The 15th-century Florentine artist Sandro Botticelli painted the same face over and over. You can see it in the show currently at the Museum of Fine Arts, where his mythological scenes hang along with his religious images. Whether the central female figure is a pagan goddess or a Madonna, there is that obsessively repeated face, pale, oval, remote, delicately outlined, head tilted gracefully sideways, eyes downcast. I first saw this face when I was 16, and my high school showed a series of films called “Civilisation,” written and narrated by the British art historian Kenneth Clark. The camera lingered on Botticelli’s “Primavera” and “Birth of Venus” — harmonious, graceful, at once assured and mysterious — while Clark described how Botticelli painted “the works in which the Florentine sense of beauty appears in its most evolved and peculiar form.”
In Clark’s analysis, beauty is not just something pleasing; it is one of the hallmarks of civilization, which he defines as a kind of equilibrium between reason, justice, and physical beauty. For Clark, civilization is the opposite of barbarism, and is most truly expressed in the work of artists — painters, sculptors, composers, architects.
Also at the MFA right now is a show of works by Henri Matisse, another artist obsessed with the harmonious beauty of color and line, and who also drew and painted the same forms over and over. A green glass vase, a pewter jug, Gabon and Mali masks and carvings, a Moroccan marquetry table, Chinese and Japanese scrolls and pottery, a crazy Venetian chair with a seashell back and sea serpent arms that looks like something Botticelli’s Venus might have sat in if she needed to rest after being born — these are the objects Matisse collected and kept in his studio. The objects themselves, quite wonderfully, are in the show, displayed next to the multiple images Matisse made of them. His art was private, personal, at once patient and full of energy, an expression of the artist’s curiosity and his synthesis of cultures to evolve a wholly individual expression.
Seeing the Matisse and Botticelli shows in close proximity makes me think again about civilization, and about “Civilisation.” For all his connoisseurship, Clark was not an ivory-tower aesthete. His sense of civilization’s fragility was sharpened during World War II, when he was director of Britain’s National Gallery. Under the threat of the Blitz, he got the artworks out of London to safety in the countryside, including paintings by Botticelli and Matisse. Clark knew that we can’t take civilization for granted; we need to understand what its ideals are, and what they oppose. “I believe that order is better than chaos, creation better than destruction,” he wrote. “I prefer gentleness to violence, forgiveness to vendetta. On the whole I think knowledge is preferable to ignorance, and I am sure that human sympathy is more valuable than ideology.”
The centerpiece of the MFA show is Botticelli’s monumental painting of Minerva subduing a centaur. The centaur looks miserable — disappointed, angry, twisted, thwarted. He’s holding a bow in one hand, but he’s been arrested in the act of reaching for an arrow; now that the goddess of wisdom has taken hold of him by the hair, he’s helpless. The goddess is magnificent. Wrapped in olive leaves and a diaphanous embroidered gown, holding a gold halberd, dispassionate and divinely assured, she triumphs over him without really paying attention to him. He’s a temporary nuisance. Order conquering chaos: it’s the very definition of civilization. On my way out of the show, I buy the post card of the goddess of wisdom and the centaur. It’s an image I want to have hanging over my desk right now.Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe.