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The Busch-Reisinger Museum:
Harvard University Art Museums

ed. Peter Nisbet

288 pages, over 250 illustrations; full color throughout
Dimensions: 12.1 x 9.2 in.
Publisher: Scala Publishers, June 2007
ISBN: 1857594797
Hardcover, $65.00

Just as a long and studied stroll through a museum refreshes and stimulates with its varied offerings, so this cross-section of artwork from the permanent collections of the Busch-Reisinger Museum presents opportunity for lively contrasts as well as giving a taste of the range and depth of the museum's holdings. One of the three Harvard University Art Museums, the Busch-Reisinger is the only museum in America dedicated solely to the arts of Central and Northern Europe, with an emphasis on the German-speaking countries. Founded in 1901 as The Germanic Museum, its first major donations in 1902 were received from Kaiser Wilhelm II and consisted of "plaster casts of key monuments in the development of German sculpture".

Since then, its mission has evolved in both scope and modernity, and its collections now range from rare holdings of Medieval sculpture to the very latest in contemporary works by German artists. The Busch-Reisinger Museum: Harvard University Art Museums is the first large-scale book covering the museum's unique collecting focus. This is a visual rather than a textual reference, with individual works only briefly annotated with the basics of artist, title, medium; still, the abundant selections convey the richness and diversity of the museum's acquisitions. Among them are drawings and paintings from the museum's significant collections of modern German art; select German expressionist sculpture (Gerhard Marcks, Ernst Barlach, Max Beckmann, Kathe Kollwitz); functional art deco items from the 1920s (Otto Lindig, coffeepot, cup and saucer; Marianne Brandt, samovar; Harald Neilsen, condiment set; Wilhelm Wagenfeld and Carl Jacob Jucker, table lamp) and an array of futurist sculptures and easel works, also from the 1920s (sculptures by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Naum Gabo; oil paintings and drawings by Moholy-Nagy, Lyonel Feiniger, Kazimier Malevich, El Lissitsky, Willi Baumeister, Wassily Kandinsky). Selections for the book balance off the canonical, including Max Beckmann's Self-Portrait in Tuxedo (1927) or Piet Mondrian's Composition with Blue, Black, Yellow and Red (1922), with its necessary complement of works by less well-known or well-represented artists, such as Nude in a Landscape (1929) by German expressionist Otto Mueller.

Perhaps to stress the museum's up-to-the-minute holdings, the works are organized with contemporary art first, and follow a reverse chronology leading backward through time. Modern video and photography open the book, showcasing the contemporary tendencies of art searching for its identity in science, technology and industry. From there the progression wends its way into history: 20th-century art and the distortions and explorations of German expressionism give way to classicism in the late 1800s, and at last come to rest in the wellsprings of the sacred, including selections of carved Medieval Madonnas and a 9th-century ivory plaque (facsimile, part of the original teaching collection of the museum) of early Germanic make, depicting the Holy Spirit descending in the form of a dove. The progression encourages a renewed sensitivity to the changes as they seem to unreel in reverse, and the effect, appropriately, is as if following the museum back to its origins.

Two essays, "Identity and the Museum" and "Representatives", discuss the museum's development as a teaching and collecting institution. "Representatives" hints at the daunting scope of curator Peter Nisbet's task: his final selections for the book, a count of some 200 works, were made from collections of over 30,000 items from which to choose. A chronology of the museum from 1901 to the present provides a look at the Busch-Reisinger's inception and its history of significant donations, a further insight into how institutions such as this, and their collecting missions, evolve.

--Katherine R. Lieber

Katherine R. Lieber has edited ArtScope.net's Visual Arts reviews since 1998.

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