Ways of Seeing. The new Art of the American wing


Once upon a time, the English doctor Sir Henry Howarth Bashford said “They were all those things, and they would remember the old saying, so many men, so many opinions” (Bashford 1924). This particular aphorism was said almost 100 years ago; however, its meaning is so vital, profound and comprehensive that can be applicable as the philosophy of perception for a seeker of verity in any field of modern or old art.

Five hundred years ago, people knew what they saw back then that the Sun revolves around the Earth. Nowadays, we know that the Earth revolves around the Sun, so the seeing and knowing is a correlated process; what we see changes according to the accumulated knowledge and level of cognition. We also see not only what we look at, but how it relates to the surrounding world, and we are aware that others can watch us, because we are part of the visible and apparent world. Hence, everyone sees and comprehends things differently in visual terms, figurative terms, abstract terms or conceptual terms in direct ways of representation or a way of symbolic language. Therefore, there are no two people in the whole world who understand and see the art in exactly the same way. “The way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe” (Bergen 1972). The same picture for different people will send absolutely different message. For instance, contemporary people see fire in a dramatically different way than those of medieval civilization who saw people burning at the stakes of the Inquisition and believed in the beingness of hell.

The new Art of the American wing

Part the MFA’s, which is the most essential, noticeable and interesting from historic point of view, is a impressive new wing for the Art of the Americas collection, which is going to double the amount of presented objects, comprising wide range of large-scale masterpieces that were not displayed anywhere for decades. The new wing considers a global angle on American Art. Therefore, it demonstrates over than 5,000 remarkable works of art created in all parts of America with the pass of three millennia. Art in all room periods is arranged chronologically. 

The new art of the American wing generally represents a timeframe perspective of about three thousand previous years, and comprise the art of southern, northern and central parts of American continent. However, each of nine period rooms and four Behind the Scenes galleries reproduce the exact historic period and definite locality of historic events, as well as intensify the way visitors communicate, perceive and interact with the works of art. In the museum, these period rooms have been typical representatives of MFA’s exhibitions for over 80 years since the original foundation of Decorative Arts wing. Passing through 53 galleries of the museum, it is impossible to resist the sense of fascination with diversity and transformation continuity of the styles and, simultaneously, original visual pattern, which can be recognized after thousands of years of civilization. Passing along the museum’s room periods it is becoming understandable that art is an intermediary, through which artists interpret their vision of the world; the filter which turns the objective data of the world into subjective vision of the artist.

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Oak Hill Period Room

One of the Oak Hill period rooms represents the works of art, which created by, American architect and craftsman, Samuel McIntire (1757 – 1811). Samuel McIntire created these works of art in Peabody for family of first American millionaire Elias Hasket Derby. The gorgeous carved cornices and mantelpieces, sumptuous furnishings as well as outstanding specimens of carved furniture are demonstrated in exposition. All three Oak Hill period rooms are placed together along the gallery and comprise the specimens of furniture that made by Paul Revere, as well as John and Thomas Seymour. Here also are parlours of Jaffrey and Shepard, which were recently refurbished. Jaffrey parlour is a bungalow that initially was owned by prominent businessman and politician, George Jaffrey II.

Generally, the furniture located in the room represent the art catalogue of 1749; three tables, ten chairs, and a desk, seventeen prints and maps as well as Asian ceramics could be found in this room. Later, the museum acquired more two rooms, which have the original and unequalled French colourful wallpaper. These rooms contain the ancient wooden specimens of art similar to framework of Manning house (1692-1693). Brown Pearl hall of the gallery have something in common with crucial Anglo-work of art arranged in their wall. Manning house allows understanding how wooden buildings were constructed in New England. The special feature of structures, furniture, silver accessories and paintings that presented in the house of 17th century demonstrates the fundament of handicraft technique that was peculiar to the generation.

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Brown Pearl Hall

In 1925, Brown Pearl hall became the very first wooden-textured structure acquired by MFA. Historically, the hall was designed and built in 1704 for Cornelius Brown, and in 1738 Richard Pearls purchased the house. After that, the house remained in the Pearls’ family in course of over two hundred years. The house is a visual specimen of how in the 17th and 18th centurythe living space was arranged. Typically, the living space was applied for various home activities such as dining room, kitchen, reception room or bedroom. The furniture which placed in the house corresponds with historic period and convey an atmosphere of 17th and 18th century.

Difference in Perception

For some viewers the message that these rooms convey corresponds with historic events and environment of that period. For instance, some people can feel that they are time travellers and a time machine has transferred them into the 17th century. In other words, they almost in reality can hear sounds, smell scents and saw pictures of something that happened three centuries ago. Regardless that house arrangement, furniture, tableware and other home accessories were very different back then, all these only make atmosphere of the house more authentic and real. Of course, there is no a time machine or magic; it is only a matter of individual’s vivid imagination. However, it is a merit of museum that some individuals can gain such experience.

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On the other hand, some individuals could have an absolutely different perception. According to them, the museum is biased and does not provide the factual structure and texture as well as atmosphere of houses and furniture from the remote past. In their point of view nothing magic or extraordinary happen when they are in museum and surrounding by works of art. They understand that these works or art are our history and they are valuable from historic point of view, but that is all. They do not feel like they are transferred through time, and obviously they did not hear, smell or see anything that is not there.

Some people could say that art of works are arranged in such way that enhance their appealing property and embellish their real appearance, so there is no way to justify the verity. It is obvious that different people see different things, and it is inevitable because people have different level of intellect, spiritual, emotional and moral development as well as different experience, religious and social believes. As Frederick Langbridge once said "Two men look out through the same prison bars: one sees the mud, yet the other one sees the stars" (Carnegie 1936)

Massage that the Image Conveys

In the infancy of mankind, images were created to represent the unknown, that no one could see, incomprehensible things, and by acquiring a religious meaning they existed longer than original objects. With the growth of knowledge and cognition of mankind, the image became understood as the personal vision of an individual artist. Paintings are not only legacy of beauty but historical documents, and more inventive and peculiar the image, than more information descendents can apprehend about world experience of the artist. Nevertheless, the works of art from the past often cared quite vague meanings, and such mystification makes the images remote. Therefore, we have less extensive knowledge about history, which means that the understanding of the messages that old paintings convey will change with the lapse of time. It is always exciting to have an opportunity to take a look into past events and traditions; however, the mystification of the image prevents from truly understanding the epoch and the actual history.

Art of Work and its Value

The uniqueness of the art of work no longer comprises its value (the images of the magnificent paintings are copied, and can be found all over the world); only the unique physical being of the painting represents its value nowadays. Thus, the value of the paintings depends not so much on the message they convey, but how rare they are and by whom they were painted. In other words, the art, today, is all about commerce. Regardless of those who responds by claiming that the fiscal value of the paintings reflects the artistic and spiritual value; it is obvious that religion and fine art are not the things that drive the modern society. What defines the value of an image? It is no longer quality of painting or its meaning, but it is the uniqueness of the image. Berger in his book tells about two paintings of the Virgin of the Rocks by Leonardo da Vinci, which are almost identical. The art historians’ of the National Gallery and the Louvre are genuinely concerned to prove the originality of their image. Similarly, some images become important only after their price increases.

Meaning of the Work of Art

There are a lot of reproductions in the world, which detaches the original meaning from a work of art. The part of any painting can be extracted and be transformed into a different image. A filmmaker can go even further; they extract and select parts of a painting that arrange them as they would like to see it. The painting is represented by itself the whole composition, therefore, when it is divided into parts and then arranged in a different way, so the viewer can apprehend it as a complete image.

The collocation of images, music and words also alters the meaning of the painting. The images of well-known paintings are often used in advertising and promotion. The image can receive the new meaning that than propagates into wide mass of the population. The mystification of art allows anyone who obtains a reproduction or new image to see in it something personal.

John Berger advocated a value of the original painting. He considers that work of art should be seen in the absolute silence. Nothing should distract from the contemplation the work of art, which has strokes of the great painter’s brushes; the connection between the painting and the viewer is created in silence, and the painting became close and understandable to the viewer. Berger considers that the painting needed a special approach to be seen as work of art. The art was once for the elite and priceless, but now reproductions of art are widespread and worthless. However, the paintings, located in Museums, are priceless historical legacy that fascinates people by its mystery and beauty.


“Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak” (Berger 1972). In this phrase, John Berger notices not only the well-known truth about baby’s development, but the historically proved fact that people could see and draw pictures long before than they could speak. Through vision people recognize the beauty and multiformity of the world and their original place in it, yet the words are necessary in order to identify, explore and explain the complexity of the world. Images and messages that they convey are immensely powerful. They include conceptions that cannot be described in words. The mystery is the thing that intrigues the viewer the most. The painter is actually the only one who can know exactly what he depicted in the painting and why. The composition of the painting creates the unity, colourfulness, contrast and harmony that capture the viewer’s eye. In the course of three millenniums, the work of art is the only magic tool that gives a chance to capture life moments and save such moments forever. Invention of the camera allowed capturing not only life moments of ordinary people, but to make reproductions of works of art. Art became available for millions of people who can see and enjoy the work of prominent artists. Nevertheless, the true magic of art is still available only in special atmosphere of museum where our mind is not distracted and, therefore our imagination can transfer us through time centuries or millenniums back. However, there is the one proviso; art cannot transfer anyone, only those who love and understand the art, and those who seek the ways to cognize the legacy of previous generations in order to convey this priceless knowledge to descendants. 



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