Last night at Harvard’s Sackler Museum

Last night in Harvard Square was cold.  Traffic was heavy but we saw a man riding a tandem with his daughter, who was about 7 or 8, on Broadway.  We turned into the parking garage, where the university provided alumni parking for us.

There was a crowd in the museum entryway.  Eclectic.  Ages ranged from seeming still-students to retirees.  Our badges awaited us at a table.  Name and degree awarded, with year.  Presumably so we might identify other classmates, perhaps bump into old friends.  We were all there to see an exhibit of 16th century woodcuts that, together, bespoke a way of communicating visual knowledge before there was an inexpensive way of disseminating printed media, or photography, or even, for that matter, an accurate idea of how wide north america is.

We waited for our docent.  Some time passed.  We drank wine and ate cheese.  We tired of waiting and began, mostly in pairs, to make our way up the stairs to 3, where the exhibit awaited us.

The sackler is a modern, pretty museum, welcoming in its relative humility.  The door on 3 opened directly into an exhibit hall where we saw first a Durer.  Nemesis, a woodcut from 1501.  A lifelike figure carrying a harness and goblet, adorned in glorious, life-like wings and sporting seriously taught, muscular legs.  And, we read, feet that were slightly larger than the established “realistic” ratio.  The figure seemed to embody all that retribution and hope could promise when taken together.  REALLY brilliant, but haunting somehow.

It kept on.  The seige at Dresden.  6 blocks taken together in a sprawling visual of the battle’s events.  Globes and astrological prints of astonishing craftsmanship and beauty.  Medieval maps and “scientific” drawings of animals (especially the rhinoceros), the human anatomy, and sealife.   Macabre in their life-like-ness.  Sun dials and geometry.  Palpably dimensional.  The art was stunning, if for nothing other than the astonishing detail the artists were able to achieve in woodcuts make into prints.  But there was more in it then the obvious precision and skill… the passion and curiosity was really evident in many of the pieces.  Durer’s, especially, I thought (but I’m partial to him).

A group of us gathered before a painted map of Amsterdam.  Neptune presiding, the city’s channels were gloriously hued blue, the buildings neatly arranged, the ships anchored docilely in the harbor.  Idylllic.   We marveled at the green neat hills that stretched out beyond city limits.  Was there so much available, farm-ready, livestock-ready land?  No.  But the rest is fairly accurate, the docent told us.

Across the hall there was a globe.  North America shrunken to a fat crayon’s width.  Really, it’s amazing.  They didn’t know that North America is wider than South America?  Not at all.  But look, here’s Cuba.

And next to the map of Amsterdam the structure of the Universe, Earth at center, was on display.  Surrounded by water, fire and air.  Then the planets and firmament.  And the first commercially successful atlas.  All of this on loan, gathered here for our curious, greedy little minds to take in.  What is not to love about Harvard?

One last to share:  the teaching room.  Adjacent to the exhibit there is a gallery where the teaching staff designs study halls for students.  There we were allowed to gaze upon pairs and small sets of pieces that had been gathered for comparison.  Old silvery 19th century photos, paintings, landscapes, prints, incredible etchings.  subtle, stark, textured, revealing.  Cultured women ooed at awkward nudes.  Sophisticated men gazed approvingly at sketches and photos. Neither cultured or sophisticated myself, I tried to identify patterns, imagining what students might be looking for.  Wishing I was still a student, i turned back to the exhibit, feeling guilty.

Slowly, reluctantly, I made my way toward the door.  The event was supposed to have ended 20 minutes ago, but the docent had kindly allowed us to remain, to talk, to discuss what we each found most surprising, most appealing in the exhibit.  But it was getting late.

I think what I will remember most vividly is the smallness of the United States on their globes.  Shaped like a finger.

Perspective and exposure are everything.

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