Experience Ivy League art for almost nothing

by Beacon Staff • April 4, 2007

"Classified Documents: The Social Museum of Harvard University" at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum at Harvard displays a series of black and white photos taken mostly by unknown photographers that show different areas of the United States and what they were like during times of social reform. There are pictures of asylums, hospitals, schoolhouses, farm buildings, factories and various structures that stood in the years between 1903 and 1931.

There are also pictures that exposed the working poor and living conditions as the Great Depression started to take hold. Many pictures of people from this time period hang on the walls, which are reminiscent of the scene in Dead Poets Society in which Robin Williams whispers the phrase "carpe diem" as his students look upon pictures of former students in basketball uniforms and study groups.

The scene in the gallery is just as mystical as you look into the eyes of the men and women who lived long ago, in a time so different it may just as well have been another world.

The three museums that make up the Harvard Art Museums have a knack for doing just that, taking visitors elsewhere. Whether it be to different time periods, places or thoughts, the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Fogg Art Museum and Busch-Reisinger Museum all offer a great escape that's neither far nor expensive.

It seems contradictory that the Fogg Art Museum shares its name with a thick cloud of water droplets that loom inches from the ground on a dreary rainy day.

When one walks into the Fogg, sunlight beams through the sizeable skylight and illuminates the Italian Renaissance-style marble columns that hold it up. The name is not only literally a contradiction, for the artwork within seems to give off a bright ray of excellence and beauty.

Fourteenth- and 18th-century portraits of women, children and George Washington-looking men peer out of their frames and follow the museum's guests around the galleries with their antique eyes. When these portraits are not silently spying on their observers, they see well-known paintings by famous European artists such as Van Gogh, Renoir, Picasso, Degas, Matisse, Pollock, Monet and many others.

This museum is filled with traditional European paintings of religious figures, classic nude portraits and creepy little cherubs--armies of creepy little cherubs; there is at least one around every corner of the Fogg.

Attached to the Fogg is the Busch-Reisinger. This museum is very small, making it seem more like a gallery, but it is in fact a separate entity. The Busch-Reisinger mainly displays German art, but it looks more like a collection of knick-knacks you would find in your grandmother's cluttered condo.

This exhibit is called "Multiple Strategies," in which 20th-century German artists who wanted to display art in ways other than painting and sculpture show their work, such as small, carefully crafted boxes contain purposefully placed keys, rocks, plastic food and/or board game pieces. Also in this gallery is a giant felt suit hanging on the wall, a picture of a naked woman on a set of blinds and a large collection of things like bottles, match boxes and papers with various pictures and words on them. There are a number of paintings in this museum, but the "Multiple Strategies" exhibit is certainly the most intriguing.

The Sackler, where you can find "Classified Documents," contains a collection of ancient works from Rome, Greece, Japan, China, Egypt and India. The Sackler has the customary Egyptian pottery with cats and falcons inscribed on them, sculptures of Buddha, Vishnu, various Greek gods, botanical Chinese and Japanese tapestries and utensils that were dug up from various parts of the world.

Although generally not out of the ordinary, this museum is redolent of a geography or world history textbook, but it does prove to have a decent collection of standard ancient artifacts whose beauty can only be fully understood when they are seen up close.

It's interesting to think about how mere structures can contain so many different emotions and ideas.

The Harvard Art Museums are open Monday - Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays. Admission is $6 for students with a college ID, but is free everyday after 4:30 p.m. and between 10 a.m. and noon on Saturdays.