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A Closer Look: Duncan Scarf

The recent refurbishment of the Tapestry Room sparked closer study of many textiles there, including one that's easily overlooked: a small scarf made in the early 20th century by Raymond Duncan, brother of legendary dancer Isadora Duncan. This delicate silk scarf features a golden center surrounded by repeating landscape scenes and two smaller bands of guilloche patterning; it was given to Isabella Gardner by the Boston artist Louis Kronberg in 1921.

Initial investigations revealed that, although its location remained unchanged, the scarf's display and relationship to adjacent objects had changed. Archival photographs from the 1920s show the original scarf hanging loosely from an easel beneath a Russian Icon depicting the Ascension of Christ flanked by two silver bénitiers (holy water containers). During the 1930s, the scarf was framed under glass and recessed into a void in the easel. This treatment had its benefits and consequences. Although protected from environmental pollutants and exposure, the framing caused extensive damage to the scarf and changed the scarf's importance in the overall installation.

After the scarf was unframed it became clear that it could no longer be safely displayed. Although the frame itself functioned effectively, the adhesive used to attach the scarf to an internal mount had failed, causing numerous tears that could not be repaired. The original scarf was stabilized and retired to storage (where it is available to scholars for study), and Museum staff considered options for creating a replacement. The Peter Fasano Workshop in Great Barrington, Mass., was chosen for this important work because Fasano's process closely matches the block-printed, hand-painted techniques used to make the original. The Museum's curatorial and textile conservation staff worked closely with the workshop in all aspects of the reproduction scarf, from color choices to overall aesthetics.

With the reproduction textile now in place and displayed as Isabella Gardner originally intended, the installation is even more intriguing. Why pair a Russian icon with a contemporary scarf?

Both objects were given to Gardner by friends in the early 1920s. The scarf was a gift from Louis Kronberg (1872-1965), whose painting of a gypsy woman (La Gitana) was purchased by Gardner and hangs nearby in the Tapestry Room. Kronberg acquired the scarf from Raymond Duncan, who, inspired by his love of ancient Greek culture, had created a multidisciplinary arts center in a Parisian townhouse. Thomas Whittemore (1871-1950), a prominent scholar of Byzantine art who would go on to rediscover the mosaics at Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, gave her the Russian icon in 1922 (the same year that he also gave Gardner the Matisse painting of The Terrace, Saint-Tropez, on display in the Yellow Room).

In addition, these two works of art share a similar aesthetic: the simplified forms and flattened space typical of both the Byzantine and early 20th-century art. Throughout the Museum, Gardner created juxtapositions that encourage comparisons of style and content; in this pairing she may be challenging us to see similarities in art of dramatically different time periods. At the same time, the installation itself underscores the different contexts that produced the two works, including the bénitiers as reminders of the icon's religious function, and displaying the scarf tacked to the edge of the easel in a more casual, contemporary way.

This installation is a reminder of how Isabella Gardner's friendships with scholars and artists influenced the creation of her museum, and how the work of a contemporary artist like Peter Fasano is helping maintain Gardner's vision for years to come.

Images: View of the reproduction Raymond Duncan scarf in the Tapestry room and detail of the original scarf.