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book review

‘The Boston Raphael’ by Belinda Rathbone

MFA director Perry Rathbone examines the portrait that became the center of an art controversy.
MFA director Perry Rathbone examines the portrait that became the center of an art controversy.(Samuel B. Hammat/GLobe file/1969)

In February of 1971, Perry Rathbone, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, was fighting fires on too many fronts to count.

An exhibition called “Earth, Air, Fire, and Water: the Elements” had just opened at the museum. Straightaway it ran into trouble.

The exhibit, writes Rathbone’s daughter, Belinda Rathbone, in her new book, “The Boston Raphael” — perhaps the most exciting book on the art world since Jonathan Harr’s “The Lost Painting” — presented contemporary artists whose work intentionally pushed boundaries. It was aimed partly at Rathbone’s local critics, who had been saying for years that, for all his showmanship — and notwithstanding the support he had given modern art earlier in his career — he and the MFA had grown staid and fusty.

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One piece involved several huge silk flowers by Otto Piene, inflating and deflating like giant, spiked phalluses under the museum’s rotunda. Others included floating balloons by Andy Warhol; blocks of ice containing spring bulbs, arranged like ancient monoliths out on the iced-over Charles River; a pack of 12 police dogs tethered to a post on the Huntington Avenue lawn; and live eels slithering through vinyl tubing in the exhibition galleries.

Almost as soon as it opened, the show started backfiring. The museum’s curator of classical art, Cornelius Vermeule, called the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, begging them to rescue the dogs, who had barked for six straight hours. Visitors expressed similar concerns about the eels, which appeared dead in their tubes.

A second work by Piene — a giant inflatable rainbow extending over the Charles — collapsed when it hit a lamppost. And Robert Morris, an artist whose proposed work involved pouring cement onto the Fenway lawn, disowned the installation when a piece of metal fell into the concrete.

Hilton Kramer, art critic for The New York Times, called the show an exercise in “museological self-immolation.” A member of the MFA’s board wrote to Rathbone, judged it “a total disaster.”

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But really, it wasn’t. Alongside Rathbone’s other problems just then, it was a mere trifle.

The day before the show opened, Rathbone — a tall, charismatic, and congenial man, deeply passionate about art — had been summoned to appear before a federal grand jury to answer questions about how the MFA had acquired and imported into the country a small painting believed to be by Raphael.

The acquisition, timed to coincide with the MFA’s centennial celebrations, was supposed to be the consummation of Rathbone’s career. Its arrival in Boston had been announced to the world just over a year earlier, and three months after that, Rathbone had been feted at a gala dinner on the occasion of the museum’s centennial. He was the toast of the town.

Since taking up his post at the MFA in 1955, Rathbone had brought great energy and a deft feeling for public relations to a role that was traditionally performed by stodgier types. Trained in Paul Sachs’s influential “Museum Course’’ at Harvard University, he transformed himself into the very model of the modern museum director, at a time when no one quite knew what that role ought to entail.

He used all the tools of modern publicity, including television, to lure record crowds and ushered in the era of the blockbuster. But even as he oversaw great change, he was also intent on protecting the museum’s core mission. He was loved by his staff, admired all over the country. He had most of the qualities the MFA’s current board might be looking for as they search for a director to replace the retiring Malcolm Rogers.

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But lately, events seemed to be ganging up on him. He couldn’t know it, but his tenure was about to unravel.

“The Boston Raphael” recounts the tale of the controversy that undid Rathbone with impressive assurance.

As her subject’s daughter, Belinda Rathbone (who has written an acclaimed biography of Walker Evans and a memoir set in Scotland) can hardly claim to be a disinterested observer. Nor does she. But she used her privileged status to do a great deal of fine-grained research and has harnessed that research to a narrative that is fast paced, fair minded, and full of the kinds of intimate, animating details that probably only a daughter could provide.

The story she tells will fascinate anyone interested in the mysterious back-room machinations of the art world. It should also appeal to anyone who has ever been struck by the special vulnerability even of good leaders. For museum directors, their staff, and their trustees, “The Boston Raphael” should be compulsory reading.

Soon after Rathbone had cut the 100th anniversary cake, reports appeared in the press that the celebrated Raphael had been smuggled out of Italy.

The reality was more complicated. Since 1939, Italian law had given the state a two-month option to acquire any work considered an important piece of the nation’s cultural heritage.

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But application of the law was patchy, at best, and if works of art were not previously known (this one was offered by a dealer on behalf — he said — of an old Genovese family), their “importance” was arguably moot. With this tacit justification, buyers, including museums, commonly moved art out of the country surreptitiously.

Times have since changed, and Rathbone does a fine job charting these changes, and all the issues involved, in her final chapter. But the MFA did not steal the painting — it had agreed to pay $600,000 for it — and Rathbone was not alone among the museum’s leadership in believing it had done nothing wrong. He proudly announced its arrival in Boston to the world.

Soon after, he learned that his long-time pal and confidante (and the museum’s curator of decorative arts), Hanns Swarzenski, who had brought the painting from London to Boston, had not declared it to US customs. There was no duty tax to be paid. But he should have declared it. It looked bad, and reinforced the appearance of smuggling.

Rathbone.
Rathbone. (Yousuf Karsh/file)

In the meantime, awkward questions were being asked about the little painting itself. Was it really by Raphael? Rathbone had had a well-known Raphael scholar support the attribution before deciding to buy it. But was one opinion enough? Other experts were beginning to voice doubts.

Undeterred, an Italian art sleuth, Rodolfo Siviero, was busy drawing attention to the dubious nature of the work’s removal from Italy. During World War II, Siviero had been imprisoned, starved, and tortured by the Nazis. He subsequently spent years recovering thousands of Italian artworks plundered by the Germans. But decades later, he needed a new mission.

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He turned his attention to the illegal export of art from Italy. This work was less heroic, more fraught with ambivalence. With his budget running dry, Siviero needed a sensational coup, writes Rathbone, to remind his own government that his mission mattered, and that he, personally, still had what it took.

Late in the year, Perry Rathbone was confronted with the reality that whatever control he thought he had over the situation was illusory. US customs officials arrived at the MFA with orders to seize the Raphael. The museum, meanwhile, was told it had to pay a $1.2 million penalty for failing to declare the painting. Rathbone was informed that he and Swarzenski were suspects in an investigation in Italy.

Now, on the eve of the opening of “Earth, Air, Fire, and Water: the Elements,” following his lawyers’ advice, Rathbone was pleading the fifth.

He was in quicksand. What had happened? And why?

The story, which culminated in the return of the painting to Italy and Rathbone’s forced resignation, is haunted at every step by the sense that at this or that turn of the screw events could so easily have been avoided.

In the meantime, the author gives a great accounting of her father’s career. Her book is full of astute observations about everything from social change in Boston during the ’60s to the daunting challenges of museum financing, and the changing relationship between directors and their boards.

She is able to see the flaws in her father almost as clearly as those she perceives in his various antagonists. (The main villain, disturbingly, was not Siviero the art sleuth but the president of Rathbone’s own board, George Seybolt.) Rathbone, she acknowledges, liked breaking rules. He was not always a sure judge of character. And he believed, perhaps a little too readily, in his ability to use his own enormous charm to get himself out of trouble.

But he was a fascinating figure, and perhaps the most remarkable museum director of his generation. “His career had been ascendant in every way,” writes his daughter, “until the end.”


Sebastian Smee can be reached at sebastian.smee@globe.com.