“I don’t come to the galleries enough,” says Cynthia Low, HoMA’s new director of collections, as we walk into the Antiquity and the Body Gallery. Low spends most of her time in the museum vaults, where works wait to be rotated into galleries or go in and out for loan.
Asked to talk about her favorite work in the museum collection, she stops in front of Amedeo Modigliani’s Seated Nude, a painting that she once accompanied to Nagoya for what was her first trip to Japan. The 1918 oil on canvas also happens to be from her favorite period in Western art.
“I feel like there were so many changes and the artists got a lot freer and there were less rules. I like that,” Low says. “I like that the colors are calm. The eyes are almost sculptural, like a marble figure’s—there is a classic element to that—but I like the fact that he drew the way he wanted to draw, and not based on getting everything right. Her shoulders are really narrow. The way the figure is drawn is abstract, but the way her head is tilted and expression is drawn makes her still relatable. It’s not so abstract that it’s removed.”
Low started working at HoMA in 2007, coming from The Contemporary Museum (now Spalding House), but she actually has a background, and master’s degree, in architecture. For her, architecture was more art-oriented than about structure and technical building. “I am more interested in the feel of a space, the way the light comes in,” she says. That aesthetic translates to her love for Modigliani. “Things like the way the head is turned, the little subtleties that give you an insight into the figure are always more interesting to me. There are periods where things are very busy in their composition, and I appreciate that—the work, the effort, and thought—but if I am selecting my favorite, my personal aesthetic is a lot more quiet, less bogged-down in detail after detail. That’s what I always go back to. Seeing everything over the years, you see things that you like all the time, in every era. You’re always appreciating new things, but I think that I go back to this time frame because they were the risk-takers.”
Amedeo Modigliani (Italian, 1884-1920)
Seated Nude, 1918
Oil on canvas
Gift of Mrs. Carter Galt, 1960