Theater & art

The MFA’s got it; now it’s flaunting it

Museumgoers view 19th-century French art in the MFA’s Sidney and Esther Rabb Gallery.
David L Ryan/Globe Staff
Museumgoers view 19th-century French art in the MFA’s Sidney and Esther Rabb Gallery.

Memo to art museums: If you’ve got it, flaunt it.

If you are the Museum of Fine Arts, for example, and you have one of the world’s most important collections of paintings by Claude Monet, not to mention enough great things by Monet’s fellow Impressionists and Post-Impressionists to make your great aunt collapse in a wheezing heap, don’t display only what you can squeeze into a single gallery — as the MFA has done for too long — and then use limited space as an excuse to rent out the rest.

Good news: memo received.

Advertisement

In the first in a series of carefully planned moves by MFA director Matthew Teitelbaum, a handful of galleries have been rearranged and rehung. Four involve European art; a fifth (which I plan to write about separately) is devoted to Song Dynasty art from China. Already, the museum seems rejuvenated.

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

To give an idea of the depth of the MFA’s Monet holdings: I arrived in Boston in 2008 only to discover that the museum had just sent no fewer than 29 Monet paintings to my hometown, Sydney. What are the chances? I thought. Too bad. And yet — incredibly — when I showed up at the MFA, there was still a long wall displaying enough great paintings by Monet to make it the envy of most museums.

What a smart move it is, then, to clear out the large, second-floor gallery crammed with a mish-mash of clashing pictures, sculpture, and decorative arts from all over the map and fill it with nothing but paintings by Monet.

Monet is so well loved for a reason. He showed us the world as a person who had just opened her eyes might see it. Things in his pictures do not yet have names. They have not yet been sorted and classified. The substances they describe remain, like paint itself, promiscuous, indivisible, interconnected.

Monet was the great visual poet of transience. He was fascinated by the moment just before an image coalesces and also by the moment just after, when your head moves, a cloud passes over, and the view falls apart.

Advertisement

Even as his separate brush strokes seem to pull the visible world together, they also teeter on the verge of disintegration. When people get up close to his pictures and then move farther away, they are in a sense reenacting this temporal dynamic.

The range of the MFA’s Monet paintings dazzles. There are pictures from the 1870s of meadows, ships in a harbor, the artist’s wife in a flowering garden, and (most memorably) in a Japanese kimono. The level of ambition — and genuine originality — is ramped up in the 1880s and ’90s, when he began painting cathedral facades, views of the Seine, and haystacks in different atmospheric conditions. By the first decade of the 20th century, as he painted the Japanese bridge and the water lilies in his garden at Giverny, he had entered a kind of dream of art promiscuously interwoven with life.

It’s all here, in one gallery, and it’s an unforgettable experience.

Paintings hung in the adjacent long gallery connect the dots — or really, I suppose, the daubs — between Monet and his closest Impressionist collaborators (Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley, and Pierre Renoir) and the Pointillists, who tried to give systematic structure to the experience of color as emancipated by Monet.

There are no masterpieces here, but in many ways that is to the good. Impressionism was not, finally, a masterpiece kind of movement. Pissarro, Renoir, and Sisley were bent instead on conveying a kind of freshness-in-modesty. So we see a peasant trudging through snow in morning sunlight (Pissarro); rocky crags in Provence (Renoir); and the persistent brightness of snow on a shadowy side of a road (Sisley).

The Sidney and Esther Rabb Gallery.
David L Ryan/ Globe Staff
The Sidney and Esther Rabb Gallery.
Advertisement

At first, Cezanne (who was Pissarro’s friend and protégé) and the young Gauguin addressed their subjects in similar ways. Both are represented here by quiet paintings of country roads, clumps of trees, and houses. But for these two, as for the Pointillists, this kind of pictorial modesty was ultimately insufficient.

A handful of galleries have been rehung. Four involve European art; a fifth is devoted to Song Dynasty art from China. Already, the museum seems rejuvenated.

With the Monets displaced from the original gallery for Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, there is room now to display more works by, among others, Gauguin. His “Where Do We Come From? Who Are We? Where Are We Going?” — perhaps the most valuable painting in the whole museum — is back where it belongs, and should be left there in peace now for as long as possible.

The re-jigged hang in this gallery also boasts two wonderful pairings of portraits, one pair by Van Gogh (Augustine Roulin and her husband Joseph, the postman), the other by Cezanne (the painter himself and his wife). And Degas’s “Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer” is still there at the center of things, tempting you away from the rural strain of French avant-garde art toward the urban, interior, psychological mode of Degas and Gustave Caillebotte. It wouldn’t hurt to put one of the museum’s several Manets in this company, but we will evidently have to wait for that.

It’s especially good to see the MFA’s great early Edvard Munch in this gallery after years of aimless wandering. Munch combined flat color and curving, stylized forms in ways that chime well with Gauguin. He and Van Gogh were the two great proto-Expressionists, so his inclusion makes great sense.

Twentieth-century expressionism is the theme that unifies a gallery downstairs that used to hold an eclectic display of modern art from Europe. The new hang, called “Figuring Expressionism,” is weighted toward sculpture, and focused on works brought into the collection by Hanns Swarzenski, a medievalist who conspired with MFA director Perry Rathbone in the 1950s and ’60s to accrue a collection of modern Expressionist works.

What is expressionist art? Is it just blurted, blowsy emotionality, tending toward hysteria?

Answers proposed here suggest something much more nuanced. The works oscillate between heightened fellow feeling (several describe lovers embracing, though never without strain) and ruthless self-appraisal. The display includes paintings by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Max Beckmann, and Oskar Kokoschka, as well as sculptures by Käthe Kollwitz, Kokoschka, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Gerhard Marcks, Max Klinger, and Henry Moore.

To underline roots and emphasize continuity, examples of earlier expressionist sculpture have been thrown in. The intensity of the interrogations in Kokoschka’s “Self Portrait as a Warrior,” Franz Xaver Messerschmidt’s 18th-century “The Hypochondriac,” and Klinger’s bust of Beethoven is tempered by the placid, soothing forms in Marcks’s seated nude, Auguste Rodin’s marble head, and an affecting 12th-century Virgin and Child from Italy.

The result is an awareness (one you find nowhere, for instance, in French Impressionism) of human suffering, unspooling anguish, and the endless search for some — any — kind of reprieve.

The display in the other half of this first-floor gallery is particularly arresting. Four vertical sculptures have been placed beside one another on a slightly raised platform in a gallery that is otherwise empty, but for a fifth sculpture, also vertical, attached to the wall.

Three of the sculptures are in the modern European tradition, one is from Africa, and one from Egypt.

The display’s title, “What’s a Body? Five Ideas,” derives from the artist who made the wall sculpture, Jannis Kounellis, who once asked: “What’s a body, a human body? It’s a column. . . . It’s something linear and mystical, a perfect symbol of humanity.”

Despite their many differences, you can feel something like this quest — to sublimate our physical containers, to find a simpler, cleaner equivalent in a kind of spiritualized, rising form — in all five works.

Louise Bourgeois’s “Pillar,” a recent acquisition, inspired the display. Pillar is, of course, another word for column. So what does this drive, in all five works, toward a kind of columnar verticality express?

An instinctive aversion, perhaps, to horizontality and the threat of formlessness; a desire to distance ourselves from mud and ants and slithering things and to get closer to the heavens. The African carving dramatizes this urge: It is a rhythm pounder from the Cote D’Ivoire, used to beat down and purify the earth after burials.

Some museum presentations focus on education. Others, like this one, seem to be enveloped in a cloud of questions. When the questions are good ones, as they are here, the exercise seems more than worthwhile. This is a strong, intelligent display, and we can only hope to see more like it in the future.

And speaking of flaunting what you’ve got, let’s hope the MFA gets that memo about Asian art.

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