For 10 bucks I got to see three stunning shows at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (MFA). First was the combined collections of John Singer Sargent’s watercolors held by the MFA and the Brooklyn Museum. As if that wasn’t sugar enough, on my way to see the powerful contemporary photographs of Iranian and other Middle East women, I happened to go down a hall that held an exhibition of Rembrandt etchings – my favorite artist in his best medium. It was only $10 because I had a pass from my blessed library – otherwise it would be $25 for adults and $23 for seniors. The MFA is too expensive to visit. It just is.
Singer Sargent’s watercolors were like an echo from my recent trip. He painted in the Swiss Alps, which I drove across, and the Apuan Alps, which is where I stayed in Italy. He painted Carrara and the marble quarries near the area where I hung out. I have visited many of the other places he painted, like Venice and Florence and Haifa and the Sinai Desert. How does Sargent manage to make his viewers feel he is speaking quite personally to each one of them?
I love how the majority of his watercolor figures were casually reclining, whether on the grass, by the sea, or on a love seat. They are such a contrast to his gorgeously posed society portraits, all straight backs and detailed outfits. But he took up watercolor when he got sick of endlessly painting rich people at their best, or more likely much better than their best. His oil paint flattery got him a ton of work, so much, in fact, that he was in the position to quit doing them.
Instead he began extensive travels with his sister and nieces and other artist friends, and did watercolors everywhere. He never married and he had very close male friends. No one seems to know any more than that about his sexuality.
Rembrandt (1606-1669) was also a very successful portrait painter, but did brilliant work in another medium: etching. I’ve been mad for Rembrandt since he was the first artist I learned about in high school. I’m glad I never learned then about his poor treatment of his women lovers after the death of his wife. I always found it interesting that he used his Jewish neighbors as models for works based on the Old Testament. His etchings are displayed in a long hallway in the MFA, which allows you to come right up to the prints to scrutinize their amazing detail.
Finally, I ended my visit with a look at “She Who Tells a Story,” which the MFA says, “introduces the pioneering work of twelve leading women photographers from Iran and the Arab world.” The photos are eclectic, but political, examining what women face in their countries. There is a lot of symbolic work around the veil, some of it brilliant protest art. One Palestinian’s photos of destroyed neighborhoods, exhibited in the negative, literally knocked me on my butt. I had to sit down and stare. Check out some of the images here.
I’m left with the question: Shouldn’t major public museums be free?