What Means Your Lordship? Ophelia on View at the Mead

Crowds are flocking to the Mead this month to see First Folio! The Book That Gave Us Shakespeare, on tour from the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC. Surrounding the 1623 book, which lies open to Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” soliloquy, are two Hamlet-inspired artworks from the Mead’s collection.

One is an oil painting by British artist Thomas Dicksee (1819–1895) depicting Ophelia at the edge of the pool she’s going to drown in, robe torn, eyes mournful, a classic abandoned heroine. Dicksee completed the painting in 1875, just as Henry Clay Folger ’79 was matriculating at Amherst College. Folger went on to a successful career with Standard Oil, and became a renowned collector of Shakespeareana. He founded the Folger Shakespeare Library, currently administered under the auspices of Amherst College.

Thomas Francis Dicksee (British, 1819–1895). Ophelia, 1875. Oil on canvas. Museum purchase, 1961.4

Also on view near the First Folio is Hamlet and Ophelia, a lithograph made in 1996–97 by French-born American artist Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010). It shows Ophelia drowning in Hamlet’s embrace. Is he drowning too? Hard to say. Their figures are melded together, tied by red stripes, as if they’re wearing a single giant red-and-white striped sweater.

Hamlet and Ophelia
Louise Bourgeois (American, 1911–2010). Hamlet and Ophelia, 1996–97. Lithograph. Purchase with William W. Collins (Class of 1953) Print Fund, 2001.570

The two works give us differing interpretations of Ophelia’s role in Hamlet, something readers and critics have been hotly debating for centuries.

A visit to see the First Folio only confirms what a noncommittal mess Hamlet is when it comes to Ophelia. Read a few lines past his famous “To be or not to be?” speech and you come upon the greatest he-said-she-said (what-did-he-say?) in the history of English writing. “I did love you once,” Hamlet says to Ophelia, which he cleverly follows up a few lines later with “I loved you not.”

To quote Ophelia, What means your lordship?

Looking closely at this page in the First Folio may not clear up the confusion about Hamlet’s love for Ophelia, but the works on display around the historic volume give two distinct artistic impressions of the romantic problem at the heart of the play.

Dicksee’s Ophelia is depressed and ready to kill herself.

Bourgeois’s Hamlet and Ophelia are locked in a crazy embrace, a cloudless blue sky overhead.

First Folio! is on view at the Mead through May 31.

—Sheila Flaherty-Jones

Music, Dance, and More at the Mead: Questions for Dylan Schneider ’06

On Friday and Saturday, April 15–16, the Mead hosts Arts à la Carte, an event showcasing music, dance, and art in the museum’s galleries and adjacent Stearns Steeple. One of the event organizers and contributors is Amherst alum Dylan Schneider ’06. After completing a dual major in music and English at Amherst, Schneider went on to receive a PhD in music composition at the University of Chicago. He has held teaching positions at the University of Chicago and Smith College, and currently serves as coordinator for the Arts at Amherst Initiative.

Schneider has emerged as a distinctive voice among today’s generation of composers. His music, often praised for its innovative structure and dramatic flair, has drawn an international audience and has been performed by Grammy Award–winning ensembles such as Eighth Blackbird, the Pacifica String Quartet, and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. As the composer of two operas, with a third on the way, Schneider pioneers a new frontier in performance, traversing the diversity of human experience with a sense of lyricism and play.

We recently met with Schneider to talk about Arts à la Carte, and in the meantime learned more about the acoustics at the Mead, his fondness for nocturnes, and his favorite time of day.

The program opens with your composition called Nocturne & Wake-Up Call, which is described as “a fantasy exploring night, sleep, and waking up.” I can’t help wondering: Are you a morning person or a night person?  I’m a morning person. But I did go to graduate school, so I am no stranger to the company of late evenings as well. The stillness of night can certainly be conducive to creative work.

Dylan composer - Cropped

When did you write the piece and what inspired it?  I composed Nocturne & Wake-Up Call during my time in graduate school. I’ve always had a particular fondness for the musical genre known as “night music,” particularly the nocturnes of Chopin and Satie. In writing my own nocturne, however, I decided I needed to write a piece not only about night, and the experience of sleep and dreams, but about waking up, too—hence the title.

 Several of the performances on the Arts à la Carte program are “premieres.” Did the dancers and musicians create new works just for this event?  Most pieces on the program are indeed new works, some being heard and seen for the very first time—in history!—on April 15. It is an unparalleled sensation for an audience to experience the “bringing-to-life” of a completely new work of art. I think this is a particularly thrilling aspect of our performance at the Mead.

Arts a la carte_dancer

Is there generally a higher degree of anxiety the first time a work is performed?  Not at all. When collaborating with performers of the caliber appearing on this program, you can be certain you are in for a good show. Indeed, for me, it is perhaps the greatest joy in life to hear my music played with such vivid expression and detail.

You graduated from Amherst in 2006, majoring in English and music. Did you perform at the Mead when you were a student here?  In 2005, I was invited to give a talk at the Mead in conjunction with an exhibition of French artwork of the early nineteenth century [The Empress Josephine: Art and Royal Identity]. The talk explored musical works commissioned at the hand of Joséphine de Beauharnais, the empress of the French Republic. The salon music of Joséphine’s court offers a glimpse into the private aesthetics of French imperial culture of the Napoleonic era. The discussion concluded with a concert of works of the period, performed on historical instruments.

What makes the museum a good setting for music and dance?  The size, shape, and style of the Mead’s Rotherwas Room in particular make it an ideal setting for chamber music—both acoustically and aesthetically. These same features were no doubt cherished by musicians and noble guests alike some four centuries ago, in the room’s original home in England.

More generally, however, the concept of transforming the museum’s collection into a striking backdrop for music and dance truly embodies the spirit of the Arts at Amherst Initiative, which strives to create connections and collaborations among our various artistic disciplines on campus.

As arts coordinator on campus you run the college’s Bailey Brown House on Hitchcock Road, where visiting artists stay, short or long term. What has that experience been like this year?   It’s been great! This year, Arts at Amherst has hosted an impressive roster of guest artists—choreographers, visual artists, musicians, curators—many at the forefront of their fields. These residencies have become a powerful way to connect the Amherst campus with the vibrant world of the arts.

For the complete Arts à la Carte schedule, visit the event website. All events are free and open to the public.

 —Interview by Sheila Flaherty-Jones

Students Instrumental in Museum Acquisition

Guests at the Mead’s Gallery Gala on Feb. 23 had a decision to make.

They heard proposals by students in the museum’s noncredit course “Collecting 101: Acquiring Art for the Mead” on four contemporary prints for possible acquisition. Only one print could be accessioned. The audience—mostly fellow students—made the final selection.

They chose Sweeping Beauty by American artist Alison Saar (b. 1956). The Mead is acquiring the work with support from the Trinkett Clark Memorial Student Acquisition Fund.

Sweeping Beauty
Alison Saar (American, b. 1956), Sweeping Beauty, 1997. Three-color woodcut on Okawara paper, 75 x 33 in.

Saar’s work was presented by Amherst College senior Alexandra James, a film and media studies major who pointed out the work’s important connections to areas of contemporary art and education.

“Collecting 101” is a hands-on arts education experience. Students in the class get a two-day intensive course in printmaking and museum contemporary art acquisition policies led by Mila Waldman, study room manager and print specialist at the Mead. They spend two more days visiting artist studios or galleries to look at works in person.

This year’s class visited a gallery in Boston and several more in New York City, considering over two dozen works by eight artists. By the end of the course, they had winnowed the field down to four prints, and the finalists were presented at the evening gala.

Saar has exhibited internationally and is the recipient of numerous grants and awards, including Artist Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship. Her works are found in the collections of many major museums.

The print is based on Saar’s sculpture Sweeping Beauty, which is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. “It is a play on the traditional African fly mask, which symbolizes royalty, and the thankless duties of the matriarch,” Saar said.

Sweeping Beauty will be on view at the Mead later this year.