The Boston Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) has almost 500,000 pieces of art ranging from ancient Egyptian to contemporary art. Some of our favorite galleries are the 19th and 20th-century American and French. What’s not to like about Monet, Renoir, Sargent, etc?
On our 2022 visit, we also explored some special exhibits
Philip Guston Now: 1913-1980
This 2022 retrospective was originally scheduled for 2020. It was postponed as being potentially inflammatory in light of George Floyd’s murder. Subject to charges of censorship, it has now cautiously opened at the MFA and will move on to the National Gallery, Tate Modern and Houston Museum of Fine Arts. Even now, however, it has been curated and prefaced by a trauma specialist who created several warnings of disturbing content and even a detour that allows viewers to bypass potential trigger images. Archival contextual photos of Nazis, concentration camps, Klan meetings, and violence are discretely tucked into covered display cases, rather than being openly displayed on walls.
The exhibition traces the artist’s continually changing styles. Guston’s early figurative work evolved to abstraction in the mid-century and then back to an almost comic-like form of figuration in the later part of the century. All of the works, however, showed the artist’s disdain for anti-Semitism (he was a Jew who changed his name partially to avoid discrimination), racism, white supremacy, subjugation, and violence.
Different paintings provide very different examples of his evolving techniques and subjects. Head I (1965), for example, shows the “erasure” technique, in which he “erases” a previous dark image by applying and scraping a lighter color over the still wet dark paint. Red Painting (1950) represents the first of a decade of totally abstract, gestural works which brought both critical praise and commercial success. To the chagrin of many critics, Gaston returned to figuration in the 1960s., but with richer brushwork, denser applications of paint, and the gestural techniques of his abstractionist period.
His later portrayal of him and his wife in bed, with the artist still holding his paintbrushes over the covers, demonstrates the cartoonish style that was inspired by several of his childhood (and later adulthood) comic strips.
Most of his work, from his Depression-era Works Progress Administration murals onward, however, dealt with discrimination, subjugation, hatred, and violence which governments, schools, museums, and other institutions casually, often subconsciously, perpetuated.
These representations typically took the form of symbols, such as black gloves, heavy-soled shoes, nails, piles of dismembered body parts, and the most frequently repeated symbol: those of white triangles with black eye slits that represent the Ku Klux Klan, an organization for which he had particular antipathy, sometimes comparing it the Spanish Inquisition. Most of these images, however, were portrayed in a comic book-like style that tempered the dastardly themes they represent. Nowhere is this more poignantly portrayed than in his 1969 painting, “The Studio” in which he represents a white-robed, white-hooded, cigar-smoking Klansman in Guston’s own studio, apparently painting a self-portrait.
Turner’s Modern World
This survey of J.M.W. Turner’s career included dozens of watercolors and oils that portrayed and dramatized many of the societal themes that buffeted the lives of everybody who lived in England through the end of the 17th and first half of the 19th centuries. It especially focused on the rapid changes brought about by the introduction of steam power and the Industrial revolution, perpetual European wars, the nation’s abolition of slavery, and revolt throughout the British Empire.
The exhibition examined these and other themes that Turner painted in both watercolor and oil. In each media, he pioneered new uses and techniques for the use of luminous colors. For example:
- Watercolors. He was one of the first to make use of what was then a new type of fast-drying paint. He especially used the paint in outdoor paintings, where he captured transient light and images, and created quick studies for subsequent oil paintings.
- Oils. He pioneered the type of loose brush strokes that presaged French Impressionism (which debuted a decade after Turner’s 1850 death). He also used the type of gestural techniques that German expressionists later used in the 20th-century Inter-War period, and which American Abstract Expressionists used in the mid-century.
The several dozen works included several of this genre, from those that explored early industrial plants to banquets and celebrations to landscapes and especially his passions for maritime themes (he was an inveterate sailor). It was in especially these nautical scenes where his nuanced portrayal of clouds, light and smoke (from the coal burned by then new steamships) most anticipated the emergence of Impressionism.
The artist, who was also an accomplished marketer, became one of the commercially successful of his day partially due to his initially heroic scenes of battles, such as those of Waterloo and Trafalgar, before he began delving more deeply into the horrors of wars.
Nowhere was his portrayal of horror more poignant than in his 1840 oil, “Slave Ship” in which the dazzling background of a sunset almost distracts viewers from the foreground images of sick, shackled slaves being thrown into the ocean so ship-owners could collect insurance. The desperate, doomed men are surrounded by fish preparing for a meal and circled by birds ready to scoop up the scraps.
On a previous visit, we saw a special exhibition of prints by Hokusai, the Japanese artist whose many print series (especially his “36 Views of Mount Fuji” and those of the “Great Wave”) were instrumental in bringing low-cost art to the Japanese masses and to souring a revolution in Western art, as in the way in which influential and popular western artists (including Impressionists including Monet and Renoir) who began incorporating Japanese themes and pallets into their own work.