Looking Back: The Western Tradition in Retrospect

, University Teaching Gallery, Harvard Art Museums

William Blake, Christ Blessing, c. 1810. Tempera on canvas. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Bequest of Grenville L. Winthrop, 1943.180.

University Teaching Gallery, Harvard Art Museums

The history of art is usually presented as a forward march, with individual works studied as points along a path of progress to the present. This installation—matching the Harvard survey course it accompanies—reverses that familiar direction. The sequence proceeds from recent art back to the Renaissance. This retrospective history of art is meant to capture the point of view of artists themselves, who have, for generations, tried—variously—to preserve, transform, surpass, or overturn what came before them. A reverse perspective also accords with how humans are situated in history, looking back inescapably from a position in the present moment, but also powerfully shaped by the past. And it echoes the time sequence of geological sediment through which one has to dig from new layers to older ones.

Looking back on selected artworks from the Western tradition allows us to observe that even the most radical contemporary departures depend heavily on the art of the past and therefore that the Old Masters are relevant still. Visitors are invited to travel the sequence in both directions, from present to past and from past to present, experiencing the different connections, stories, and dislocations that arise.

The installation’s related course is taught by Jeffrey F. Hamburger, the Kuno Francke Professor of German Art and Culture; and Joseph Koerner, the Victor S. Thomas Professor of the History of Art and Architecture at Harvard University.

The University Teaching Gallery serves faculty and students affiliated with Harvard’s Department of History of Art and Architecture. Semester-long installations are mounted in conjunction with undergraduate and graduate courses, supporting instruction in the critical analysis of art and making unique selections from the museums’ collections available to all visitors.

This installation is made possible in part by funding from the Gurel Student Exhibition Fund and the José Soriano Fund. Modern and contemporary art programs at the Harvard Art Museums are made possible in part by generous support from the Emily Rauh Pulitzer and Joseph Pulitzer, Jr., Fund for Modern and Contemporary Art.