By Brian George
This brings me to a point that I am hesitant to make. In spite of the important memories it stirs, my attitude towards the Gardner changes as I try to bring it into focus. When the gift of a Renaissance palace has been offered to the city, with a fortune devoted to its upkeep, who could be so cynical as to question the benefactress’s intent and so ungrateful as to not approve? Should not such generosity serve to box the ears of the disobedient lords of industry and finance? Should not such Ionic passion prove that there is one and only one way for these objects to be arranged? Should not such virtue help to educate the bureaucrat, who has never learned to think big, and who, too often, has no fresh straw in his stall? Should not such vision finally silence her detractors, who, though living, served less of a useful purpose than the dead?
The building and the collection are so obviously labors of love. So much care and learning and imagination have been poured into them, that I suffer guilt to learn the extent of my ambivalence, which is strong. The Gardner is, in its own way, perfect, but it is not perfect in the unpredictable way that most living things are perfect. It can, at times, seem like an experiment in taxidermy, as conducted by an alien geneticist, or like the first read-through of a play in which no actors will be needed, or like the shadow cast by a widowed spider in her web. Often, as I enter through its doors, I feel like Alice stepping through the Looking Glass, not knowing if the objects on the other side will keep their expected shapes. I cannot help but wonder if these objects may have long ago disappeared, as, perhaps, has our race: What we see is the result of occult action at a distance. A kind of inside-out perspective then takes over, as though you were to look the wrong way through a telescope.
The space itself is somehow more exciting than are any of the objects it contains. Something is just slightly off. The worn Mediterranean floor tiles are more luminous than is “The Concert” by Vermeer, which, since the 1990 heist, now looks like no more than an empty frame. The porcelain reliefs, by obscure artists, are more beautiful than the Greek and Roman sculptures. The tapestries are more challenging than the paintings, as masterful and famous as many of these are. Even Titian’s incomparable “The Rape of Europa” seems somehow like a postage stamp—much less vibrant than it would be in almost any other space. The rippling of the fountain in the courtyard is more satisfying than Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, as performed at one of the Gardner’s Sunday salons. The light of a late autumn afternoon, as it filters through the skylight and the windows, is more mysterious than the objects on which it falls, which are, in the end, no more than three-d objects. The hand of the great collector is more powerful than was the eye of her pet critic, Berenson, who she delegated to inform each genius of his rank.
Like Alice, we shrink or grow, as directed by an unknown influence. On certain days, the spell cast by the Gardner makes us small. On other days, the spell acts as a catalyst, a lens that serves to magnify and focus the energies of those passing through, and prompts them to feel and say and do things that they would otherwise hold in check. Are we celebrants of a Sabbath, with the wonders of creation heaped around us, or the accomplices to some act of unnatural preservation?
Let me state it again simply: I am ambivalent about the Gardner, as well as fearful of the presence that still micromanages its beauty, which has come, through the years, to seem more and more like bait. The space is dominated, if not haunted, by the spirit of a woman dead since 1924. Towards the end of her life Mrs. Gardner, as she hovered above her creation in the fourth floor living area, must have seemed, like Miss Haversham, like something just this side of a ghost. The July 19th Boston Globe obituary states that she was to be buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, in a family tomb, but such a record may be no more than the act of a magician, the movement of the right hand to distract us from the left.
There is, in fact, no doubt as to where her web is located; a skylight stares down from the center of the web, and it is there that she waits for fresh humans to arrive.
The dowager has declared, and it will not be taken back, “I am the mad mother of barbarian tribes, the hand of the Byzantine water clock. I have mummified the sea. I have built a tomb, which will serve as a museum for the education and enjoyment of the public, forever. It is important to eat large amounts of salt. Take off the human body. By the door are hangers, where you, the living, are to check your lives. My blood is an experiment in transubstantiation. It is not red but blue. Like Shiva, I have swallowed all of the toxins in the world. Some call me for this reason Nilakantha.
“I was Astraea, who, at the end of the Golden Age, withdrew, filled to bursting with disgust. Arachne also. To the ignorant: Anathema! You are drunken worms, flies banging on the window. You are the dust that sticks to the bottom of my shoes. Embrace Beauty and destroy ambivalence. Forego all thoughts about the exit beyond Saturn—to which I alone hold the key. No change of even the smallest detail is ever, repeat EVER to be allowed."
As her will states, the substitution of even a window treatment or a chair gives the board of directors grounds to dissolve the whole museum. One cannot help but wonder if the hyper-vigilance of the guards might be no more than their reasonable reaction to a threat: should a detail be disrupted, then the whole of the museum might suddenly be sucked back through the skylight, in a geometric flash, to leave no more than the fragrance of burnt ozone on the wind. I have sometimes joked that we are privileged to view the paintings in the splendor of their original dirt. Not a speck has been removed. The museum is a shadow that the Great Year sealed in amber, a spider that was accidentally caught in her own web. It is a petrified sky turned backwards on itself. It is a genetically modified mammoth flash-frozen by a glacier, the food still undigested in its stomach, the flowers that it was munching still stuck in its teeth.
(Illustration: Photo of Isabella Stewart Gardner)