April 2005

The Boston Museum of Fine Arts?

by Michelle Marder Kamhi

During a recent stay in Boston for the annual convention of the National Art Education Association, I looked forward to re-visiting the city's Museum of Fine Arts. I had first become acquainted with that great institution--which boasts the second largest art collection in the United States--in the early 1960s, when I was living in Boston and had begun to study art history in earnest. One of the first art historical papers I wrote was on Rogier van der Weyden's Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin, a highlight of the collection. Another personal favorite there has long been Paul Gauguin's Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, which was recently restored and served as the focal point of an exhibition last year of his late work. Having kicked myself for missing that exhibition, I was especially eager to see at least that painting again, even if time were short.

I recalled, too, the museum's excellent holdings in Asian art--a collection due in no small part to the far-flung trading activities of New England merchants in the nineteenth century. One of the works that had always captivated me was the charming handscroll depicting Court Ladies Preparing Newly Woven Silk [detail], attributed to the Emperor Huizong, of China's Song dynasty (1082-1135).

An ambitious expansion program in recent decades has so altered the exterior of the Boston museum that I scarcely recognized it as the taxi carrying my two friends and me pulled into the drive. But four decades is a long time, and from my previous night's stay in the Back Bay section, where glass-walled skyscrapers now tower over old Boston's quaint nineteenth-century townhouses, I had already had a glimpse of how drastically some parts of the city have been transformed. Still, I was ill prepared for the shock of the first object I saw on entering the museum's glitzy new West Wing: a bright red roadster (the precise model escapes me) announcing a current exhibition, Speed, Style, and Beauty: Cars from the Ralph Lauren Collection. Very likely inspired by the Guggenheim Museum's hugely successful motorcycle exhibition in New York a few years back, I thought, but this is the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, with a worldclass collection spanning eight millennia of human history--not the Guggenheim, founded as a museum of twentieth-century "nonobjective art."

Brushing past the visitors (mostly men!) gathered around that gleaming red icon of conspicuous consumption, my friends and I headed for the museum café to catch a quick supper before going upstairs to view the real art. No sooner were we seated than we noticed a streaming electronic sign on the facing wall, which we took at first glance for museum information of some kind--perhaps about the exhibits on view. We began to read:

Playing it safe can cause a lot of danger in the long run. . . . Sacrificing yourself for a bad cause is not a moral act. . . . Sex differences are here to stay. . . .

I groaned. Plainly, this was not useful information from the museum but a sampling of the Truisms [more] [more] of Jenny Holzer--the American "conceptual artist" whose considerable reputation in the postmodernist artworld has been based on nothing more than displays of empty platitudes of this kind in various media in public spaces at home and abroad. In 1990, Holzer represented the United States at the Venice Biennale, the oldest and most renowned international festival of "contemporary art" (i.e., avant-garde work) in the world. But here, in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts? If this were art, one of my friends asked, wouldn't it be considered literary, rather than visual art, and if so what was it doing in a museum? And what sort of literary art would it be? she (a former English teacher) further mused. The only thing it could conceivably qualify as would be poetry, but surely such a string of platitudes, in the most banal language, didn't meet any standard of what poetry is either. Yet we were in the presence of a work by one of the biggest names in today's artworld.

We shook our heads, finished our dinner, and made a beeline for the galleries upstairs, to see the works we had come for. Gauguin's Where Do We Come From? did not disappoint (though I cannot comment with any authority on the quality of its recent restoration). Because of its large scale (approximately 4.5 by 12 ft.) and its subtle palette of blues and greens, creating a rich tapestry-like effect, it is a painting whose effect is greatly diminished in reproduction--which fact contributed to my eagerness to revisit it in person. This exotic work has fascinated me since I first discovered it in my teens, and it was wonderful to see it again in its full splendor. Like all of Gauguin's best paintings, it is a feast for the eyes, yet transcends mere decoration, thanks to the dignity and subtle expressiveness of the figures populating its lush tropical setting, and we lingered in rapt contemplation.

When we reluctantly turned away from it at last, we were delighted to find another great Post-Impressionist painting in the same room--Vincent van Gogh's portrait of Madame Roulin, La Berceuse. Like the Gauguin, it combines richly decorative use of pattern and color with powerfully evocative depiction of the human figure. Crude though van Gogh's rendering might appear to some viewers, I find his image of this broad-faced woman--with her ample figure filling the chair, her work-worn hands holding the cradle strings, and her wide eyes turned inward--very compelling.

In nearby galleries we came with pleasure upon two wonderful pictures in a very different vein, by the eighteenth-century British landscape painter John Constable--Weymouth Bay from the Downs above Osmington Mills and Stour Valley and Dedham Church. And as we were leaving the museum, I was struck by a superb little painting I was sure I had never seen before, an exquisitely tender Holy Family by Gerard David, one of the leading Flemish artists of the early fifteenth century. It was, I later learned, a recent purchase--a rare gem acquired at auction only two years ago.

I cite these works from previous centuries to provide a context in which to gauge what passes for art in the museum's contemporary holdings and exhibitions (as well as for the pleasure they may give readers). The postmodernist aberrations now embraced by the MFA bear no kinship whatever to such art, however. On view when I visited, for example, was A Selection of Works by Damien Hirst from Various Collections--happily, lack of time made it easy for me to miss seeing it.

As described by the museum, Hirst is one of the most influential of the "young British artists" promoted by Charles Saatchi's London gallery. He is best known for the installation piece that he grandiosely dubbed The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1992), consisting of an immense shark preserved in a glass tank of formaldehyde. "This motif," declares the Boston museum, "has become Hirst's signature and an icon of contemporary art."

How, I wonder, does a dead creature suspended in a tank of formaldehyde qualify as a "motif"? Doesn't that term imply some meaningful treatment or elaboration of a subject? Equally inane are references to Hirst's "ambitious and complex work" and its timeless themes of "the human condition, mortality, and beauty." Gauguin's Where Do We Come From? is ambitious and complex. Hirst's Away from the Flock (one of the pieces in the show) is merely pretentious and simplistic. Apart from its title, nothing about this "work" (as if suspending a dead lamb in a tank of formaldehyde can even be called a work) would lead a sensible viewer to take it for something other than a scientific specimen, not unlike those studied in a biology class.

And what can be said of the claims made by the museum for Speed, Style, and Beauty: Cars from the Ralph Lauren Collectionn:

More than any other modern artifact, the automobile dramatically changed the way we live. Like any art form, car design reflects changes in fashion, technology, and societal attitudes. In its first exhibition devoted to car design, the MFA displays sixteen magnificent automobiles from the collection of world-renowned designer and car enthusiast Ralph Lauren. . . .
The line and shape of these cars are no less impressive than the works of brilliant sculptors; viewers will be amazed by the wealth of detail to be found in the wheels, grills, and even the gas caps.

Are we to regard these cars as "artifacts" or as works of "art"? Is "car design" now to be thought of as yet another "art form"? Whatever became of the defining distinction between works of fine art and utilitarian objects?

Finally, does the curator of this exhibition truly find the "line and shape" of these cars to be as "impressive" as--or in any meaningful way comparable to--that in the work of accomplished sculptors in the MFA's own collection, such as Head of Aphrodite or Sleeping Children, say, or Amida, Buddha of Infinite Light? Or is this simply the artworld equivalent of the condition envisioned by George Orwell in the dystopian world of 1984? I am inclined to think the latter. As with Orwell's Newspeak--the antirational, nonobjective language of 1984--the Artspeak of such curators is the mere semblance of "articulate speech," with little evidence that the "higher brain centers" have been involved.