12 DECEMBER 1998, Page 50

Exhibitions 1

Undying passion

Martin Gayford visits Boston and is not corrupted by the masterpieces he finds there You would be a valuable Acquisition to the Art, and one of the first Painters in the World,' wrote Sir Joshua Reynolds to John Singleton Copley, 'provided you could receive these Aids before it was too late in Life, and before your Manner and Taste were corrupted or fixed by working in your little way in Boston.' Sir Joshua, it appears, took a low view of the artistic potential of Boston. As it happens, he was wrong, even then when Boston was still a provincial out- post of British rule. Copley did most of his best work in Boston, before his manner and taste were corrupted by exposure to Europe. Nowadays, over two centuries later, he would be even more wrong. Boston, as I discovered on a recent visit, is — despite overpasses, underpasses, conges- tion and the big city grittiness described in George V. Higgins's excellent crime novels — what the French describe on road signs as a 'vile d'art'.

I was drawn there by the superb Monet in the Twentieth Century exhibition, which began in Boston at the Museum of Fine Arts — where it is magnificently hung — and moves to the Royal Academy in the New Year when I shall write about it at length (anyone who is going to Boston in the next couple of weeks is recommended to take a look, if they can get through the seething crowds). While I was there I took the opportunity to look around, and found that, in three days, I had my work cut out to do justice to all the artistic sights.

America is, of course, even more than France or Italy, the land of the art museum. As with a number of other innovations the radio, the motor car — Americans did not actually invent the museum, but they certainly exploited the idea on a grand scale once they had adopted it. A number of large American cities are lavishly supplied with public art collections — New York, of course, and Washington it goes without say- ing, but Chicago, Los Angeles and Philadel- phia also have world-class museums (this is in part a reflection of the decentralised organisation of the country). So too does Boston, and there, in the oldest of the great American cities, one can most easily trace the origins both of the indigenous Ameri- can styles of art, and also the American pas- sion for Art (as Sir Joshua would doubtless have capitalised it).

Already before the revolution, however, it is possible to detect American style mov- ing away from the English model at a slight, but ever increasing angle. The char- acteristics of American painting, as one knows it — realistic, straightforward, flat and full of pazazz — can be traced early. The no-frills matter-of-factness can be seen in the Museum of Fine Arts collection of John Singleton Copley (which contains almost all his best work). The 18th-century buildings of Boston seem just that little bit more four-square, simpler, starker, than their transatlantic equivalents (with the Detail of Gauguin's 'Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?' possible exception of the Anglican Kings Chapel, with its ornate, canopied gover- nor's pew). Charles Bulfinch's Mas- sachusetts State House — where there hangs a wooden codfish as a reminder of the source of Boston's wealth — is based on Sir William Chambers's Somerset House. But it is different from, and also better than, the sprawling, pompous origi- nal — neater, trimmer, spryer. Bulfinch's white portico against his red-brick wall has a visual punchiness known to sign-writers as 'snap', and which I have heard abstract painters call 'popping'.

You get the same feeling for rectilineari- ty and simplicity from the clapboard houses around Brattle Street in Cambridge, Mass. (effectively a suburb of Boston). And you get it, too, from the early striped abstracts of Frank Stella and the paintings of Ellsworth Kelly, one colour per canvas, of which there was an array in the Fogg Art Museum in Cambridge (another splendid museum) when I was there. It's a very American feeling.

In the second half of the 19th century, as Robert Hughes notes in his book American Visions, 'the museum began to supplant the church as the focus of great American cities'. Similarly, the zeal and earnestness which had previously been applied to reli- gion and politics moved on to art. Again, one can trace the change best in Boston, at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Mrs Gardner herself (1840-1924) put the matter clearly enough. Her native land, pre-emi- nent in so many matters, was lacking only in art — which she thereupon set about importing by the crateful.

The results are still there, just as she left them — since she stipulated that nothing was to be moved — in an extraordinary fin de siècle aesthetic jumble at 280 The Fen- way, a building just as unique as its con- tents. Outside, it is fairly plain and of its period, inside there are the façades of sev- eral Venetian palaces facing, as Venetian palace façades never did, on to a garden courtyard. All around are scattered exam- ples of what one might call the higher bric- a-brac — tapestries, fragments of mediaeval sculpture, Renaissance fireplaces — and, among them, paintings, one or two supreme masterpieces (although the Vermeer and a Rembrandt were stolen some years ago and have not been recovered).

Mrs Gardner's principle agent was the critic Bernard Berenson, himself a product of the cult of art in late 19th-century Boston. And Berenson, a bit of a crook as well as a brilliant connoisseur, did both well and badly by her. There are many rather run-of-the-mill paintings on the walls. But one or two works he made her buy are the best of the best, most of all Titian's 'Rape of Europa', purchased in 1896 from Lord Darnley for a sensational $100,000. This is a picture worth crossing the Atlantic to see, as magnificent a Titian as exists, not overcleaned, largely visible by natural light, just perfection. The Isabella Stewart Gardner is a speci- men, like the Frick in New York and the Phillips in Washington, of the museum derived from a single squillionaire's collec- tion. Round the corner, the Museum of Fine Arts is an equally splendid example of the American civic gallery. It, too, houses masterpieces, many more of them, includ- ing Gauguin's magnum opus of exotic angst `Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?', and out- standing paintings by Renoir, El Greco, Monet, Sargent and many others. Just at the moment MFA is virtually twinned with London on the exhibition circuit; when Monet arrives here, Sargent will cross from the Tate to there (in fact, Boston will prob- ably be the place to see Sargent, as there it will also be possible to view his early mas- terpiece 'El Jaleo' in the Isabella Stewart Gardner, and his murals in the Public Library and the MFA).

While I was there, the Museum of Fine Arts held a masked ball to celebrate a cam- paign which had raised $137 million. It was not only more stylish by far than a function in a British gallery, but also a striking demonstration of the continuing American belief in Art.