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MFA’s Koch Gallery features new focus, decorative accents

The Koch Gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts, named for the billionaire William I. Koch, is the grandest, most majestic gallery in Boston. Situated one floor up along the central spine of the museum, it was designed by MFA architect Guy Lowell to evoke a great hall in a European palace.

For many years it was a tapestry gallery. But since 1996 the hall has been filled with Old Master paintings by the likes of Velazquez, El Greco, Titian, Rubens, Van Dyke, and Tintoretto. Increasingly, it has also been used for parties and events. Functions are typically held there six times a month, at a cost to their organizers of between $4,000 and $6,000.

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For both purposes — the display of art and the hosting of parties — the gallery long left a lot to be desired. The hall has high travertine marble walls that were unfriendly to the art, bleaching them of color and focus. Absent the softening impact of tapestries, these walls also made for awkward acoustics. Not good for parties and live music.

To minimize the danger of accidental elbows and spilled drinks at these parties, the paintings — even the lower row in the salon style hang — were placed too high on the wall. In truth, this was a feeble compromise: The paintings were too high for desirable viewing but not really high enough to avoid damage.

Recognizing these and other problems, MFA director Malcolm Rogers and his curators in the Art of Europe department spent much of the summer renovating and rehanging the gallery, attempting both to give the organization of pictures more cogency (to tell, in other words, a clearer story) and to make walking into the space a richer experience in other ways.

They have succeeded, by and large. The changes are manifold. But three things you notice immediately are the red damask covering the walls (a great improvement on the bare travertine), the guard rails keeping viewers and revelers at a safe distance (about 20 inches), and the four tapestry pilasters that divide the displays of paintings into discreet and intelligent groupings.

Combined, these changes have the effect of slimming down the gallery as a whole, making it seem less cavernous, more focused.

Oh, but there’s one other thing: A massive, symmetrical buffet of Hanoverian silver that adorns the center of one wall. In all, 103 pieces of polished silver, ranging from simple plates to elaborate candelabras, kettle drums, and trumpets, all of it arranged in a pyramid that climbs 18 feet up the wall.

The display, according to Thomas Michie, senior curator of European decorative arts and sculpture, is inspired by a similar display at the Museum of Decorative Arts in Berlin, as well as a 19th-century photograph of an even larger installation of Hanover silver in Vienna.

It’s certainly spectacular, but . . . well, uh, in this critic’s opinion, it’s a little too much.

Nor is it entirely clear what it’s all doing here. The Electors of Hanover, in Germany, over the 200-year period that produced all this silver (roughly 1650 to 1830), had only tenuous links with the artistic traditions that are the real focus of the Koch Gallery hang.

Rogers, who took over direct responsibility for the Art of Europe department when George Shackelford, its previous chair, departed earlier this year, has said he wants to combine different media throughout the museum wherever possible. He seems allergic to the idea of a gallery filled with nothing but paintings (even if those paintings are by many of the greatest painters who ever lived).

He had planned to hang a massive, recently restored painting, “The Triumph of the Winter Queen: Allegory of the Just,” by Gerrit van Honthorst, in the Koch Gallery. Honthorst was an international court painter who was influenced by Caravaggio and in some ways synthesized Northern and Southern Europe. The presence of the Honthorst would have made for a stronger historical link with the buffet of silver. But in the end, Rogers decided to hang that painting, a loan, in its own separate gallery, and make it the focus of its own small “dossier” exhibition, due to open in February.

As a result, the silver really does look like a rather arbitrary centerpiece to the gallery — a sign more of the director’s increasingly overt taste for decorative ostentation than of cogent curatorial thinking.

The good news is that the paintings themselves have been rearranged by curator Ronni Baer, working together with Rogers, in ways that make much more sense. Altogether, there are now 40 paintings — 10 fewer than before (three of the removed paintings now hang in a nearby gallery focused on Italian painting). The tapestry pilasters, fragments from a larger ensemble that used to hang in the Barberini Palace in Rome, divide both of the gallery’s long walls into three bays, each with its own theme.

One bay unites powerful religious paintings from Italy by Giulio Procaccini, Orazio Gentileschi, Guercino, and Simone Cantarini, among others. All demonstrate the impact of the Counter-Reformation on religious painting, and the towering influence of Caravaggio.

Something by Caravaggio himself, unfortunately, is missing. And his absence did trigger one needling thought about the gallery as a whole: With the exception of Velazquez’s “Don Balthazar Carlos With a Dwarf,” it has no flat-out masterpieces. The paintings by the big guns, in particular — Tintoretto, Titian, El Greco, Poussin, Rubens, and Van Dyke — are all terrific without really being . . . terrific.

“Allegory of Man’s Choice Between Virtue and Vice” by Frans Francken II is one of the new paintings in the Koch Gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

“Allegory of Man’s Choice Between Virtue and Vice” by Frans Francken II is one of the new paintings in the Koch Gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts.

Three of the bays hinge on the complex artistic interchange between Spain, Venice, and Flanders. Grouping together Spain and Venice as one bay does makes sense, not only because El Greco worked in Venice under Titian before moving to Spain, but because Spain’s King Philip II was one of Titian’s most important patrons.

The bay dedicated to Flanders and Spain, meanwhile, yokes together works by Velazquez, Rubens, and Van Dyke. Aesthetically, it’s a thrilling display; you can feel the art of painting peaking before your eyes. But the arrangement also helps us tease out a fascinating political story of courtly entanglements.

The Rubens, for instance, was commissioned by the Archduchess Isabella, sister of Spain’s King Philip III, and ruler of the (Catholic) southern Netherlands, including Flanders. Isabella had ruled this territory for Spain with her husband Albert. After he died, she wanted to stand down and join a religious order, but she was persuaded by Philip IV (Velazquez’s boss) to stay on.

The Rubens painting can be thought of, then, as an unusually elaborate slap around the cheeks for Isabella: a reminder of female heroism, steadfastness, and the ruthlessness necessary for effective rule. It shows Queen Tomyris enjoying her moment of victory over the Persian king Cyrus. Cyrus’s treachery — abandoning a camp to enemy soldiers and then ambushing them when they were drunk from the wine he had left behind — had brought about the death of Tomyris’s son, Spargapises. Rubens shows the moment of her revenge: After her armies defeated the Persians, Cyrus’s head was brought to her, then stuffed in a wine skin filled with blood.

The Koch Gallery is filled with similarly dramatic stories. Some subjects crop up more than once: There are three depictions of St. Catherine (by El Greco, Titian, and Peter Candid), two of St. Francis (by Gentileschi and Francisco de Zurbaran), two of Bacchus and Ariadne (by Jacob Jordaens and Eustache Le Sueur), and three of the scourging of Christ (by Procaccini, Bartolome Murillo, and Carlo Maratti).

It is also wonderful to have two paintings — early and late — by Poussin and one by Claude in the relatively soothing bay dedicated to French painting.

But perhaps the most exciting new painting in the hang is by Frans Francken II, the best known member of a family of 17th-century Flemish artists. The painting, called “Allegory of Man’s Choice Between Virtue and Vice,” was bought by a private collector at the Maastricht Art Fair last year. Initially, it was reported that the MFA had bought it for 12 million euros, but the museum now describes it as an anonymous loan.

It is a beast of a picture. All of it is painted with great gusto, rich color, and splendid attention to detail. Divided horizontally into three realms, it shows heaven, earth, and hell.

All the fun, of course, is in hell. In this lower realm, in front of a blazing furnace, the devil himself sits naked on a winged beast, arms and legs akimbo, looking out like the leering middle-aged nephew of Jack Nicholson, Christopher Walken, and Mr. Spock.

With its current status still uncertain, we can only hope this painting stays on at the MFA. I suspect it will draw more viewers to the Koch Gallery than any amount of Hanoverian silver.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.
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