Boston MFA

I’ve always found the MFA to be just about the hardest art museum to navigate. It also used to be the fustiest. On a day visit last week I found numerous design improvements, in line with user-friendly trends; but with many galleries closed for reinstallation or upgrading I was just as confused going from one space to another.

The happiest surprise was what must be a new gallery of musical instruments. I inferred newness from the object labels, which indicated that most of the non-African instruments had been acquired this century. They were nicely displayed, compressed in cases by geographic regions with useful labels on the sides. Each label included an outline drawing of the object and a number matching the number by the piece. An advantage of building the collection in a short period of time is that acquisitions could be complementary, rather than haphazard, and targeted for this ultimate display. The gallery was small and hence never boring. It contained beautiful examples of all the famous instruments one has heard of–the Chinese pipa, Japanese shamizen and koto, European virginal and harpsichord, Scottish bagpipe, etc.–plus many exotic ways of making music.

The saddest surprise was the big, extra-charge Hokusai exhibition. Hokusai is one of my favorite artists and the MFA has one of the world’s great collections of Japanese art, but this show was more ordeal than exhilaration. Its premise was one-third Hokusai, one-third his students, one-third those he had influenced. So right away, we had a show that was two-thirds not as good as Hokusai. And in showing the wide range of Hokusai’s work, we got to see a lot that wasn’t his best. And there was a lot. It took me an hour to navigate the galleries, and that was without concentrating. I never distinguished one similarly named student from another, and the labels didn’t help much. In short, it was more a show for scholars than the art lover. I would have preferred, and was hoping for, an exhibition that simply showcased one of the world’s greatest and most prolific artists.

My other takeaway was the enviable position the MFA has in terms of dedicated donors. More than a dozen 17th-century Dutch and Flemish paintings were past or promised gifts from a family named van Otterloo, who seem to have also endowed a Center for Netherlandish Studies. There was an entire gallery of Benin bronzes belonging to the Robert Lehman Collection–an especially fortunate situation given the controversy over museums’ owning these works. Then there was a revelatory exhibition of Provincetown prints–woodcuts primarily by a group of (previously overlooked or underregarded) women artists in mid-20th century that were all part of a recent gift. Although not yet a gift, a suite of Five Senses portraits by Michaelina Wautier (Flemish, 1650) came from the Otterloo Collection and was the subject of a fun dossier exhibition.

Compared to these temporary exhibitions, the permanent collection was not shown to best advantage. I did come away, however, with one strong impression from the galleries of Impressionism. While other Impressionists were lined up on a corridor, Claude Monet was given an entire gallery. And it was boring. Not a single painting made my heart sing. Grainstacks, cathedrals, water lilies, all in soft focus, merged in one blur. Dare I reevaluate Monet, at least as he painted after his crisper works of the 1870s? In contrast, Gustave Caillebotte’s three works stood out on their own wall, with a Manet. In an age where every museum would love to have one good Caillebotte, the MFA has two, almost three. I don’t know when or how they acquired the nude male bather toweling off after his bath, but I’m delighted to know now where to find him.


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