Forget the Snooty Reputation: Visit the Mead

Pioneer Valley Delights II:
Mead Museum of Art

Ary Scheffer Paulo and Francesca
Amherst College’s Mead Museum of Art is one of the best-kept secrets in western Massachusetts. A lot locals have never been there because, let’s face it–Amherst College has a snooty reputation. Some of that is earned and some unfair, but anyway you slice it, AC doesn’t exactly go out of its way to invite visitors onto its campus. The Mead sits near the dead center of the campus and you’ll have to park wherever you can and walk to it. Aim for the stand-alone gray stone steeple, as it is the gateway sentinel to the Mead. Stick your camera in a locker–the Mead is the only Valley museum that won’t let you take pictures of its permanent collection (which doesn’t help AC’s frosty, and I don’t mean Robert, image.)

The Mead is both free and worth finding. Its 18,000-item collection makes it the Pioneer Valley’s second-largest and it may well have the most diverse collection in the region, including Tibetan scrolls and holdings in Russian and Japanese art that surpass those of other museums. It has also updated better than most college museums, with works from Alex Katz, Andy Warhol, Jim Dow, and Andreas Serrano–among others. I was also delighted to see four collages from our friend Lilli Pereira.

The Javanese Coat

As might be expected from a school founded in 1821, some of the American works date to the 18th and early 19th centuries. The opening gallery is actually the Mead’s least interesting, as it is devoted to older American artists such as Peale and Cropsey whose work appeals more to antiquarians than to art lovers. Ditto some of the Dutch masters, nearly all of which are minor works. There is an English paneled room that has fabulous ambience, though you’ll not find much eye-popping art in it. One of the more interesting works in the first gallery is a two-painting work by Thomas Cole, Present and Past, which shows a castle in ruin upon which a wanderer stumbles, and then imagines it in its glory days with a medieval pageant in full bloom. By far the most eye-catching is Ary Scheffer’s Paulo and Francesca, the lustful lovers from Dante’s Inferno unclothed and crawling over each other like fleshy hungry vampires. (See above) There is also a fine set of portraits from Robert Brackman of Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, though most eyes will gravitate to Kyoehi Inukai’s The Javanese Coat.

The Fisher Girl
Side galleries contain an impressive Assyrian monumental relief, plus smatterings of antiquities, but the next large painting gallery is a true delight, aside from a dud of a Monet and a cloying Bouguereau. Robert Henri’s Salome Dancer * is probably the most important painting of the lot and it practically invites a debate over voyeurism, though it’s uncertain if the greater transgressor is the viewer or the insouciant central figure with her slutty come-hither stare. Check out some of the lesser-known paintings, Willard Metcalf’s Gloucester Harbor, work from Russia’s Filiip Maliavin and Label Filonov. There is also a superb Winslow Homer, The Fisher Girl
The Radio Fan

The gallery also contains my very favorite from the Mead, Alexander Brook’s The Radio Fan. Brook was best known as an illustrator, but he captures the Modernist spirit brilliantly in what is, at first glance, little more a twerpy nerd perched atop a box. But look at his left leg air dancing with the music. It’s at once whimsical and wonderful commentary on the early age of radio when it was so new that all were moved by its magic.

The next galleries bring the collection up to date. The Mead’s Andy Warhol Mao is one of the best in Warhol’s series of the Chinese revolutionary hero. There’s also a wonderful Leonard Baskin self-portrait and a chilling photograph of a Ku Klux Klan member from the Andrea Serrano–a single evil eye peeking through a ragged robe. I also quite enjoyed works from Kiyoshi Saito’sof the Hokkaido 1961 series.

Kiyoshi Saito
Kudos to director Elizabeth Barker and senior curator Bettina Jungen for updating the collection. The Mead does what a college art museum should do–make the best of what it has, and add when it can with an eye to the present and the future rather than the past.

Robert Henri, Salome Dancer
While you’re on the Amherst campus, air out your liberated camera by snapping sculptures of Robert Frost and Henry Ward Beecher. If you’re still around after 11 am, walk over to the Beneski Natural Science Museum for some impressive shots of dinosaur skeletons. If you find the pale yellow student center, you’re almost there. 

* Salome dancing was an early 20th century phenomenon that used the New Testament story of Herod II’s daughter as an excuse to erode Victorian strictures. Salome’s dancing was supposedly so seductive and exciting that she was granted her wish as a reward: John the Baptist’s head on a platter. She is often viewed as a harlot and seductress, but the sheen of a Biblical theme allowed risqué Modernist dancers and vaudevillian hoofers to bare some flesh and titillate audiences.

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