The Willies

     I have just returned from the creepiest art museum. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston has got great stuff, and I never want to go there again.
     I’d been looking forward to it for years. I drove 200 miles round trip for it, through a city whose drivers and traffic are the rudest and most wretched this side of Nairobi. But it’s not the traffic that was creepy – it was the museum itself.
     The Gardner is not really a museum. It’s a shrine to the cult of Isabella.
     The paintings are wretchedly hung, in dark tiny rooms – just the way Isabella left them when she died in 1924. Two-thousand year-old Greek and Roman sculptures are stashed in lightless alcoves so dark you can’t tell whether the dude’s nose is still there.
     In the first room you visit, which is too small to swing a cat in, the first Matisse brought to America is hung so high on the wall, in such gloomy obscurity, that Yao Ming would have to stand tippy-toe and squint to take a gander at it.
     I have nothing against museums. I am glad the Gardner allows me to see paintings by Tintoretto, Holbein, Rubens, Rembrandt, Botticelli, Titian, Sargent, Whistler, and sculptures by nameless Greeks and Romans for only $12. I’m not one of those guys who thinks museums represent a dying civilization of vicious capitalists, cultural looters and retrograde bourgeoisie, though there’s no denying that museums are cultural looters. I’d like to know how Isabella got those stained glass windows made in 1205 for the Soissons cathedral. But I was glad to stare at that celestial blue.
     I’m not a professional kvetch. I will remember the museum’s “Self-Portrait” by 23-year-old Rembrandt until I am dead. Two small portraits by Holbein the Younger knocked my eyes through the back of my head. An enormous Rubens portrait of a fierce dude in armor convinced me that the man in the picture had used that armor, and that there was nothing chivalrous or romantic about it. Those four portraits are a small selection from a single room in the collection – one of the few rooms with any natural light.
     Sorry, but when you’ve got works of art that are world treasures, there is no reason to hang them in unlit broom closets just because that’s where they were when the old broad who bought them turned up her toes.
     Many art collectors hang reproductions in their homes store the real paintings in high-security warehouses. If you want to see their collection, they don’t strap you into a piano dolly and have burly guides wheel you around the warehouse. But the Gardner Museum treats you no better than that.
     As beautiful as any of the paintings in the four-story palace is the stunning central courtyard, full of semi-tropical plants, ancient sculptures – and sunlight. But you’re not allowed in the courtyard. You’re not even allowed to take a picture of the goddamn thing.
     The guides and guards at the Gardner Museum know everything about it. Any question you ask will be answered with a reference to dear old Isabella. Pardon me for pointing this out, but when you are looking at some of the finest creations mankind has produced in 6,000 years, Isabella is not the point.
     And when you have to lean over a dusty old dresser to take a squint at a Sargent portrait hung in the shadow of a regulation basketball backboard, and a guard tells you not to touch the furniture, it becomes annoying.
     “Years ago I decided that the greatest need in our Country was Art,” Isabella wrote in 1917. “We were a very young country and had very few opportunities of seeing beautiful things, works of art … So, I determined to make it my life’s work if I could.”
     That’s great. I thank her for it. Everything I have read indicates she was a free-spirited, fun-loving old gal. She loved baseball and horse races. She was born into money and married even more money. There were plenty of worse things she could have done with her scratch.
     She built the palace to house her collection, opened it to the public in 1903, and when she died, she left $1 million to take care of it, and ordered that her collection not be “significantly altered.” Also great. But Isabella’s cultists sweep the floors of the museum. They wash its few, tiny windows. They don’t let the dust accumulate because it was there when Isabella breathed her last. Surely the old girl would not object to their turning on a goddamn light here and there.
     I stood for a long time looking at Beethoven’s death mask, and an authentic letter he wrote. I have just spent several years writing a book about Beethoven, and dearly wanted to see a letter from his own hand. And there it was. In a gloomy room in the dark, a room not dedicated to Beethoven – possibly the greatest artist who ever lived – but to a Boston society woman who’s been dead for 84 years.
     It’s not a museum – it’s a crypt.

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