Great Art Goes "Off the Wall" At the Gardner... But Not for Long

Love art? Then run, don't walk to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum by August 28. The artistic equivalent of Haley's Comet is on view, and like the great comet, once it's gone, it's not coming back anytime soon.

Isabella Stewart Gardner inherited a large fortune in the late nineteenth century, which she used in order to create a collection of fine art virtually unsurpassed in the world.

Not only was she the first American to acquire a Raphael, a Botticelli, a Titian, a Fra Angelico, and many great artists, she built herself an Italian palazzo in Boston's Fenway neighborhood, in which to house all of it.

Gardner specified in her will that every single work of art--and there are thousands--must be kept in the precise place she chose in her museum, for all time.

This poses an enormous challenge to art conservators, who must protect works of art from the ravages of time, light and visitors.

In the event that the museum permanently moves any of the works, Gardner's will specifies that all of the artwork in the museum, and I mean, all of it, must be crated up, shipped to Paris, and sold at auction, with the proceeds to benefit Harvard University.

(Moving a piece temporarily for conservation purposes or loaning it to another museum doesn't trigger the clause, however.)

The Trustees and staff of the Gardner take the will's instructions seriously, which means that most of the time, it's hard to get a close-up view of some of these fabulous works.
But this year, everything is different.

Because of repairs to the Museum's second floor, the Gardner curators had the freedom to combine 25 of some of their greatest works in their collection into two galleries--well lit, without any furniture in the way, for maximum viewing pleasure.

The biggest challenge museumgoers might have is elbowing the curators themselves out of the way, so giddy are they with the opportunity to notice details in the works that have hitherto remained hidden.

You're greeted by a Rembrandt self-portrait, one of the first major pieces that Gardner purchased, with the advice of her advisor, the famed art critic Bernard Berenson. (A Vermeer, since stolen was the first major masterpiece she bought; its absence is acknowledged at the beginning of the exhibition).

Up close, you can see luminosity of the young painter's eyes, the softness of his hair and the unique shade of blue in the part of his cap that is upturned.

In a 14th century Fra Angelico painting of Mary's ascension to heaven, you can see the beatific faces of the angels, which are too small to notice at a greater distance.
In every single painting, you can linger over details that you could not have seen were the paintings displayed in their traditional places.

The exhibit is called "Off the Wall," which refers not to some act of curatorial madness but instead to the freedom that the Gardner staff revel in, allowing these paintings to depart their normal surroundings for this most exhilarating exhibition.

The Gardner staff and President of the Board wanted to be absolutely, belt-and-suspenders certain that the exhibition would not trigger the pack it up to Paris clause. They actually requested permission from the Massachusetts Attorney General's office to move the works temporarily for preservation purposes without violating the will's terms.

Incidentally, Isabella Stewart Gardner was a huge Red Sox fan in addition to being one of the finest art collectors in American history. If you wear anything with Red Sox insignia, you get a discount on your admission.

But even if you root for the Yankees, the Dodgers, or no team at all, make your way to the Gardner before August 28, 2016. Like Haley's Comet, this exhibition is a once in a lifetime experience.

Off the Wall: Gardner and Her Masterpieces, until March 28, 2016. For more information, http://www.gardnermuseum.org/.