European Painting and Sculpture After 1800: MFA Highlights
“a useful tool for an exploration of modern European artistic sensibilities.”
Boston exists in the confluence of capital, geography, and politics. Famous universities like Harvard, Boston University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) dot the region and Boston is within commuting distance to both New York City and Washington, D.C.
Founded in 1870, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) was established the same year as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The immediate postwar boom following the Civil War created an atmosphere conducive to collecting European fine art. The latest in the MFA Highlights series is European Painting and Sculpture After 1800, by Emily A. Beeny and Marietta Cambareri. Beeny was a former Assistant Curator, Paintings, Art of Europe, and Cambareri is currently Curator of Decorative Arts and Sculpture and Jetskalina H. Phillips Curator of Judaica, Art of Europe. Both have crafted a compact guide of modern European paintings and sculpture for the non-specialist.
When everything from a bar's beer selection to an Instagram feed can be “curated,” the original terms connection to museological practice becomes increasingly diluted. While passion and selection drive the curatorial process, the discipline of curation also involves specialist expertise. The challenge with this volume of MFA Highlights is winnowing down the massive, encyclopedic holdings of this world-famous Boston museum. It seems like a task as futile and ridiculous as “Summarize Proust” sketch from Monty Python's Flying Circus. But Beeny and Cambareri have succeeded in this task.
MFA Highlights is an ongoing series, “presenting the best of the Museum's collections accessibly and affordably.” Beeny writes in the Introduction: Between Market and Museum that “Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries witnessed drastic, often violent, change in every aspect of life, from politics to religion, from industry to art. Revolutions and rising nation-states redrew the map of the Continent; colonial expansion fed its growing urban and industrial centers with goods and raw materials from every corner of the globe. Technological advances—from railways to vaccines, from photography to atomic warfare—transformed human experience in profound, irreversible ways.”
These statements paint the historical context with a broad brush, but contain precise, informative observations. Even with the arbitrary restrictions placed on this volume, art from a single continent over the last two centuries, there is still a lot to choose from.
The MFA's current holdings of European Impressionist paintings alone is massive. The two authors bring their curatorial expertise together with an eye toward selection, and how those selections inform the educational program. Museums are, first and last, educational institutions. But museums can also be fun to explore and get lost in. Unfortunately, the ability to visit Boston's Museum of Fine Arts is not available to all. If visiting is not feasible for whatever reason, the MFA Highlights book is the next best thing.
The book is split up into several sections. The Neoclassical and Romantic movements are explored. Landscape painting is explored from both Romantic and Realist perspectives. A chapter focuses on Academic and Official Art, while another looks at town and country. Because the MFA has a world-famous collection of Impressionist paintings, a chapter focuses on a grab-bag of -isms: Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Symbolism, and Expressionism.
The final chapter is about Abstraction and what lies beyond. For simplicity's sake, the curatorial selection of post-Second World War pieces is minimal. Even though this is a guidebook, a narrative tension develops from the selected art works. It is a litany of opposites: realism and expressionism, wealth and poverty, Europe and the world, and official art and the rebellious avant-garde.
Beeny and Cambareri arranged the book with selections of well-known pieces and relatively unknown works. Each chapter has two to three pages of introductory text. Each piece has a single page of informative text, along with the standard academic apparatus (artist, nationality, title, date, materials, dimensions, provenance). Since this is Boston, there are gifts from an Adams family scion (Quincy Adams Shaw) and a Cabot (the Arthur Tracy Cabot Fund). The writing, informative and precise, would be easily understood by any non-specialist.
Among the highlights included are: “Bust of Beatrice,” by Antonio Canova, “The Lamentation (Christ at the Tomb),” by Eugène Delacroix, “The Sower,” by Jean-François Millet, and “Fantastic Inkwell (Self-Portrait as a Sphinx),” by Sarah Bernhardt. The last painting in the book is Pablo Picasso's interpretation of the rape of Sabine women, created during the Cuban Missile Crisis. It embodies everything that came before in this volume: classical themes, artistic rebellion, and an artistic reaction to social upheaval.
European Painting and Sculpture After 1800 is a useful tool for an exploration of modern European artistic sensibilities. It can also function quite nicely as a bathroom reader, since its compact format won't be uncomfortable. As well, it is educational, fun, and enlightening at the same time.