Webster is great but I’m not sure about the moped
It may come as a surprise to some that Masterworks is 25 years old. After all, it was only in March of 2008 that their museum building first opened its doors to the public. Many may not be aware that Masterworks began by first building an art collection and thereafter sought a building to house it.
There are now two significant art museums in Bermuda, Masterworks and the Bermuda National Gallery. Interestingly, both started at about the same time, but because the BNG was linked with the Watlington Collection, which stipulated that it be housed in a suitably climate controlled space, in order for it to remain in Bermuda, the BNG from the get-go, needed to find an appropriate physical location.
There is no right way to create an art museum. What the BNG did was right for them and the way that Masterworks went about creating their museum, was for them, equally appropriate. In the end, we have two, quite different art museums, each having their own particular focus. In the case of Masterworks, the major emphasis has been on repatriating works of art painted in Bermuda or is some way inspired by Bermuda. By contrast, the BNG collections are much more diverse, what with the European, African and Modern Collections, not to mention the ever growing collection of Bermudian art.
Masterworks in celebrating its 25th anniversary has curated an exhibition that features the “big guns,” in their collection, namely, Winslow Homer, Georgia O’Keefe, Albert Gleizes, Charles Demuth, Marsden Hartley, Niles Spencer and Henry Moore. Additionally, around the Butterfield Gallery, there is a timeline, showing the development of the Masterworks Museum. Because the timeline is placed quite high up on the wall, however, reading it is difficult, nevertheless, it is worth the effort. It tells a good story.
It all began in 1987, with what the leadership at MMBA are now calling the 12 apostles. These are the first twelve paintings purchased by the Masterworks Foundation. Although the artists represented by these 12 paintings are not among the “big guns,’ it was a significant beginning and included such artists as Prosper Louis Senet, Ogden Pleissner, George C. Ault and Thomas Anshutz.
The “12 Apostles” are followed by the “Big Three”. These are three paintings, two of which are by unknown, 19th century artists. The third is by Thomas Driver and depicts St George’s Harbour in 1821. The first two paintings are of sailboat racing.
E Ambrose Webster is, in my estimation, an artist of immense appeal and Masterworks has wisely purchased eight of his colourful and energetic Fauvist paintings and all are currently on show in their 25th anniversary exhibition. Interestingly, Webster studied with Albert Gleizes in Paris in 1918-1919, which was shortly after Gleizes spent time painting in Bermuda in 1917. It is notable that Webster also painted in Bermuda during the years of 1914, 15, 16 and 1917. It is conceivable that Webster and Gleizes may have spent time together during their stay in Bermuda.
Interestingly, Demuth and Hartley were also here during that same winter. Webster was again back in Bermuda in 1919, 1920 and 1922 and continued to visit Bermuda up until the year of his death in 1935. One wonders what Gleizes and Webster discussed in regard to their times in Bermuda. Of note, Webster also painted in the Azores and Jamaica, as well as France, Spain and Cape Cod.
Although Webster was a well known painter in his day and was even a participant in the landmark 1913 Armory show, that put modernism on the American cultural map, after his death, his reputation went into an eclipse. Art historian, Gail R Scott, author of E Ambrose Webster: Chasing the Sun, points out that today, not many, even in the art world, know his name. That is unfortunate. He is, to my thinking, possibly the most engaging artist in the Masterwork’s collection.
Houghton Crawford Smith is another colourful painter in the Masterworks Collection. Although a respectable artist, to me, he is not half the painter, Webster was. Of note, however is that Smith studied with Webster and the two of them spent the winter of 1912, painting in Bermuda. Smith also was back, painting in Bermuda in 1929.
The Masterworks Museum, 25th Anniversary Exhibition is one of the best that Masterworks has created. The exhibition has been thoughtfully arranged and the timeline of Masterwork’s history is useful, in that it outlines the development of the collection, along with supporting works from the collection.
There is one slight criticism, however. I fail to see the reason for an older moped, which is parked by the east wall of the gallery, or a Bermuda telephone kiosk in the middle of the floor. At the entrance there is also an old dinghy that has steps and the invitation to come aboard and maybe have your picture taken.
The dinghy apparently belonged to one of the Talbot Brothers and resting on one of the seats, is a painting of boats, including that particular dinghy, by William Kemble and in that respect, it is an understandable addition to the exhibition, but it interferes with seeing the paintings behind the boat and, to my thinking, might have been better placed in the middle of the gallery floor.
The exhibition continues until September 2012