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MFA builds modern art collection

“Northern Painting 25” by Lawren Harris.Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The Museum of Fine Arts is expanding its collection of 20th-century paintings with the acquisition of works by Canadian artist Lawren Harris and Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros — international modernists whose work fills important gaps in the MFA’s collection.

The whimsical Harris painting, “Northern Painting 25” (1924), is one of a series the artist completed during the 1920s when he would travel around Canada painting landscapes. Painted on coarsely-woven canvas, it depicts a colorful island of anthropomorphized trees that sprout against a blue sky with stylized clouds.

The painting, which went on view Nov. 9, comes as a gift from comedian Steve Martin and his wife, Anne Stringfield in honor of Canada’s 150th anniversary. Martin, who owns several works by Harris, recently guest curated “The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris,” which originated at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles before opening at the MFA last year.

“When it was all done I thought, how fitting to donate this picture to climax this very important period of my life,” said Martin. “I immediately thought of the MFA, because I knew they had been looking for a Lawren Harris.”


As with the Harris painting, Siqueiros’s “Autorretrato con Espejo (Self-Portrait with Mirror)” (1937) is the first work by the artist to enter the MFA’s collection. Known for his politically charged murals, Siqueiros was a pivotal figure in the art world of the mid-20th century, exerting tremendous influence on Jackson Pollock by encouraging him to experiment with different techniques and media.

“Autorretrato con Espejo (Self-Portrait with Mirror)” by David Alfaro Siqueiros.Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Some of those techniques are on display in “Autorretrato con Espejo,” where Siqueiros uses airbrush, drip techniques, and deep incisions into the paint to create a haunting portrait of himself holding a mirror.

“He’s experimenting with all kinds of things,” said Elliot Bostwick Davis, Art of the Americas chair at the MFA.


The painting, which will go on view Dec. 9, was first purchased by the composer George Gershwin, who befriended Siqueiros during a trip to Mexico in the mid-1930s. Though the picture is well-known among art historians, it had not been seen publicly since Gershwin’s death in 1937. Many presumed it had been lost, but in fact it has remained quietly in the Gershwin family for the past 80 years.

“People knew about it, but nobody knew where it was,” said Davis. “It surfaced in July.”

Davis, who declined to name the purchase price, added that the museum was “first in line” for the Siqueiros after having recently bought Frida Kahlo’s “Dos Mujeres (Salvadora y Herminia)” from the same dealer.

“For us these paintings expand modernism to the north and to the south,” said Davis. “We’ve wanted to acquire major international figures of the 20th century, and Harris and Siqueiros are right up there.”

Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay.