Travel the world with Betye Saar and Isabella Stewart Gardner

A passion for travel and profound interest in diverse cultures are common threads that unite two exceptionally creative women – contemporary artist, Betye Saar, and museum founder, Isabella Stewart Gardner – highlighted in “Betye Saar: Heart of a Wanderer” and its companion exhibition, “Fellow Wanderer: Isabella’s Travel Albums.” Though separated by a century and divergent lived experiences, Saar and Gardner visited many of the same destinations, driven by a fascination with global art, architecture, and religions, and a lifelong commitment to seeking out a range of cultural encounters.

Both Saar and Gardner kept personal visual records of their travels – Saar in vivid sketchbooks combining collage and original watercolors, and Gardner in collaged albums of purchased photographs, found papers, pressed botanicals, and watercolor sketches. These travel albums and sketchbooks would later serve as inspiration and resource for their creative output – Saar’s mixed-media works of art, and Gardner’s multilayered museum. Also intrigued by global histories and influenced by collage and juxtaposition, multi-disciplinary artist Adam Pendleton’s Untitled (2019-2020) will be on view on the Museum’s façade.

A leading figure of the Black Arts Movement, Betye Saar (born 1926, United States) is best known for visual storytelling through works of art composed of everyday objects and artifacts sourced on her trips to Africa, Europe and the Americas, as well as at home in Southern California. Saar’s works frequently confront racist and sexist stereotypes and reflect on themes like slavery, colonialism, forced migration, spirituality and religious traditions.

“Betye Saar: Heart of a Wanderer” features twenty-five of Saar’s assemblages along with thirty-one related sketchbooks containing vibrant watercolors, drawings, and collages incorporating memories like found papers, pressed botanicals, foreign stamps and currency. Saar’s albums from (among other places) Italy, France, Taiwan, Egypt, Nigeria, Bali, Brazil as well as Haiti and Mexico (where she made several visits) capture ideas for works that she produced upon her return to Los Angeles. Representing her decades-long career, works in the exhibition on view in the Museum’s Hostetter Gallery include: Journey to Zimbabwe (1974), Occidental Tourist (1989), Kingdom of the Spirits (1991), Globe Trotter (2007) and Legends in Blue (2020).

When Saar first visited the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1994, she felt an immediate connection to its founder, a kindred spirit fascinated by art and travel, as well as a fellow collector and arranger of objects. To emphasize the link between Saar’s and Gardner’s creative practice, “Betye Saar: Heart of a Wanderer” opens with Objects, Obsessions, Obligations (2013), Saar’s meditation on a traditional “cabinet of curiosities,” a bamboo-legged shelf filled with small items collected by the artist. Saar’s work is juxtaposed with one of Gardner’s glass-fronted cabinets (typically on view in the Museum’s Little Salon gallery) brimming with Isabella’s tiny travel souvenirs. Side by side, these curated cases illustrate Saar’s and Gardner’s shared interest in gathering objects and ephemera from around the world and recombining them into a personal arrangement.

Between 1867 and 1895, Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840 – 1924, United States) and her husband Jack traveled the world. Though wealth and status enabled them to freely cross countries and continents, the couple ventured beyond the typical destinations of their fellow Gilded Age travelers, visiting 39 counties throughout Europe, the Middle East, Asia and the Americas. Traversing continents by boat, rail and foot, Isabella documented her journeys in albums with purchased photographs, maps, menus, botanical samples and miniature watercolors made by her and her artist friends.

Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840-1924,
United States), Travel Album: India, Pakistan, Yemen, and Egypt, Volume VI,
page 38, 1884.
Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840-1924, United States), Travel Album: India, Pakistan, Yemen, and Egypt, Volume VI, page 38, 1884. Bound album including collected photographs, found papers, pressed botanicals, and pen and ink annotations. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.

“Fellow Wanderer: Isabella’s Travel Albums,” on view in the Museum’s Fenway Gallery, showcases pages from nine of Isabella’s rarely-seen albums – many with annotations in her hand – from trips to her beloved Venice and Spain, as well as China, Mexico, Egypt and beyond. These collaged repositories are exceptional archives of Isabella’s travel itineraries and insight into her deep interest in art, architecture, religion and plants from around the globe. Isabella’s journals directly informed the creation of her museum, the first established (in 1903) by a woman in the United States.

Contemporary artist, Adam Pendleton (born 1984, United States), disrupts established histories and sheds new light on forgotten histories by building new associations. In Untitled (Giant not to scale), Pendleton combines found material with his own painting by silk-screening on mylar an image of a carved figure (taken from a book) against a painted surface of circles and squares. The figure, several times removed from its source, becomes the connective tissue that hovers between transparency and opacity.

Working predominantly in black-and-white, Pendleton’s works re-contextualize theories of abstraction, Blackness and the avant-garde by creating a new visual language of cultural encounter. Like Betye Saar, Adam Pendleton was intrigued by the life and legacy of Isabella Stewart Gardner and the Museum’s global collection. As Artist-In-Residence, Pendleton became deeply interested in Gardner’s installation practices, the manner in which she positioned objects and paintings creating juxtapositions from different cultures throughout the museum.

Two new publications, “Betye Saar: Heart of a Wanderer” and “Fellow Wanderer: Isabella’s Travel Albums,” are being published in conjunction with the exhibitions.

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