Four Past Shows Highlight Top Curatorship at MFA

The Boston Museum of Fine Arts doesn't have the cash or cachet of the Met in New York City, but I get to the MFA much more often. This affords me the luxury of taking in just a few exhibits at a time so I can contemplate things in depth rather than breadth. Four recent shows illustrate what I mean. Don't despair if you didn't make it to these. The thing about great urban museums is that most of their "special" exhibits tend to expand upon things already in their collection.

The MFA owns Virgin and Child with St. John the Baptist, a truly great work by Sandro Botticelli (c. 1445-1510). It was a key part in "Botticelli and the Search for the Divine." which was reputedly the largest Botticelli exhibit ever displayed in the United States. But that isn't that many, as much of the famed Renaissance painter's works are too big, too fragile, or too important to loan.

Botticelli is considered one of the giants of the Florentine Renaissance and few have rivaled his use of lush color—especially his eye-popping blues. His patron was one of the giants of Italian history, Lorenzo de Medici (1449-1492), a man of such power that he was known in his lifetime as Il Magnifico. He gave Botticelli the freedom to explore emerging humanist values and to break with the somber hues and stiff formalist poses of pre-Renaissance religious art. Courtesy of new ways of cleaning away the accumulated grime from medieval and Renaissance art, we now know that another Renaissance innovation was the cartoon-like vibrancy of figures, which we see in the MFA's own Botticelli. And there were the earthy qualities that come through in works such as Minerva and the Centaur, a work I first embraced at the Uffizi; to mention nothing of increasingly sensual nudity. The Birth of Venus didn't leave Florence, but a full-sized study did.

Newton observed that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The Florentine Renaissance ended abruptly upon Lorenzo's death and the city fell under the sway of the friar Savonarola (1452-1498). He plunged Florence into a period of religious zealotry (1494-98) from which it took decades to overcome. All things worldly and secular were suspect, even destroyed. (Burnings under Savonarola gave us the phrase "bonfire of the vanities.") Botticelli's work was seriously hampered, though there were veiled references to the era's horrors.

 Speaking of horrors, Polish photographer Henryk Ross (1910-1991) documented the Nazi roundup of Jews and Roma in the Lodz Ghetto. Are there words that can express the barbaric savagery of the Holocaust? Probably not. That's why a picture is indeed worth a thousand words. The good news is that MFA's photographic collections are strong and seeing images on the wall allow us to remember all that is noble about humanity—and all that is dark and must not prevail.

On a much sunnier note, the MFA has lately paid more attention to illustrators. Who better to showcase than Robert McCloskey, whose 1941 Make Way for Ducklings was set in Boston and remains a children's book favorite. The MFA recently showcased 50 of McCloskey's works—many of them from a collection housed at Emporia State University in Kansas. In addition to his beloved fowl in the city drawings, there were others from equally fun books such as Blueberries for Sal (1948) and Centerburg Tales (1951).

 Do you know a museum of consequence that doesn't have works by Henri Matisse (1869-1954)? The MFA's Matisse in the Studio put his wonderful, whimsical, inventive career in literal context: 34 paintings, 26 drawings, 11 bronzes, 9 woodcuts, 3 prints, and 39 personally collected objects from the Musée Matisse. Believe me when I tell you that this is only the iceberg's tip. I've been to his Matisse's home in Nice where the museum is now housed, an experience I'd not trade, though I have to say that the MFA display allowed to relieve it sans sensory overload. It was subdivided into four self-descriptive themes: "The Object is an Actor," "The Nude," "Studio as Theatre," and "Essential Forms." Painter, sculptor, printmaker, draftsman… Lump Matisse with Cézanne and Picasso as the troika that reinvented Western art in the 20th century.  


There are tons of good shows coming up at the MFA, including photographs by Alfred Stieglitz and Charles Sheeler, Inuit art, idealized female images in Japanese art, and posters and graphics from the 1967 Summer of Love.  Check out: http://www.mfa.org/news/advance-exhibition-schedule

Rob Weir

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