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My Time with "Past Time: Geology in European and American Art"

Albert Bierstadt (American, b. Germany 1830–1902)
Geyser, Yellowstone Park, ca. 1881, oil on paper mounted on paperboard
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Gift of Martha C. Karolik for the M. and M. Karolik Collection of American Paintings, 1815–1865
Photograph copyright 2018 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Today’s post comes from Kirk Testa, class of 2019 and Art Center Docent.

During my sophomore year, I assisted Dr. Patricia Phagan, the Loeb’s curator of prints and drawings, with research for the currently on view exhibition, Past Time: Geology in European and American Art. Researching for this exhibition and its accompanying catalogue was an invaluable opportunity for me. Not only did I get to learn about each of the art works on display, I also became more aware of the careers of their respective creators and the geological importance of each natural formation depicted in these works. In addition to accumulating information from books, microfilms, magazines, and other sources, I also helped Dr. Phagan compile her bibliography and perform the outreach necessary to obtain image files for the catalogue. Indeed, it has been remarkable to witness this project transform from an idea into a beautifully crafted exhibition.

Now that I am a senior and a docent for the Loeb, I am thrilled by another opportunity that Past Time offers me, which is to share my knowledge of the displayed art to museum visitors. I look forward to seeing people’s reactions to the highly detailed and vivid works on paper and canvas that span from the 1770s to 1890s. For me, one of the most striking works included in the exhibition is Geyser, Yellowstone Park, ca. 1881, an oil painting on paper by the Hudson River School painter Albert Bierstadt (1830­­–1902). This work, which comes to us on loan from the MFA Boston, depicts not one, but two types of wondrous geothermal formations in Yellowstone National Park: a geyser and a hot spring. The top half of the image shows the geyser’s release of heat and pressure, spewing steam and a jet of water in the air, blocking the view of more than half of the blue sky and evergreen forest background. The bottom half of the painting is taken up by a hot spring, which unlike the turbulent geyser, is perfectly still; so flat is the spring’s surface that it acts as a mirror that reflects the tumult of the geyser behind it. Hence, the painting as a whole conveys a sense of balance between the violent and peaceful forces of nature.

I believe that the Past Time exhibition provides a much needed counterpoint for today’s culture of high speed digital images. Though it may be obvious, it is important to recognize that these images come from a time before, or in the early stages photography. Thus, they shed light on the pre-digital relationship of art and science, harkening back to a time during which the artist’s imagination thrived alongside the scientist’s empiricism. Fundamentally, these works embody the importance of slow looking and going to the source, lessons which I have learned from my Vassar art history courses. Upon seeing these works, one may feel transported to the very location depicted and imagine the artist’s meticulousness in capturing the subtle details of myriad layers of rock, the infinite shades of blue within glaciers, or the violent components of volcanic eruption.
Past Time: Geology in European and American Art will be on view through December 9, 2018, and will travel to the Johnson Museum of Cornell University in February 2019. At Vassar, the exhibition is supported by the Art Dealer’s Association of America Foundation, the Evelyn Metzger Exhibition Fund, and the Lucy Maynard Salmon Research Fund.

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