“Border Patrol Target Range, Near Gulf of Mexico, Texas” by Richard Misrach
Last semester, my Hum 10 seminar had the opportunity to discuss literature and art in the Harvard Art Museums. The week that we read “Lost Children Archive” by Valeria Luiselli, I came across Richard Misrach’s life-size photograph “Border Patrol Target Range,” in his collection “Crossing Lines, Constructing Home: Displacement & Belonging in Contemporary Art.” I was immediately captivated by both the large-scale presentation of the photograph and the poignant personal and cultural weight that it carried. Just as “Lost Children Archive” immerses readers in the experience of displacement — both through the physical road trip and implicitly familial context — the print forces us to interrogate our own roles in the border crisis and our relationships to otherhood and violence. Luiselli’s novel emphasizes documentarianism, or the art of being intentional in capturing and remembering. Likewise, Misrach’s photograph asks us: whose lens are we looking through? What perspectives are we adopting? It challenges us to engage with unjust policies at local and national levels that we have a duty — and are in a position of privilege — to change.
—Emma Y. Miao
The Stairs at 485 Broadway
I hurry out of the street and down a side staircase to 485 Broadway’s lower lecture hall. The Cambridge winter gray behind me, I savor the anticipation of the vibrant art awaiting me in an imminent art history lecture. Yet in the liminal space between lobby and lecture, I find myself submerged in an entirely unexpected burst of art: the stairwell. I can’t help but pause to feel the color pulsating from the walls’ painted shapes, an utter mockery of my expectations of a staircase. The disruptive geometry of vermilion, cerulean, and marigold forms flirt around the rationalized order of wall, corner, and panel, suffused with a kind of chromatic luminance that renders even a blue sky’s daylight disappointing. The stairwell’s playful defiance of the anticipated slyly transforms the passing-through-ers into active viewers. Just like that, I realize, my outlook has been transformed before I’ve even set foot into an art history lecture.
—Marin E. Gray
“Lake O’Hara” by John Singer Sargent
The best paintings take you by surprise. As I turned the corner into the European and American Art room on the second floor of the Fogg Museum, John Singer Sargent’s “Lake O’Hara” stunned me. Nearly 39 by 46 inches, the scene contains majesty, movement, and reticence. The oil painting depicts a glacial lake surrounded by mountains of the Canadian Rockies. The lake is vibrant turquoise green, and driftwood floats calmly in the shallows. The mountains dominate the entire background, their snowy slopes reaching upward to the top of the canvas, denying even a glimpse of the sky. Rather, the reddish rock face turns cool and blue as it grows farther from the viewer. What initially appear as splashes and specks become details of majestic realism with Sargent’s skilled hand — scruffy dabbles of brown and green are a shaded evergreen forest, and palette-scaped patches of gray are the rocky cliffside. “Lake O’Hara” is a painting that portrays the peculiar, awe-inspiring quiet of nature — a solitude in which there is only oneself among nature’s grandeur. Sargent was not traditionally a landscape painter, and he spent most of his career painting portraits. On a trip out West, however, he began “painting en plein air,” or the process of painting outdoors with unfixed conditions. His richly serene painting of Lake O’Hara evokes the abstract realism of both that form of painting as well as the fleeting beauty of nature itself. Both the painting and nature are always moving, always shifting even in their stillness. With each glance, there is something new to discover.
—Claire S. Elliott
“Death and Victory” by John Singer Sargent
Every time I wander up the marble steps of Widener Library, I am greeted by my dearest friend at Harvard: “Death and Victory,” the 1922 mural by John Singer Sargent. This piece, along with its companion mural “The Coming of the Americans,” towers fourteen feet above the constant stream of Widener pilgrims that floods the main staircase. In “Death and Victory,” a soldier grapples with the dual allegorical figures of Death — a veiled, feminine shadow — and Victory — a shining, winged vision.
One cannot live in Boston without seeing John Singer Sargent’s touch. Yet I feel the closest to Sargent’s legacy while viewing “Death and Victory.” When Sargent was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of the Arts at Harvard, his citation read, “When we and all the things we see about us here are seen no more, the canvas his brush has touched, men will still gaze upon with wonder.” I am one of those staring up with wonder. Sargent’s mural connects me to Harvard’s storied past through the mythos of this iconic artwork, and for a moment I’m transported away from my studies and up into the arms of glorious Victory.
—Hannah E. Gadway
Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts
The first thing my parents noticed on move-in day was the “ugly building” on the street across from Hurlbut Hall. The Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts was jarringly gray and angular. Its large glass windows emanated with light in the pink Cambridge sunsets, its rough pillars and jutting terraces watchful over the quiet evenings. I used its unmissable concrete edges as a landmark to find my way back to Hurlbut Hall in my first month or so on campus. Then, I took an Art History printmaking class on its fourth floor that stained my fingernails with ink for a week. My classmate told me on one of those early Saturday mornings that the Carpenter Center was the only building in North America designed by pioneering Modernist architect Le Corbusier. I didn’t know who he was but this revelation sent me down a Wikipedia rabbit hole — I clicked through pages Brutalism, Purism, and his many contributions and controversies. I realized it was one of those Harvard moments: passing by something casually monumental and barely recognizing it. When I’m looking out from the inside, its fractured design breaks the surrounding area into a kaleidoscope of windows. Outside, the sweeping curves and layers of concrete give the structure a dynamic quality. Some nights its arches still surprise me as I cut across to Prescott Street; the concrete hangs over me with a certain understated grace.
—Sean Wang Zi-Ming
“Gare-Saint Lazare: Arrival of a Train” by Claude Monet
In the Wertheim Room at Harvard Art Museums, I am surrounded by beautiful, famous artworks. But I am always immediately drawn to “The Gare Saint-Lazare: Arrival of a Train” by Claude Monet — one of twelve paintings depicting the smoke and bustle of a Parisian train station. The thick, dappled brushstrokes trace whorls of billowing smoke that obscure the steel and glass frame of the station, the background a haze of faint pastel buildings and gray-blue sky. The train itself has a mythic, almost lifelike quality through its imposing presence — it dwarfs the smudges of coal and workers beside it, sunlight glinting off the gleaming black engine.
Monet was fascinated with the idea of painting an image that was fleeting in its beauty and with transforming the ephemeral into the enduring through art. He often chose to paint a theme on a series of variations in order to capture its essence, but I find this painting particularly compelling because of the industrial subject. One critic wrote that Monet’s painting depicted a “monster with a bronze shell and tongue of fire” — this potent, animalistic imagery evokes a sense of awe in the power of industrial architecture. I love this painting as an ode to the power of the locomotive and as a triumphant attempt to transcend a moment by preserving it for eternity in art.
—Arielle C. Frommer