By Brian George
“Her will…expressly forbade any changes to be made. Nothing could ever be sold, nor any new works added; window treatments and interior furniture were to remain as she had left them—the rearrangement of so much as one gave the board grounds to instantly dissolve the entire museum. This insured that Gardner's Boston enemies could never disrupt or alter her legacy.”—Gale Encyclopedia of Biography
The Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum is not so much a museum as a presence, or even an independent being, magnetic in its power, which becomes a part of the experience of those who enter it, and participates across the years in their interactions. I cannot tell whether it is the aura of the museum itself, as amplified by its placement at a key spot on the globe, or whether it is the breath of the great collector, Isabella Stewart Gardner, whose influence can so subtly be felt beneath the skin.
I cannot walk by the Gardner, even on the other side of the street, without being projected backwards into time, so that memories, both good and bad, overwhelm any encounter with the actual museum in the present. I like to visit at least once a year to observe and test how my perceptions change. My early experiences at the Gardner were uncanny in their rightness, as though each mood were a glyph within a metaphysical web, which then called forth its corresponding act. So luminous, in my own mind, was my vision of this space that I do not want to forgive the actual museum; for it is not equal to the small myth that I wove, like a duplicate web, around it. It is not even clear that my experiences are actually tied to this particular museum, or whether it serves as the approximation of an archetype with which I am struggling to come to terms.
The museum first struck me as a place that existed in its own dimension, as a type of perpetual Sabbath: The wealth produced in the previous six days has been collected. At sunset, all action freezes where it stops. No work is allowed. The family gathers to celebrate the wonders of creation. Tired, you enter the alternative space. It is as though you were to look back, from a higher dimension, over the pattern of your life, reviewing the whole of it as in a moment. Assiyah, the “World of Making,” then becomes a source of raw material, a kind of fossil fuel that powers the worlds of Yetzerah, B’riah and Atzilut. You are, of course, outside of time altogether. Silence opens and transforms the objects of this world, which, as it vibrates, then appears as a kind of x-ray, within which the outlines of all previous worlds can be seen. Such a type of silence sings, as though you had struck the stones with a tuning fork.
In my memory, the seasons superimpose themselves. Branches shake their crooked fingers at the grey sky over the city. Across the thin ice of puddles, leaves in October blow by the door to the museum. Heraldic beasts, ordered to remain immobile at each side of the entrance, and now more than a bit hungry, brood upon ancient warfare as they peek out through the snow. Humidity, like a dense fog, hangs above the roof in August. A comet arcs through the green sky that appears before a hurricane. Foam from the rising sea-level softly laps the steps. Crows caw on the roof. The sun descends but grows much tinier than it was. The Earth rings like a bell. Pink blossoms, in April, burst from trees behind the wrought-iron fence like small, time-release explosions. A harsh light streams through the skylight, probing, as though it were the light from a near-death-experience tunnel.
As I try hard to remember an important encounter with art at the museum, oddly, there is almost nothing that stands out. My most vivid encounters with the spell of the Gardner all exist in relation to people. Many of them now live far away. A few are dead. Objects fade. Relationships come forward. This is, perhaps, quite similar to the way things might appear to us as we turn back at the edge of the beyond.
(Illustration, Courtyard of the Gardner)