Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Favorites from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts

Two weeks ago I was in Boston, MA, for the MRS (Materials Research Society) Fall Meeting at the Hynes Convention Center.  After the conference was over I was able to spend most of the day Friday at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.  It is a lovely museum.

I took the hour-long "Art of the Ancient World" tour, and then explored the rest of the museum on my own.  One thing I learned that I did not previously know is that the Museum of Fine Arts (also known as the MFA) has one of the largest and most exquisite collections of ancient Egyptian art and artifacts in the United States.

Djehutynakht onions ancient egypt painting Boston Museum of Fine Arts

These masterfully done paintings are from the interior of the wooden outer coffin of Djehutynakht, who was a governor during the Middle Kingdom of Egypt (2040-1640 BC).  Apparently this piece is notable for the onion bulbs in the lower middle, which have shading to indicate their roundness, and the darker coloration for Djehutynakht's left leg (seated), again indicating some depth.  This is one of the earliest examples of shadow and depth in painted art.  What is also amazing is that this is on the inside of a sealed coffin, so it wasn't really artwork meant for the living to admire.

ancient egyptian wooden ships Boston Museum of Fine Arts Djehutynakht

These wooden ship models are also from the tomb of Djehutynakht.  I am always astounded that little delicate pieces of wood like this can not only survive for millennia, but they look like they could have been made yesterday.

In addition to fantastic Egyptian objects, there were many interesting Mesopotamian artifacts in the collection.  For example, here is a cylindrical carved seal from ancient Babylon:

Carved cylindrical seal from ancient Babylon (left) and its impression in plaster (right)

The cylinder seal is on the left, and an example of its impression in plaster is on the right.  The ancient Babylonians, Assyrians, and other cultures used these seals a bit like bar codes for shipping goods.  You rolled these seals into clay or wax as the cargo leaves, and you could identify the owner of the cargo at its destination by the presence of the distinctive seal.  It is amazing how beautifully and delicately these hard stone cylinders are carved, and they're carved in reverse in order to leave the correct imprints.

I managed to venture away from the ancient art and view some of the famous American and European artworks as well.  This famous painting by J. M. W. Turner is called "The Slave Ship." It caused quite the stir when it was painted and was very controversial for the grisly depiction of slave bodies and chains thrown overboard so the slavers could collect on insurance payments for injured and sick slaves who wouldn't be sellable. It was painted in 1840, about 20 years before the breakout of the American Civil War, so slavery was very much a hot-button political issue at the time.  This painting probably even sparked a lot of conversations and soul-searching that eventually led to the ending of slavery in America.

19th Century Painting MFA Boston Museum of Fine Arts

Mark Twain was a little critical of the composition of the painting, but his assessment actually hits pretty close to the mark for what this explosion of orangey yellow brown and red color evokes if you sort of squint at it from afar: "Slave Ship - cat having a fit in a platter of tomatoes."  I thought it was kind of cool that Mark Twain definitely stood in front of this painting during the 19th Century, though it was probably hanging someplace else at the time.

I really got drawn in by this painting of Berber King Mulay Ahmad painted by Peter Paul Rubens in 1609.  The artist must have loved this painting himself, because he kept it in his own collection for more than 30 years.  I don't know what it was about this guy, but the glistening of his eyes and the shimmery quality of the fabrics really got me staring.

This final painting is really fun.  It is called "Museum Epiphany III" by Warren Prosperi.  It's a bit of a "meta" art work because it is a painting of people viewing all the 19th century American artwork in the beautiful gallery surrounding it.  It is a bit like looking in a mirror that's not changing, or a photograph taken on a particular day in the gallery.  If they ever change the arrangement of works in the room, or the colors of the wallpaper, the effect wouldn't work anymore.  It is the only recent painting in the room (painted in 2012) and it kind of sneaks up on you in the middle of the other works with gratifying results.

Museum Epiphany iii by Warren Prosperi (2012) Boston Museum of Fine Arts, with surrounding gallery context


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  2. I just saw this yesterday when I took a small class of students to the MFA. I am so glad to find you were tickled by it, too. The guards must watch us with amusement: first we find the spot where the artist stood, then we move to see what the girl sees, and then we walk around the statue. So much to see in this painting! I want to find out more about it.

    Perhaps you could remove the foolish post written by a child above? Your post is intelligent and thoughtful. Hurts to see what follows it.

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