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The Memory Palace of Isabella Stewart Gardner

af Patricia Vigderman

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"A searching, sensitive, and engagingly witty meditation." --Lyndall Gordon   "What a great pleasure this gorgeous little book has given me! It should be offered everywhere indeed, and at every museum shop on earth."--Honor Moore   A fascinating meditation on art and personality, Patricia Vigderman's exploration of Isabella Stewart Gardner's famous Boston museum radiates out from its subject to investigate Garnder's legacy of luxury and willfulness.  Isabella Gardner's high spirits and aesthetic pleasure, her women friends and female power, her friendships with the adventurers and aesthetes of her world, are gathered into this engrossing investigation of patronage and passion.  Blending biography, memoir, philosophy, and detective story, The Memory Palace is more than a tribute to the museum and the woman; it is an altogether new genre.  Vigderman's witty and intimate quest for her subject sets a literary precedent for the appreciation of artistic imagination.  Loosening up the past, entering its mysteries and its memories, she reminds us that we change our lives when we begin a relationship with art.   Patricia Vigderman grew up in Washington, D.C., and Europe. She graduated from Vassar College, after which a circuitous course led her through editing, translating, freelance journalism, teaching, marriage, motherhood, divorce, a doctoral dissertation (on nineteenth-century novels as film, as history, and as autobiography), and a lot of time in museums. Her recent writing has appeared in The Georgia Review, Harvard Review, The Iowa Review, The Kenyon Review, Mid-American Review, Northwest Review, Raritan, Seneca Review, and Southwest Review. She divides her year between Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Gambier, Ohio, where she teaches in the English department at Kenyon College. She is married to the writer Lewis Hyde.… (mere)
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Neither a biography nor a guide to the collection, but rather a meditation on the identity, the soul, of Isabella Stewart Gardner, this small volume is Vigderman's attempt to understand, through her collection, why Gardner collected what she did, why she displayed it the way she did, why she left it to the public the way she did.

This is a stroll through the Museum, pausing here and there, thinking about this piece or that. How does it fit with that piece over there? What might it have meant to Mrs. Gardner? Who urged her to acquire it and how was that person important to ISG? That is the structure of the book, in three parts, each broken down into smaller sections headed with the title of a work, its author and date. Something about that work inspires and speaks of the words that will follow. Thus, Helleu's Woman Threading a Needle calls forth thoughts of how ISG "threaded the needle" through a world where wealth and status did not necessarily allow a woman to "make her way into the kingdom of books" to one where she found "pleasant lifelong learning".

As Vigderman wanders through those rooms and corridors, she talks to us about Bernard Berenson, whose career ISG helped launch. We learn of art politics, and in-fighting in the lofty rooms of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. And, finally, Vigderman, joins old Boston and the clutter of Victoriana to the simplicity and grace of the Japanese tea ceremony through the figure of Okakura Kakuzō, first head of the MFA's Asian Arts department, and author of that book of philosophy, The Book of Tea. (The postscript, An Invitation to Tea, follows the form of the other three parts, but each subsection is headed with a caption of an illustration from the Kodansha International edition of that book.)

In the end, do we know more of Gardner than we did before we began? I think we do. Vigderman's digressive musings help to understand how ISG was both a product of, and a rebel against, her time and place.

Why this book is not available at the Gardner Museum's bookshop is beyond my comprehension.
  lilithcat | Aug 30, 2009 |
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"A searching, sensitive, and engagingly witty meditation." --Lyndall Gordon   "What a great pleasure this gorgeous little book has given me! It should be offered everywhere indeed, and at every museum shop on earth."--Honor Moore   A fascinating meditation on art and personality, Patricia Vigderman's exploration of Isabella Stewart Gardner's famous Boston museum radiates out from its subject to investigate Garnder's legacy of luxury and willfulness.  Isabella Gardner's high spirits and aesthetic pleasure, her women friends and female power, her friendships with the adventurers and aesthetes of her world, are gathered into this engrossing investigation of patronage and passion.  Blending biography, memoir, philosophy, and detective story, The Memory Palace is more than a tribute to the museum and the woman; it is an altogether new genre.  Vigderman's witty and intimate quest for her subject sets a literary precedent for the appreciation of artistic imagination.  Loosening up the past, entering its mysteries and its memories, she reminds us that we change our lives when we begin a relationship with art.   Patricia Vigderman grew up in Washington, D.C., and Europe. She graduated from Vassar College, after which a circuitous course led her through editing, translating, freelance journalism, teaching, marriage, motherhood, divorce, a doctoral dissertation (on nineteenth-century novels as film, as history, and as autobiography), and a lot of time in museums. Her recent writing has appeared in The Georgia Review, Harvard Review, The Iowa Review, The Kenyon Review, Mid-American Review, Northwest Review, Raritan, Seneca Review, and Southwest Review. She divides her year between Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Gambier, Ohio, where she teaches in the English department at Kenyon College. She is married to the writer Lewis Hyde.

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