Art on the Road 2: Boston’s MFA

Friderike Heuer leaps into the art and architecture at the Museum of Fine Arts

I had never been to the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston before. It has been in existence since 1876, steadily growing. Its most recent home, designed by Guy Lowell in 1909, is an imposing art palace paying homage to the Beaux Art movement. Current modernization and additions by Norman Foster did not take away the grandeur, but make traversing the museum more like moving through a rabbit warren.

The sequences of galleries and corridors crammed with art can be overwhelming. But if you are willing to just float through and let the art find you rather than vice versa, it is a glorious experience. My habit of going to these places unprepared and then read up on them later served me well once again. I felt like a kid having stumbled into a candy store, sampling treats I’d never seen before.

Josiah McElherny Endlessly Repeating 20th Century Modernism 2007

And in random association to kids and candy: I always wonder how children feel when they come into buildings of this imposing size, just like I wonder about centuries of people entering huge cathedrals: Will the grandeur overshadow the experience of the contents? Will it inspire a sense of separation rather than belonging? Will it increase or diminish focus on and admiration for art and/or religion?

Museum visits, in any case, can be quite up-lifting.

Jonathan Borowsky I dreamt I could fly 2000

The big draw at MFA this spring is a Klimt/Schiele Drawings special exhibit – the curatorial descriptions were more informative than the art under weirdly low lighting. It did not leave a particular lasting impression.

Egon Schiele The Artist’s Mother, Sleeping 1911

Here is more information on the Klimt/Schiele show, with many visual examples:

In fact, no one thing I saw bowled me over. What did was the diversity of the offerings overall, a sense of artists being driven across time and place to document their environments or express their thoughts. You can get a glimpse of that through my random choices of photographs from that visit, sprinkled through today’s writings. (I checked out the Escher exhibit for old times’ sake –– when teaching Perception to my undergraduates he was always good for visual examples.)

I did skip the Rothko exhibit, and Art of the Americas. I simply could not walk through every door….)

The museum is much engaged in education; I particularly like the idea of spotlight talks, 15 minute pop-up tutorials on a single piece of art given by an expert. Here is an upcoming example, 18th-Century Instagram, picked by me for the clever title.

Claude Monet La Japonaise (Camille Monet in Japanese Costume). 1876

Sometimes they get it wrong big time, though. See the Kimono Controversy, three years ago –– visitors were invited to wear replicas of the depicted kimono and pose in front of the painting –– cultural appropriation screams erupted and the MFA did not exactly handle the situation well.

Kimonos and Controversy: What the Boston MFA Got Wrong

And in another random note: the gift shop was less than stellar. OK, politely expressed, it did not provide the postcards or small gifts to bring home that I was looking for. There is such a difference in museum gift shops, have you noticed? Clever ones need not be big, but they need to offer a variety, starting with price ranges. Turns out, the Philadelphia Museum of Art shop rocked. No one will be disappointed!

Ivan Navarro Man Hole 2011

And this is why you need curators for people like me – how could I have known? Three cheers for art educators, of all stripes!



Portland artist and photographer Friderike Heuer is the author of the excellent YDP –– Your Daily Picture, which focuses on art, nature, and politics, and to which you can subscribe.


This piece, which ran originally on YDP on Tuesday, May 8, 2018, is the second in a three-part series which ArtsWatch is reprinting:

  • Yesterday: Becoming modern at the Harvard Art Museum and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
  • Today: Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.
  • Tomorrow: The “new” Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.

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