Good Times at the MFA Boston

This evening I went to the MFA to see the current exhibits. I was delighted by all of the daily life figurines that were part of the Tomb 10A exhibit. The Harry Callahan exhibit was small but enjoyable, and it was my first time seeing Dürer’s Melencolia in real life. (See picture #13 here.)

But the unexpected treat of the evening was “Bharat Ratna,” a collection of 15 paintings (plus one fabulous sari) by contemporary Indian artists. You don’t see a lot of modern Indian art here in New England — except at the Peabody Essex Museum — and this exhibit goes a long way to making up for that paucity.

I go to the MFA several times a year. It’s a wonderful museum — a world-class museum, befitting the wealth acquired by yankee industrialists, bankers, sea-faring merchants, and scions of American society. And it’s still growing. The trustees finished a major capital campaign before the recession hit, and I’ve been watching the progression of the new wing every few months when I visit. All of the construction fencing is gone, though it won’t open until “late fall.”

Because of the expansion, the museum has been creative in placing items from the collection. It’s a bit like a jumble sale, actually; but it makes each trip a unique experience. I suspect I might be seeing things that I wouldn’t normally go out of my way to view.

Of course, I’ve been reading a lot about European painters recently — currently Peter Paul Rubens, which is kinda funny since I don’t usually get into Old Masters, but he looms large in the world of the Romantics that I felt I owed it to myself to get acquainted with his work. Usually I just walk straight through the cavernous hall full of Old Masters — you’d expect to see Beowulf or Grendel in there, it’s so moody — stopping only at Francesco del Cairo’s ecstatic Herodias with the Head of Saint John the Baptist. But today I took my time and — behold! — there were multiple works by Velásquez and El Greco and even (OMG!) Rubens, too. Not the Prado or the Louvre, but still worth the longer look.

What really surprised me were the 19th century French works. I’m not a big fan of Rococo or Baroque painting, whatever the nationality of the painter. It’s just soooo gaudy and overwrought and . . . and . . . mindlessly happy. In the past, this has led me to treat the pre-Impressionist French painting salons much like the Beowulf/Grendel salon. But today I slowed down and looked at the paintings: Gericault, Corot, Nicolas Poussin, Claude Lorrain, and (OMG!) Delacroix. Not the National Gallery or the Met, but so much more detailed than the pictures in the books I’ve been reading.

And I’m actually really surprised at how skewed the MFA collection (as it has appeared on recent visits) is toward Romantic painting versus Neoclassical. Were 19th century New England collectors just that prescient? More cost-conscious? Did the Hudson River School (the “American Romantics” that were so popular in the early decades of the 1800s in the US) inspire a kindred desire for European Romantics? Was Neoclassical painting too old-fashion for a fledgling nation that had just thrown off the weight of European history? Too associated with musty academism? Too close to scary Jacobin terror? I just don’t know. Isn’t cultural history fascinating?

What will I see next time?

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