Henry Hundt ’13, Shroeder Fellow in Art
After a week hiatus of touring east coast museums, I have returned to my research after hitting the halfway point in my Fellows experience. At this point I had originally intended an exposé of four different museums contrasted with the institution that I work, the Museum of Russian Icons. However due to the journalistic approach which I fell into as I wrote up my experience, I realized that what I had manifested on paper was more of a critique rather than a reflection and would be less suitable for this blog. That is why here I will cover both my Northeast Atlantic Museum tour and last week’s research updates.
The week of our nations day of patriotism was for me a week of national cultural heritage. Due to several technicalities in both my Fellowship and museum schedules, I found myself with a week at my disposal. Over the course of five hundred miles and a fist full of museum stubs I was able to visit four of the many art institutions from Boston to New York. I began my tour in Boston on a Saturday when I visited the MFA, which is the largest museum in the area boasting a collection of over 450,000 works. This amount of art requires at a minimum three or more visits before a patron would be able to make it through the collection in a respectful manner without passing out in a sarcophagi. I believe that this is one of the primary reasons for the misdirected pretension that is often assigned to fine art venues; the experience of visiting the MFA is like trying to read War & Peace with several hundred people looking over your shoulder. This being said, the collection was fantastic. Besides the museums holdings, a traveling show of Renoir’s Dancers offered an abundance of color and a rare picture of the modern icon’s oeuvre. Renoir was engaging and offered insight into the artist’s contemporary social elite.
MFA Boston Impressionist Gallery
The following Sunday and Monday was allotted for a night of camping on the beaches of the Atlantic and a day of farming in the hills of New York. Both experiences offered a relief from the smog of the city. I arrived in Elizabeth, New Jersey on Tuesday where I was graciously hosted for the remainder of the trip by Russell Borenstein-Burd, a Cornell grad from this years class. It was because of Russell and his incredible family that I was able to affordably spend the week in and around NYC.
Guggenheim Museum, New York City
The Fourth of July was spent walking the eccentric Wright spiral of the Guggenheim Museum that resulted in one of the most memorable art experiences to date. Adjusting for the angle, Russell and myself spent four or so hours becoming equated with American and European postwar artists who triumphed the truth of abstraction and expression which left me engaging, retracting and in the end being convinced of excellence. At one point we came upon a few works by Karel Appel, a Dutch artist and one of the founding and most successful members of the art group CoBrA (Copenhagen, Brussels, Amsterdam). What makes this artist so important to two Cornell students is because the college owns one of Appel’s finest works, a true abstract-expressive gem located on the hill moated in corn. Earlier this year I spent a month researching the works finer points and was convinced of the objects worth in the Appel legacy. The project will hopefully be shared with the school at some point and in turn exposing the community to one of the finest teachings tools at Cornell.
Inside Guggenheim Museum
The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) on the following day was another massive and impressive collection. I had an interest in the overall experience of museums so I walked the majority of the complex however spent most of my time in the permanent modern display. For the most part, the museum was crowded and space was sparse giving a feeling of a large rural antique barn. Another curious characteristic of the museums of display design was how the curators decided which works received greater prominence in the museum. A very intriguing paper (forwarded to me by Prof. Christina Penn-Goetsch) authored by Carol Duncan titled “MoMA’s Hot Mamas” offers a negative interpretation of MoMA’s halls. Duncan’s argument focuses around gender stereotypes being encouraged and propagated by the male prominent art work displayed from the museums permanent collection. By offering the greatest amount of visibility to male artists such as Picasso, Pollock and de Kooning who’s work often portrays scathing depiction of woman, the museum is defining the art world as male courted activity. Woman are neither empowered to enter the art scene nor to patron the art in anyway, while always becoming the object of mens fantasies on canvas. The article continues to elaborate on the theme of gender and museums and reveals some interesting conclusions. My visit to the museum was, however, worth the time spent inside.
A scene from Carol Duncan’s discussion of the MoMA
After a day of surfing in the Atlantic with Russell and current Cornell student Julia Karvel ’14 which was followed by a dinner theater performance of Chekhov’s Three Sisters in Brooklyn directed by Lily Burd, I was ready for one last museum visit. Because of time constraints, The Whitney Museum of American Art had to be seen in a short two hours. Even so, I found the Whitney to be a breath of fresh air after the MoMA visit. Gallery space was used liberally allowing the art often to sit alone with the patron instead competing with the various objects strewn across the gallery space. Interestingly enough, the Whitney will be moving to the Meatpacking district in downtown Manhattan in a few years. It is to be hoped that the curatorial trend will continue for this institution into the new location, offering patrons a sense of the arts individual spirit. This was last stop on my tour of museums and on the following Sunday I returned to my home in Worcester.
Throughout my trip one thing did not happen, that is, I never began to doubt the effectiveness of the Museum of Russian Icons. The small size, the precise collection and the active employs generate an intimate and unpretentious experience for patrons. Intimacy seems to be one of the central tenants of a prime museum art experience and the MRI is sure to offer that quality.
The Grand Piano and a Decent scene at MRI
This last week at the MRI has offered a great deal of excitement. As I began to pursue independent research in the icon field, my interest in 17th century Russian icons continued beyond my work with Professor Raoul Smith. I covered some material concerning Orthodoxy in Russia during this period of the regions history in previous posts however; I am now shifting to revelation and eschatological themes in icon production. The topic of end times and second coming of Christ was a popular because of the reaction against Patriarch Nikon’s Reforms under Tsar Alexis. The prevalent belief among many Old Believers was that it was the spirit or even the physical manifestation of the antichrist that caused the reforms to be enacted. The believe in the coming reign of the Lord and subsequent destruction of earth even lead to mass self-immolations of entire villages for fear of becoming inflicted by the antichrist’s minions.
As I move towards CO-authorship of a paper on this topic, I am reminded of my experiences at Cornell College working closely with faculty on research projects. Because of these experiences, I have been able to work well with Professor Smith as he helps introduce me to the process of professional journal research writing just as Professor Penn-Goetsch did the same to foundational work in Art History. Soon I will be returning to Iowa to write two substantial thesis projects for the Art History and Religion departments. After this summer is complete, I will have a much better understanding of what is required to accomplish these projects.