now in its one-hundred-and-eightieth year
I’ve been in Boston, attending the opera premiere of a friend and museum-hopping. The timing was good, because I was able to visit the newly reopened Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum as well as the newish ‘Americas’ wing at the Museum of Fine Arts.
The American galleries at the MFA gave me a lot to ponder and even more to admire. I’d been wanting to see them ever since reading this review by Holland Cotter. The galleries themselves are sumptuous: beautifully colored, . . .
. . . some even brocaded.
They showcase one of the world’s strongest collections of American art–some four stories of it–, which has been beautifully arranged and curated.
Wandering the galleries is like skimming the entire span of our history, from Puritans to Pollock, and back centuries more. The extent and variety of the MFA’s holdings and the space now devoted to them avoids the conflation of eras so common to American exhibits in many museums. One has the sense of proceeding through distinct periods of time, each with its own styles and cultural preoccupations. The displays thoughtfully integrate a wide variety of objects–including architectural elements (such as house timbers), furnishings (such as Puritan dressers), and even ships’ models–which help to convey the openness and cosmopolitanism that have been part of the American aesthetic from an early time.
Much has been made of the way the Americas wing incorporates into its narrative artifacts from indigenous Latin and North American peoples. Yet what surprised me was how quickly, in a chronological viewing of the galleries, the impression of cultural diversity slips away. Once beyond the Revolutionary-era galleries, with their obligatory nod to rebellion, any hint of conflict or painful heterogeneity evaporates. The story remaining is the triumphal cultural progress of upper-class New England, a class eagerly absorbing, modifying, and mirroring the cultural practices of continental Europe, England, and Asia. Except for a few rooms of folk art, the lives of other Americans–whether black, red, or working-class white–are pretty much missing.
Museums have what their benefactors give them, so in that sense we can’t fault the Boston museum. But I wondered whether its holdings were really so lacking in any material depicting the lives of ordinary people. Many museums use smaller works on paper to round out grand canvases that skew social reality. Boston, in the nineteenth century particularly, was a center of social reform, political radicalism, and industrial innovation, where experience was reflected not just in sculpture and painting but in such new media as lithography and photography. Including more such works would have better represented the output of American artists and the totality of subjects that drew their concern. Doing so could only enhance the appeal of the Americas wing.