Our stop at the Harvard Art Museums was an enlightening and entertaining experience. Walking through the galleries with their surprisingly large and varied art collection, it is easy to forget that this is, first and foremost, a teaching institution. For the Museums’ collections and exhibitions may be admired by the art loving general public but their main purpose is to serve as catalysts for teaching and research projects and encourage active learning and thinking across disciplines and cultures.
We leave the galleries with two ladies that, in my view, personify this intercultural dialogue; so far apart in time and style, yet so similar in their delicate, minimalistic technique; their differences and those red subtle details, only bringing them closer together.
Zhang Xiaogang (b. 1958)
Oil on canvas
”Painted from a photograph, Zhang’s Portrait situates the subject in an eerie grey dreamscape. By imbuing the precision of photography with the modulated tones of a painting, Zhang imparts a surreal quality to the work. The portrait belongs to the artist’s Bloodline: Big Family series, based on family photographs taken before and during China’s Cultural Revolution. In the 1980s Zhang was part of a group of artists and philosophers opposing government repression and advocating for humanism, individual freedom and democracy. Despite its formal portrait conventions and the ubiquitous collared jacket, the painting represents an individual. Yet the notion of collectivity, central to the Cultural Revolution, still permeated Chinese society, as is evident in the repetition evoked by this series of paintings. The jagged red line, a reference to the bloodlines that tie a family together, cuts across the subject like a wound, imparting a subtle violence to the cool grey portrait.”
Ammi Phillips (1788-1865)
Harriet Leavens, ca. 1815
Oil on canvas
”Phillips was an itinerant, self-taught painter who spent much of his career travelling through small towns in the Berkshires and the Connecticut River Valley. An able marketer, he promoted his portraits in local newspapers as having been done ”in a correct style” with ”perfect shadows and elegant dresses in the prevailing fashion of the day.”
This portrait, among the most celebrated and widely recognized works in Phillips’ oeuvre, depicts the eldest daughter of the Leavens family of Lansingburgh, New York. She is portrayed as a slender, stylish young woman dressed in a gown in the Empire style, which as adopted from France.
With its simple geometries and pastel palette punctuated by flashes of blue, orange and red, the portrait looks forward to the modernist abstractions of the early twentieth century. Phillips’ work held particular appeal for American painters of that era.”
Harvard Art Museums, Boston
May 3rd, 2017