I coaxed from my father the last details of stories he had long promised to tell, stories of a life well and simply lived. And all the while the chiming of that clock marked the waning hours of our time together.

Myriad details—stories he told, his characteristic mannerisms, the special Christmas dinner he and I shared, the events he considered to be the highlights of his life, the things he would have done differently, the feelings I had during those two weeks, the lessons I’ve learned from him, the legacy he leaves behind—are now, in my mind, forever tied to that work of art like near field communication, popping up whenever my mind wanders close. And vice versa. Whenever I think of my father, the uncommon commoner with a love of the sea and a knack for making the ordinary feel extraordinary, my mind freely wanders to Winslow Homer and I am washed in waves of warm reminiscence. Such a burden of reverence and recollection have I bestowed upon that etching. But, like all works of art, I know it’s up to the task. I know that each time I stop to reflect upon it all of those embedded memories will come flooding back never having been further from mind than the ebbing tide.

On the morning of his death I chose to wait in his room for the coroner to arrive. As I waited, the clock faithfully chimed eight bells. End of the watch. End of his last watch. Death of a sailor. Birth of a memory.

Steel Yourselves, Here Comes Youbie Obie

Categories: Public Art

It’s been exactly twenty years since the Committee on Art in Public Places (CAPP) accepted Jules Olitski’s King Kong—a beautifully abstract, almost minimalist work in cor-ten steel, gifted to the College by Sophia Healy, daughter of former professor Arthur Healy—and sited it in front of the Johnson Building. This summer, as a serendipitous, unwitting tribute to the acquisition of King Kong, CAPP has accepted another gift in cor-ten steel, a monumental work by Middlebury alumnus J. Pindyck Miller ’60 titled Youbie Obie.

aluminum version of Youbie Obie

An alternate version of Youbie Obie in aluminum. Ours will be in cor-ten steel.

More

Wonder, Rewarded

Categories: Awards

You wouldn’t think that the museum life would be routine. All the fantastic art that graces these walls? But it certainly can be. Often we get into a hamster wheel of exhibit and event schedules looking up only now and then long enough to spot the next deadline. Mount a new exhibit. Offer a few events to expand on the exhibit theme. Tweet about how cool it all is. Wash, rinse, and retweet. More

Built Invitations

Categories: Public Art

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(photo via https://www.facebook.com/middartmuseum)

I associate the physicality of Vito Acconci’s work to that of a premier danseur.  He is the Nijinsky of built forms, aware of the elasticity of every wall, and how far he can bend a concept—an incredible flexibility—before he must spring forward.  It is an irresistible, magnetic kind of physicality, needing an audience for completion, or even, like touch improvisation in modern dance, changing with and responding to each interaction different audiences bring.  The physical power of his works, architectural and performed, is the most frightening and beguiling to me.  I think about his early performance work, Following Piece, frequently when I’m walking down the sidewalk behind a stranger.  How would the relationship between our bodies change if I kept following them?  How would they feel about me tailing their heels?  Would their shoulders tense?  Would they speed up or change tack?  It’s a strange and discomfiting scenario.  His buildings and installations ask these questions of us as well.  Does your body make this your space, or does this space demand something of your body?  After decades of studying this bodily response to the world, and the world’s affect on the body, Vito Acconci has become a master at inserting questions into our daily dance, asking that we stay aware of the political shakes that can come from grand leaps or supple bows, movements which come unthinkingly, but that have deliberate manifestations in our world.

Physical spaces are easily turned into analogous spaces dependent our bodily response to them.  Way Station I (Study Chamber) was a study space, a joke, a blight, a threat.  What is it about an immobile structure that causes one to react so strongly as to enter it trustingly?  Or to throw gasoline on it and set it alight?  Acconci does not seize us, but goads us, follows at our heels, and seduces us.  And we take the bait!  The decision to join him on stage comes from somewhere within.  We have rebuilt an Acconci piece on our campus landscape—how will we engage with it in 2013?

Another Summer in the Books

Categories: Exhibitions

Summer comes and goes very quickly here in Vermont—blink and you’ve missed it, as some would say—and like the season itself, our summer exhibits vanish with a similar haste, like a Fumé Blanc that you wish would have lingered just a bit longer on your tongue. As I watch the works come off the wall and go back into storage or back to their lending institutions, I often find myself wishing that I had spent more time with them, and inevitably I turn to the exhibit’s comment book to absorb others’ insights about the show as a way of allowing it to hang a little longer in my mind’s eye. More

Fabergé: The Social and Political Implications of Russian Decorative Arts

Categories: Student Projects

Note: The Middlebury College Museum of Art possesses a remarkable collection of Russian artifacts and family keepsakes made by the firm of the famous jeweler, Carl Fabergé. This essay by Adrian Kerester ’15, adapted from her April 2013 lecture and reproduced here with permission, explores Russia’s social history at the turn of the last century through an examination of and conversation surrounding Russian decorative arts and the culture of Russia’s ruling aristocracy. More

Rackstraw Downes, Unfinished

Categories: Prose

“The artist who searches for subject matter is like someone who can’t get out of bed without understanding the meaning of life.” –Fairfield Porter

When I think about pencil drawings my mind inevitably wanders to Robert Frost’s Mending Wall. “Something there is that doesn’t love a pencil drawing,” I tell myself. It’s a perplexing association to be sure, but I think it must have something to do with the fact that drawings, pencil or otherwise, are often intended to be stepping stones along the path to a grander vision, so they tend to feel unfinished, imperfect. They are forever being mended—erased and redrawn atop patches of semi-intended smudging—until they reach a state in which they can conceivably hold an idea long enough to fatten it in some other medium for market. A drawing is usually version 1.0 More

Lovely Filth

Categories: Exhibitions, Public Art

It’s not often that I get to make direct connections between an exhibition in the galleries and the collection of public art that we have on permanent display around the campus. The opportunity is probably there more often than I’m aware, but during my tenure anyway, the times when the similarities have been palpable have been rare. This spring, with Environment and Object • Recent African Art on view in several of our galleries there’s a theme that’s begging to be explored both inside and out. And it’s totally rubbish. More

Life is Like a Bowl of Chocolate

Categories: Exhibitions

This always happens. We put up a fantastic exhibition; the public enjoys it, raves about it even; and then I wake up months later as the show is about to come down and realize that I have yet to spend any appreciable time with it. It was always there, waiting for another day when there were fewer responsibilities, fewer fires burning, the sort of day that never comes. More