One of my chief goals in visiting Boston a few weeks ago was to see the exhibition “Journeys East: Isabella Stewart Gardner and Asia” at, appropriately enough, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
The Gardner is a beautiful museum, founded, organized, designed and curated by Mrs Gardner herself, and maintained in much the state she left it, as stated in her will. Far from the sterile, stale galleries of most institutions, the Gardner is alive with architectural forms, natural light, and a beautiful courtyard garden, all arranged in such a way so as to aid in the appreciation of the beauty of the art. It is truly a shame that such a gorgeous building forbids photography, while so many museums allow it with no flash.
The exhibit focuses, as the name would imply, on Mrs Gardner’s journeys to the Far East. She bought some trinkets and souveniers, kept extensive travel journals, and brought back many photos of the exciting and interesting places she visited, providing us an entrancing glimpse into the Far East of the early 1880s, a place very very different than it is today, and yet just similar enough…
Mrs Gardner would later go on to become a collector of Far Eastern art, and a close friend of Ernest Fenollosa and others who played a key role in introducing Japanese art to the West and forming, at the Museum of Fine Arts, the foundation of what is today the largest collection of Japanese art under one roof anywhere in the world. Gardner became especially close with Okakura Kakuzo, an extremely prominent figure in the introduction of Japanese art to the West, and in the art world of Tokyo and Japan more widely. These relationships, and the letters, diaries, photographs, and art objects associated with them, are what really drew me to the exhibit. While I can certainly appreciate how the average tourist/visitor might not know or care who any of these people are, thinking them to be just local figures not of greater significance, I have become extremely interested in their relationships with one another, and with Boston & Japan, as the result of my experience interning at the MFA. While I am hardly the type to become interested or invested in these sorts of local figures, it is through these particular figures that we can envision vividly the interesting, exciting and culturally colorful worlds of both late 19th century Boston and Japan, the many letters, photographs, art objects, and the buildings themselves bringing that world of the past alive in our imaginations.
The museum has little space for temporary or special exhibitions, and thus the exhibition was destined to disappoint. That disappointment, however, was alleviated by the exquisite quality of the exhibition, and by the thick and dense exhibition catalog (420 pages hardcover), the volumes of the content of which more than make up for not having that much in the exhibition itself; or, rather, would make up for it if I could afford the $60 cover price. Along with Mrs Gardner’s travel journals, photos of Okakura, and a number of luxurious and impressive objects, including a Genji folding screen and a large Buddha statue, the exhibit features one item I’ve been eager to lay my eyes on ever since I first heard rumor of its existence: a tea set gifted by Okakura Kakuzo to Mrs Gardner.
Imagine coming to Mrs Gardner’s home at Fenway Court (as the Museum was then called) one evening in 1905. She greets you at the door, a slim woman with a friendly but elegant bearing, and eagerly escorts you to “the China Room“, a somewhat more exclusive room towards the back of the building, filled with Buddhas and an array of other exquisite items from the Orient. A Japanese man dressed in kimono is there, waiting, and once you’ve arrived, you are brought into another world – the world of the tea ceremony.
I do not know if Okakura’s tea ceremonies were truly the first to be performed in the US, but they were certainly of that generation, introducing it to people fascinated by the mysterious Orient, and living in a time when everything about the Far East was new to them.
Okakura’s tea set does not match, like an English tea set would. Rather, in fact, very few of the items match in color, style or age, but together they nevertheless work perfectly to create the proper atmosphere for tea ceremony. Many of these pieces are quite old, and have extensive backgrounds and noble provenance you might never guess looking at the objects alone. That the exhibition also included a wooden box, labeled simply “To: Mme. Isabella Stewart Gardner, Fenway Court, Boston MA” or something to that effect, thrilled me. It is not only the art objects, after all, which tell the story, but artifacts like these – I am shocked, and extremely pleased, that such an object still exists and was not lost or destroyed 100 years ago.
I have wandered off topic, but I think this gives an indication of what the Gardner Museum and, more to the point, what Mrs Gardner’s life, her collection, and her world mean. This is not about dry historical facts, or about art works to be appreciated alone, in isolation. It is about immersing yourself in the atmosphere, the aesthetic, the culture of that time, imagining yourself there, and experiencing the wonder, calmness, beauty, and multitude of other emotions these people felt when engaging with the Far East for the first time, and when bringing elements of it back with them to introduce it to their community for the first time.
The exhibit closes on May 31, so if you have the opportunity, catch it while you can! And if you miss it, try to find a chance to thumb through (or purchase) the catalog, surely one of the best books out there on a New Englander’s journeys in late 19th century East Asia.