The collection aH: The Walters Gallery shares wealth of Asian art in a splendid setting


May 02, 1991|By Mike Giuliano | Mike Giuliano,Special to The Evening Sun

IT is no secret that the Walters Art Gallery has always had impressive holdings in Asian art. William T. Walters was a voracious collector of such art in the second half of the 19th century, but much of this art remained in storage, from his day to our own, for lack of exhibition space. With the opening Sunday of Hackerman House, the new museum of Asian art at the Walters, we can all finally get a look at what has been uncrated.

Until recently, the Walters had a mere 125 pieces of Asian art on display in a section of the 1974 museum annex. Now, 1,000 pieces are going on display for your delectation in Hackerman House. Of course, this is out of 7,200 pieces of Asian art owned by the Walters, so it would take a row of houses to display it all. William Walters collected, an estimated 80 percent of this Oriental haul, but his son, Henry, and later acquisitions and donations added to that core collection over the years.

If placing this too-little seen Asian art on permanent display is reason enough to celebrate, that's only half the story. The other half involves the building in which it is now housed. An 1850 Greek Revival mansion adjacent to the Walters on Mount Vernon Place, Hackerman House has been splendidly revived for its new Asiatic purpose.

Entering from the Baroque painting gallery of the Walters' 1904 building, one crosses over a newly built, enclosed bridge to a cupola that has been constructed atop the carriage house behind Hackerman House. Photographs and information panels along the way help orient visitors to the Mount Vernon Place landmarks that can be seen to great advantage from this window-wrapped cupola.

It must be said, though, that this cupola works better from the inside than it looks from the outside. The spanking new, brass-sheathed dome atop it makes for an odd addition to the architecture of the neighborhood, though over time, perhaps its quirky, rather showy presence will make it as beloved as its more strait-laced neighbors. In theory, the solid dome is meant as a symmetrical complement to the Tiffany stained glass dome spectacularly located atop the three-story curving staircase in the foyer of Hackerman House at the north end of the new museum complex. Outside pedestrians never see that Tiffany dome.

From the cupola perch, one descends to the upper level of the carriage house, which contains a gallery for art from India and Southeast Asia. How delightful that among the images greeting the visitor is an early 11th century schist sculpture of Ganesa, the elephant-headed god who is surely the most adorable in the Hindu pantheon. Renowned as a good-luck-inspiring remover of obstacles, the joyful Ganesa was quite a sight on the dance floor, too.

Ganesa's full, round belly also seems an apt, if unintended, omen as one leaves this gallery and proceeds onward to a cafe seating 140 that has been ingeniously built below grade in what was once the back garden of Hackerman House. Also clever is the cafe's pebble-covered, Japanese aesthetic-evoking roof garden, which can be seen from the windows of the carriage house and Hackerman House.

Incidentally, there is also a separate Charles Street entrance to the cafe and hence to Hackerman House, but first-time visitors should go via the bridge and cupola for the full effect.

From the cafe one heads upstairs into Hackerman House proper, ascending to an enclosed conservatory, which one would be tempted to call the back porch if it weren't so grand. Several oversized porcelains are displayed here.

Next, one enters a double parlor whose imposing Corinthian columns and overall scale make the room's new name, the Great China Room, no mere hyperbole. Even this writer, who considers himself a pretty cool customer, involuntarily exclaimed "Oh, my goodness" on entering the room. Considerable care went into this room in the manner, for instance, in which a display case full of blue-and-white porcelain helps set the decorative theme for complementary blue and white accents in the carpet and curtains.

However, one of the few questionable decisions in the entire project is in this room. Two chandeliers, original to the house, are among the most imposing aspects of the room. Although it certainly makes sense to place display cases directly beneath them, these cases rise up too high and come jarringly close to the chandeliers.

Because the double parlor and the other first floor rooms are so inherently magnificent, the Walters wisely retained the aura of a late 19th century mansion in its installation strategy. Walters director Robert Bergman notes that the rooms on this level contain period furnishings and yet are not period rooms in any strict historical sense. Instead, they are the domestic setting for what he terms "objects that have a home in a house."

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