By Jess Clay
Harvard and Yale’s museums battled it out.
By the time we got to New Haven, we were more than ready to get off the bus. It was one of those charter numbers, fifty-six seats or so, and there was a bathroom in the back of the bus that slowly but steadily emitted the noxious fumes of bathroom solvents reserved for buses and airplanes. Yet most of us had slept for two hours despite the smell – or maybe because of its slightly ammoniac and anesthetic qualities – and we were glad to disembark for the Yale Art Gallery, textbooks cases of the bright-eyed and the bushy-tailed. Our group included a good cross section of the Harvard Art Museums personnel. Among us were Student Tour Guides, undergraduate board members, museum department leaders, and graduate students in art-related fields, and we all found counterparts awaiting us at the Gallery’s entrance. We made brief introductions and the major-year-hometown small talk before receiving a more formal welcome and setting out to tour the museum.
Our guides gave abridged versions of their tours, stopping at two objects along the way. I will not delve any deeper on those objects other than to say that the first was a snow shovel hanging from the ceiling, and the second intentionally resembled a graffiti-ed wall. The objects made the tour somewhat interesting, but I found myself more interested by the fact that each visitor was given a portable, foldable stool to sit on as they looked at the art. I am a tour guide at the Harvard Art Museums, and where others saw “portable, foldable stool” I immediately saw “blunt object capable of catastrophic damage to the art.” I do not know if this thought reflected more on a flaw in the Yale Art Gallery’s policy or my personal neuroses, but at any rate it captured my attention.
The building itself captivated me as well, in the way that industrial-grade accidents and scars captivate us. The Yale Art Gallery was an exquisite corpse of a museum. It was comprised of three buildings, built decades apart, now fused into an unholy amalgamation that proved pure hell for the unsuspecting visitor. The first building we entered was mid-century modernist work, designed by Louis Kahn in the early fifties. The second, built in 1928, was made to look like a Romanesque church, rife with limestone and humble arches. The last part of the museum was the first one built, dating to 1866 and of the neo-Gothic style that would come to define the Yale campus. On its own, each portion was tolerable, even commendable. But I thought them strange on the outside, connected as they were, and I found the melding a hundredfold worse on the inside. Evidently, architects devised different conceptions of floor height between 1866 and 1953, a historical chestnut manifested by the fact that the upper floors were not flat. Instead, you had to go upstairs to get from the third floor to the other third floor, or go downstairs to get from the fourth floor to part of the second floor, then downstairs again to get to the main second floor. What this museum needed were several magical moving staircases, like Hogwarts has. What it had instead were several large pains in the ass as you tried to navigate its labyrinthine merge points.
Yet bedeviled as I was by the outer shell, and bewildered as I was by the interior layout, I was beguiled by the collection. The museum featured 70,000 square feet of space – dwarfing the Harvard Art Museums’ 43,000—and Yale made the most of it. Where Harvard seemed lucky to have rooms dedicated to African or Indo-Pacific art, Yale had entire wings. The Euro-centric portions of the museum were overflowing with both works and people – at times dangerously so, as we saw a passing woman collide with a frame on the wall as the security guard looked on helplessly. The American collection was also exceptional, dating back to the earliest years of the Yale Art Gallery in the 1830’s. In a series of twelve paintings of the American Revolution by John Trumbull, both a nation and its mythology were born. Most famous of these was The Declaration of Independence, the image that likely forms the basis of whatever comes to mind when you imagine that scene in Independence Hall. Of course, the Committee of Five never stood together as Trumbull depicted them, and not all 56 signers were present at the document’s presentation. But the iconic painting, historical revisions and all, nevertheless made its way into a life-size version in the Capitol, a pocket-sized version on the back of the two-dollar bill, a litany of school textbooks, and ultimately the national consciousness.
There were also a number of paintings that thankfully never even entered the national subconscious. Among these were the works of early American folk art. These portraits looked like the efforts of someone who, having reluctantly attended the annual auction at his child’s school, won a year’s worth of non-intensive art lessons, which he attended on a bimonthly basis. The paintings were what might charitably be called crude approximations of the human figure. However, they were not statement pieces deriving from, say, an artistic belief in the subjectivity of beauty or the general decline of man. They were simply bad paintings made by bad artists. But the sheer rawness, singularity, and unwavering-if-unjustified self-confidence present in the pieces lent them a distinctly American flavor. In other rooms, Homer’s Civil War soldiers and Remington’s gunslingers and foreigners’ depictions of Niagara Falls and Yosemite emanated more evolved conceptions of the national character – but for whatever reason, they proved less striking than the folk art’s unfortunate subjects.
The American collection alone might have justified a full day’s musing, but by the time I finished my cursory overview I had only an hour and the rest of the museum remaining. The last hour passed in a whirlwind, and I felt a connection to those tourist families who power-walk through the Louvre on their one morning there, as they move from the Mona Lisa to the Venus de Milo. I paused briefly at Van Gogh’s Night Café, and as I pondered its absinthe-laden whorls I found myself both glad and disappointed that I liked it more than the Harvard Art Museums’ Self-Portrait Dedicated to Paul Gaugin. And then I was off again, trying to get my bearings for the next time I returned.
I will return to New Haven this weekend for The Game, of course, and be aboard a bus to New Haven for the second consecutive weekend. I hope that I will never have to do such a thing again. But I do hope to return to the Yale Art Gallery, if not this weekend then sometime in the not-too-distant future. Frankenstein’s monster thought it might be, it is an extraordinary museum – the only one I have seen which dwarfs the Harvard Art Museums for size, and the only one I know of which can go toe-to-toe for quality. Should you find yourself stranded in New Haven this Sunday for whatever unmentionable reason, give the Gallery a look. It is cool and in places it is dark, and as such it marks a prime location for post-Game mornings. And if you are among the blessed few whose buzz from the day before has continued strong into the morrow, I ask only that you not take a stool with you into the galleries.
Jess Clay ’17 (firstname.lastname@example.org) thinks that whatever the Yale lacks in its art museum, it lacks far more in its football team.