Some of the most purely pleasurable shows at the Museum of Fine Arts over the past decade have consisted of some of the least exalted subjects — Soviet textiles, say, from 2006, or "The Postcard Age," from 2012. Add to the list "Planes, Trains, and Automobiles: Selections from the Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Collection." This highly diverting assembly of transportation models, posters, designs, and, yes, toys, runs through May 10.
The Sharfs are major MFA benefactors of long standing. Uh-oh, one might think. In this era when donors' names have been attached to everything short of urinals (hey, there's an idea!), could this be just one more example of ego-stroking/wallet-lifting? Not at all. The nearly 80 items are consistently attractive and often much more than that. Thematically coherent yet visually varied, they communicate the collectors' unmistakable enthusiasm for transportation joined to design. Clearly, the Sharfs feel a need for speed and thrill to the romance of vroom. Viewers are likely to share the experience.
Memorable art exhibitions can be unassuming, as here. They can be imposing (the Goya show is a few galleries away). One thing all memorable shows have in common is a sense of wonder and urgency. In that regard, "Planes, Trains, and Automobiles" is a match for "Goya: Order and Disorder" — and, unlike Goya, it has chrome, tail fins, and lots of propellers.
The show's title indicates its playful spirit. When was the last time an MFA exhibition shared a name with a John Candy comedy? An abundance of playfulness does not mean an absence of seriousness. Few things are as nontrivial as delight, and delight is what the silvery sleekness of a Burlington Zephyr model train, from 1934, very much offers. Or there's a toy dump truck, from 1941, whose adorability easily rates a ten on the Tonka scale (which is like the Richter scale, only with marginally less damage). The truck could double as prototype for Commando Cody's helmet — or limousine-in-waiting for Bob the Builder.
The earliest work in the show is an 1875 Hiroshige woodblock print, showing a steam train on the line between Tokyo and Yokohama. The most recent comes from a century later: a model of a Volkswagen Beetle with a carrier on top that's almost as big as the Beetle.
Hiroshige isn't the only notable artist in "Planes, Trains, and Automobiles." There are several Raymond Loewy designs, including a model of a 1950s Greyhound Scenicruiser — the name as leaving-the-driving-to-us sleek as the vehicle.
More important, the impact of Loewy's aesthetic spirit — an industrial-strength imperative of streamlining and flow — can be felt throughout the show. The most impressive example may be a blade-like Golden Arrow model car, from 1929. It's like a Brancusi with carburetors. Or there's the model of a Dornier Do X seaplane from the 1930s, an object of nearly preposterous swank and elegance.
While car models are the heart of the show, there are many curios, automotive and otherwise. A 1961 promotional watercolor, "Stylish business executives at an airport," is so "Mad Men" you half expect to see Don Draper peeking out of the control tower. There are not one but two YB-35 Flying Wing bombers: one a model, the other an illustration. A locomotive weather vane hangs near a tapestry commemorating Charles Lindbergh's 1927 solo flight across the Atlantic, as well as a child's transportation-themed kimono.
Also close by is a trophy for the 1930 Goodyear Zeppelin Race. Zeppelin races, imagine! What a paltry thing NASCAR seems, by comparison. Was there a checkered flag? It must have been mighty big. If any still exist, count on the Sharfs to track them down.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.