So the other day, now that it has been a whole month since I had open-heart surgery, and feeling a little frisky (though cautious), I decided to spend an afternoon at one of my very most favorite places, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.
I got thinking about it, though. In the morning, over breakfast before I went to the museum, I’d asked my husband, “Why do people look at art? I mean, humans have been making art for tens of thousands of years. Why do other people, who aren’t artists, want to look at it?”
This is one of those kinds of questions that my husband blanches when I ask him. Usually he manages to come up with some interesting ideas. We talked about it a little.
We wondered, What do people see when they look at art? We thought that different kinds of art look different to different people at various times. People admire clever invention, high skill and technical mastery, unusual or surprising vision, and the calling forth of emotions. Beauty is another matter, ill-defined at best.
So, with this conversation in the back of my mind, I went off to the MFA.
The MFA first opened on the centennial of the United States, July 4, 1876. It boasted a collection of 5,600 works of art. The collections soon outgrew that location—Boston has always been a city of art collectors and civic-minded donors—and in 1909 the museum removed to a grand and elegant building with magnificent entry facades on both sides. A tad over one hundred years later, in 2010, the glorious new American wing opened, with its four floors of art from all the Americas spanning over three thousand years. These days over a million people a year come to the MFA to admire some of the 450,000 wonderful things in its collections.
Today I was one of the million. First, of course, I treated myself to a pleasant luncheon in the four-story glass-walled American Café. That’s my habit on my MFA visits—a glass of wine, a little plate of something unusual and tasty, and time to watch people and figure out which galleries I will go to after my lunch. I drank my merlot, ate my goat cheese and spinach quesadilla and laid my plans.
After my luncheon I stopped off for a quick look in one of my favorite galleries. It shows three-dimensional arts of 18th century Europe. There is dinnerware and religious statues and wall sconces and the like. The best, though, are the life-sized porcelain animals, all birds except for a contorted dragon. They have their own place of honor in the gallery. They are gleaming, glistening white, and breathtakingly realistic in form (except for the dragon—unless you think of him as a very small one).
It seems that around 1725, Augustus II, he who was “Elector of Saxony and King of Poland”, commissioned the Meissen porcelain works to produce six hundred animals, of sixty-nine species, ranging from elephants to foxes to birds. Porcelain was a new medium in Europe at that time, and the folks at Meissen were in the forefront of its exploration.
Augustus was going to display all these creatures in a special gallery in his own ceramics museum (he had a huge collection of Asian ceramics). Meissen managed to produce most of the commission, though it was a stretch, and these birds (and dragon) that I am looking at now were in Augustus’ museum, almost three hundred years ago.
The most amazing is the macaw. Modeled from life, he’s stalking down a tree trunk; he’s over four feet long and weighs about fifty-five pounds. There’s a peacock, too. He’s almost four feet high and weighs eighty-five pounds. There’s a parrot and a falcon, and a fabulous heron with a fish in his beak, and a vulture. And the dragon of course.
Why did Augustus want these porcelain animals? When he looked at them, what did he see? Was it partly the gloating satisfaction of having these tours de force made for him in this new, expensive medium? Did he love or admire animals?
Why do I love looking at them? Usually this kind of artwork doesn’t interest me much. But I can’t believe that they have survived all these years—they began in Germany but their provenance shows that they then traveled all over Europe, found their way to New York, and finally to Boston. That they are here after nearly three hundred years of peregrination makes them wonderful to me. And I’m an animal person, too, and I love how the great artists who made these had such a keen eye for the life of the birds. There seems a strong connection between me and the artist, as if I am seeing through his eyes. And the skill required to translate that vision into porcelain! Breathtaking! Thrilling!
After visiting Augustus’ porcelain aviary, I moved on to a temporary exhibition, dreamed up by the curators of the MFA’s enormous Impressionist collections. Instead of these professionals planning what should be on display, we the public got to vote for our choices. For several weeks in January, selections of Impressionist seascapes, landscapes, still lifes, and portraits were available online, and one was invited to cast a vote for one’s favorites. The winners are displayed in a pair of small galleries, and since everyone adores the Impressionists, there’s a big crowd here.
I am familiar with most of the pictures on display, and pretty much I love them all. I wonder if somehow familiarity breeds not contempt, but the delight of recognition. In fact, when I was a 4th grade teacher many years ago, I helped my kids study the picture which is the grand “winner”, a row of houses painted by Vincent Van Gogh. After we studied this picture in our class, we came to the MFA to see it for real. I taught the kids how to behave in the gallery: hands clasped behind your back, and don’t get too close (the guards loved us).
Remembering my instructions to the kids, when I lean in close, I have one hand behind my back and my other hand across my nose and mouth: I don’t want to breathe on the pictures. But I do want to see how Vincent did it. What colors did he lay over one another to get that exact hue? What direction did he move his brush for those strokes?
And what about this Monet here, of the sunlit Valley of the Creuse? I lean in again to see. Look at those dots and splotches of color, how when I stand away from the picture I see only sunlight as it plays on rock, plant and water. I want to be in that place that Monet saw, hearing the splash of water, feeling the sun on my back, smelling the green plants.
Bostonians of an earlier time loved Monet too. In fact they were among the very first collectors of his work, which of course was considered “depraved” by Europeans. Those daubs? Art? Certainly not! In 1892, Boston illuminati mounted the very first show of Monet’s work outside of a gallery, at the uppercrust St. Botolph Club. In fact there were so many Monets around Boston that not all of them could fit in this show. Nowadays, the MFA owns one of the largest collections of Monet’s works in the world.
I take a close look at one more picture before leaving the exhibition. It’s another Monet, an early one, of a street in the small town of Honfleur, in France (where actually I have been). The street of little shops is in the shade on one side, sun on the other. A man walks on the sunny side, and a cat on the shady side. Hello, cat. Hello, man. Hello, quiet, inviting place. I think I will come in to where you are, and walk on the shady side, the better to chirrup at the cat, and if he lets me pet him, I will feel calm and happy. Thank you, Claude Monet, for bringing me to this place and showing me what you saw, and how you saw it.
While looking for something else, I found myself in one of the Egyptian galleries. The MFA has a fabulous collection of the arts of ancient Egypt, and it is very popular. I stopped to contemplate a heroic statue of King Aspelta of Sudan, called, in those days, Kush. Aspelta died in 580 BC; his tomb was excavated in 1916 and much of what was in it is now here, at the MFA.
It seems the king is wearing flipflops. I wear them too, in summer when it’s hot, though never as hot as it is in Egypt. I also notice, in the inscription on the base of his statue, by his feet, how elegant the hieroglyphics are (if you look in the picture of his feet, you can see his name in the lozenge-shaped cartouche to the left). When I was in Egypt, at one of the colossal ruins, a local man allowed you to take his picture, for a fee, while he attempted to carve some hieroglyphics in a piece of granite. His work was immensely crude. I do not understand, looking at the king here, how those ancient artists managed to make the hard stone so smooth and graceful, how they were able to carve the intricate hieroglyphics so perfectly.
King Aspelta has been dead now for nearly two thousand six hundred years. Yet I can look into his face and see him. I see his feet, his sandals. The intimacy of it is almost embarrassing. This the artist has done for me.
So: Clever invention (the Meissen animals); high skill and technical mastery (King Aspelta); unusual or surprising vision (Van Gogh’s line of rooftops); the calling forth of emotions (Monet’s street in Honfleur).
So many ways to be nourished. Food’s one, but art’s another. Yo, you prehistoric artists of the caves, we’re still looking! Wish you were here to look with us!