Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

February 17, 2010

in Museums and Galleries

There is so much art at the MFA that it is daunting to visit it and even more daunting to write about it. The museum is undergoing a major renovation and those who have not been there in the past couple of years will find almost everything has changed. For starters, the old, once new, West Wing entrance is no longer the primary access point. One now enters through the center of the museum building on both the Huntington Avenue and Fenway sides. It makes more sense than entering by the extreme west side, and the double entrance is a nice idea. If you are a member and want to find the Members’ Room, fuggedaboutit – it no longer exists – you will have to go to the regular admission desk and negotiate your membership there – oh well.

Additionally, there is so much redesign inside the galleries that one needs to completely reorient oneself. For the most part, I found these reorientations very appealing and stimulating, and though I feel some sentiment for the old order of things, I am happy with the new one.

There are a ton of little shows going on inside the parent MFA ship, but no major, blockbuster. i kind of liked wandering from one to another and back into and out of the permanent collection, and was happy not to have to navigate huge crowds who had come for the latest and greatest huge show.

Cafe and Cabaret: Toulouse-Lautrec’s Paris is a little show with some T-L highlights – notably the wonderful oil painting, At the Cafe La Mie, which brings a beautiful, whimsical facial expression before a richly textured background, kind of like a slightly happier and less intense van Gogh. Another surprising addition is a small lithograph by Pierre Bonnard, Quadrille, which is a rare (for Bonnard), humorous vignette theoretically inspired by T-L’s style.

In the Contemporary Outlooks room, there is a show with all sorts of musically-inspired works. Candice Breitz’s Queen (2005) is a video matrix of thirty screens showing a bunch of young Italians singing the full length (73 minutes) of Madonna’s Immaculate Collection album. It’s funny and entertaining, and, though it’s kind of one-stop idea art, that idea is engaging and I found myself wanting to stay and watch the thirty characters do their thing.

Stuart Davis’s oil Hot Still Scape for Six Colors – 7th Avenue Style (1940) is a cross of Cubist forms with Miro-like emblems. It seemed to have more dimension and pulsating rhythm than other Davis pieces I have encountered.

The chain of dark stones in Helen Torr’s small oil Evening Sounds is like a shadowy riff on Arthur Dove – moody, but evocative.

In the back room of this exhibit, there is a very funny and entertaining film called Tent Quartet (2007) by Ana Prvacki. A bunch of musicians play a few minutes of a quartet by Lithuanian composer Ignas Klungvicius inside a small white camping tent and it is hysterically funny to watch the tent shake and vibrate to the undulations of the music. Finally the musicians climb out of the tent. The film is long enough to get its point across and to entertain but not too long, and the music is very dynamic and enjoyable.

Richard Avedon’s posters of The Beatles (1967) are prescient and evocative. Lennon’s kaleidoscope eyes, McCartney’s soft look with pastel flowers, Ringo’s open gaze with a dove nearby, and George Harrison’s leonine orange mane above Indian garb are spot on.

Gyon Mili’s black and white photo First Jam (Billie Holliday) (1944) is a clear blue-note suspended in time, a real evocation of that great singer in a moment of creation.

Herb Ritts’ Bruce Springsteen (1992) is a wonderful portrait that exhibits a pained, but open, reflection on face of the great rock icon.

And Herb Greene’s wonderful and iconic portraits of the Jefferson Airplane (1966) and Grace Slick (1967) show their details well. The Airplane portrait is the one that showed up on the cover of Surrealistic Pillow and the Slick portrait shows her giving the finger. Both are shot against a graffiti wall filled with hieroglyphs and a Happy New Year banner above. As photographs, they offer quite a bit of dynamic interplay and textured background and rise up against the tendency to see them as only rock promotion materials.

Post Impressionist / Modern Room
The old setup at the MFA had Gauguin’s signature piece What Are We? Where Do We Come From? Where Are We Going? (1897) set on the far wall of a large open gallery filled with Impressionist and Post-Impressionist pieces. The new setting is a small, darkish room which pairs the Gauguin with modern pieces. It’s a new choice and an interesting one. On one side of the Gauguins – the two famous MFA Gauguin wood reliefs are next to Where Are We Going… are the Cubist pieces by Jean Metzinger, Fruit and a Jug on a Table (1916) and Picasso’s Standing Figure(1908), in blue and orange swaths – and, on the other side, is Matisse’s brusque nude Carmelina (1903), a vignette of the Fauvist combination of quaint portraiture and violent reduction of natural forms to color planes with hardened edges of light and shadow.

In the other half of this gallery are lots of German Expressionists and their relatives. Max Beckmann’s The Tempest (1947) is a Surrealistic and colorful drama of birds and musical instruments. Placed next to Jackson Pollock’s Troubled Queen (1945), the semi-Cubist, not yet gestural, work in green and brown, its harsh and vivid music comes to life.

It’s always great to come upon something appealing that is not so recognizable and A Student (1930) by the Italian Felice Casorati fills this bill. What a beautiful, Hopper-like (without the despair) portrait this is, offering something of the space of de Chirico but with charm and warmth rather than vacancy.

Rounding out this gallery is Georges Rouault’s Pierrot (1937), a quiet and contemplative portrait which rises above the play of color swaths, resulting in an unexpected and non-clownlike purity.

John Singleton Copley
Peering into this room, without realizing it was Copley, I hesitated, not feeling quite like I wanted to get into the whole Colonial thing. When passing by these eighteenth century Americana type galleries I typically feel like I may want to go into them someday, but not today. But then, from the hallway, the portrait of Samuel Quincy (1767) beckoned and all of a sudden I realized it was a Copley – a beautiful one – and that the whole room was fillled with Copleys and was not just a grab-bag of Colonialiana. I was really taken in. These are all portraits and some of them are compelling. Henry Pelham is a vivid roseate image of a boy with a penetrating gaze – a compelling vision of character. John Quincy Adams (1796) is less heart-rending, but a vivid display of mouth, face and hair against a semi-swirling Constable type landscape and a velvet drape.

Samuel Adams (1772) is a stolid and forthright portrait, not charming, but clear. It’s nice to see the beer guy somewhere besides his label. On second inspection, the setting of the portrait revealed itself as dramatic – a gesture of challenge to the British after the Boston Massacre. Sometimes there’s just more going on than one might think.

En Route
By the Fenway entrance is a big Albert Bierstadt landscape, The Buffalo Trail (1867) which is luminous and broad. A companion Bierstadt View From the Wind River Mountains, Wyoming (1860) is less focused, but, with the buffalo picture, provides an expansive balance in the entranceway. Nice choices.

Wandering through the MFA is overwhelming – there’s too much to take in – but en route it’s nice to happen upon a few things that call out to eye and spirit.

The Florentine painter Andrea del Sarto’s “Virgin and Child” (1509) probes with vivid reds and blues. The warm, but not profound, Virginal expression is complemented by a delightfully playful Child with a finger in his mouth. The Venetian painter Lorenzo Lotto’s Virgin and Child with Saints Jerome and Nicholas of Tolentino (1523) shows an uncharming Child, a bemused Virgin, but a transfixingly sympathetic St. Nicholas, whose spectacular gaze is portrayed in dark and uncolored tones against the vividly red Virginal garb, blue wrap and green background.

Coiled Snake (Bronze, China, 10th century, BCE) is so elaborate it is wrapped around itself three or four times and almost springs out of the case.

Ritual Wine Vessel (Bronze, China, 10th century BCE) is a beautifully squat and rounded abstraction of animal form without being iconic.

You-Type Ritual Wine Vessel with Four Buffalo Headed Lions ( Bronze, China, 12th century BCE) is amazingly articulated and ornate, wonderfully shaped and inscribed and beautifully preserved.

Beyond the Screen: Chinese Furniture of the 16th and 17th CenturiesArmchair depicts beautiful inlay against exquisite huanghuali wood. Tiered Food Box shows beautiful tongue and groove technique in this forerunner of the modern stainless steel tiered food pans. Square Table, again in Huanghuali wood, has interesting curves and Screen and Brush Holder has a wonderful Shaker-like simplicity.

En Route, Again
Woman in a Fur Hat (1915) an oil by the American, Gretchen Woodman Rogers, is a lovely piece with Sargent-like delicacy and subtlety placed lovingly in a quiet alcove on the second floor. It’s worth a visit and a sit in the chairs nearby.

Luis Melendez: Master of the Spanish Still Life
These are a real trip. Melendez got into trouble with the big shots at the official painting academy in Spain for painting a rather daring self-portrait (it would take another century for Manet to do something bold in portraiture and live to tell the tale), so, in his exile from the official Spanish court painting circles, he recreated himself as a still iife painter. And how! There is something a little intense and weird about these – kind of like Flemish still life painter meets El Greco – but they are dramatic and very affecting once you get into them.

Still Life with Cucumbers, Tomatoes and Kitchen Utensils (1774) shows really bumpy cucumbers and luridly red and wrinkled tomatoes. Still Life With Pomegranetes, Apples, Azaroles and Grapes in a Landscape (1771) is less voyeuristic and a little more Baroque, like Fragonard. Still Life With Chocolate Service, Bread Roll and Biscuits (1770) is more subtly hued, with a careful poetry of browns and golds in shadow, with a hint of light. Still Life With Pears, Grapes, Peaches and Receptacles (1772) – getting the general idea with the names here? – shows swollen pears (these are pears… these are pears on drugs), or maybe pears that the Incredible Colossal Man would eat during filming breaks. Still Life with Figs and Bread (1770) shows the most articulated loaf of peasant bread ever painted. Still Life with Melon and Pears (1772) has, instead of colossal pears, the most colossal melon ever painted.

Overall, very entertaining for a still-life exhibit.

In Transit, via the Oceania Room
Romare Bearden’s collage, Mysteries (1964) and the later print on it, The Train (1974) are odd, but very haunting and affecting, compositions of African-American portraiture.

House Panel (Wood, Papua, New Guinea, 20th century) is a funny and graceful, winged, squatting main with a beautiful ironic expression.

Tibet/China Confluences
I was tired, but found myself, at the Tibet/China Confluences room, housing a lovely compendium of Thangkas and texts.

Amitayus (Tibet, 15th century) is a beautifully vivid piece in gaudy red, balanced with highlights and models in blue and green.
Two wonderful paintings of Arhats (Chinese, 14th century) show fabulous articulation in the faces. Less evocative, but more geometrically dramatic, is the Thousand Armed Avalokitesvara (China, 16th century).

Rounding out the room are two awful-wonderful blue Tibetan Mahakalas (17th-18th century, and 15th-16th century), beautifully colored, with vivid and ornate details of ornamenation and landscape. Tired as I was from a long afternoon in the museum, I could not stop looking at them.

On the Way Out
It was time to go, but one of my MFA sculpture favorites, Vajrabhairava and His Consort (Tibet, Copper, 17th century) called out to me. This Lord of Death, the wrathful form of Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, joins with his erotic consort, the female form of wisdom itself, in a vividly, breathtakingly and tormented embrace, exhibiting all the stark, horrible and wonderful aspects of the pursuit, depicted with vengeful cautiousness and a healthy poetic grasp of the enterprise.

Finally, on the stairs towards the Huntington Avenue exit, I patted a virtual goodbye to the Ming Dynasty Lion, a green earthenware wonder, strangely appealing in its grotesqueness.

– BADMan

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