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Museum of Fine Arts, Boston October 13, 2009

Posted by flashbuzzer in Arts.
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I recently visited the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The museum features a variety of exhibits that present artistic treasures to the general public.

Here are ten nuggets that I gleaned from my time at the museum.

1. John Singer Sargent was commissioned to decorate the museum’s Shapiro Rotunda. Sargent originally wanted a set of reliefs to serve as the centerpiece of his project; after observing the amount of ambient light in the rotunda, he changed his mind and had the reliefs serve as embellishments of several paintings depicting various scenes from world mythology.

2. A central aspect of tribal life in Oceania involved the sculpting of figurines for special occasions, including coming-of-age ceremonies and funerals. Such figurines were often used to represent tribal ancestors and were designed to invoke the ancestors’ protection and blessings for a given tribe. The figurines would be handed down from one generation to the next and supposedly acquired power, or mana as time passed.

3. A central aspect of tribal life in Africa involved the sculpting of female figurines. Such figurines were often crafted to display an image of fecundity and strength; this was accomplished via providing the figurines with exaggerated reproductive organs and elaborate coiffures. Tribes that sculpted these figurines hoped that they would yield both a population boom and a good harvest in the coming year.

4. Many of the prominent 20th-century Mexican muralists and artists were politically active and agitated for a variety of causes. One of these artists, Leopoldo Mendez, poked fun at the great Diego Rivera and his support of the exiled Soviet leader Leon Trotsky with a humorous painting that caricatured Rivera and Trotsky as skeletons.

5. Persian and Ottoman art was influenced by extensive trade with China during the Ming Dynasty. For example, artists during the time of the Safavid Empire would create beautiful blue-white cups and bowls that were based on porcelain items from China. The Safavid-era artists would then add their distinctive touches to their cups and bowls, such as selected verses from the Koran and depictions of flora native to the Middle East.

6. Animals can often be found in Indian art depicting scenes from Hindu mythology; these animals are highly symbolic. For example, cows are highly esteemed in India, as they project an image of serenity and assiduity. This is best exemplified by the white bull Nandi, which can be found in various paintings of the god Shiva and his consort, Parvati. On the other hand, water buffaloes do not enjoy the same degree of admiration and respect; this is best exemplified by paintings that depict the goddess Durga and her victory over a demon that hid in the body of a water buffalo.

7. Artists who produced early Buddhist works generally refrained from showing the Buddha himself in their sculptures and paintings. To indicate the Buddha’s presence in their works, they employed symbols including his footprints, a throne that he was supposed to have occupied, and the Bodhi Tree under which the Buddha is said to have achieved enlightenment.

8. The Arts and Crafts Movement was a reaction to the “creative stifling” and “dehumanizing effects” of the Industrial Revolution. Two architect brothers, Charles and Henry Greene, were inspired by the movement to design houses and furniture that were both functional and aesthetically pleasing. For example, the Greenes would carefully select woods such as Honduran mahogany for items such as tables and chairs, aiming to use their grain patterns and aromas to create a pleasant atmosphere for their clients.

9. Like Persian and Ottoman art, Vietnamese art drew inspiration from China. To provide a distinctly Vietnamese touch to their works of art, local craftsmen would use soft white clay that could only be found in the Red River region near Hanoi. These craftsmen would also use elephant symbols in their works, as elephants were still prevalent in northern Vietnam during the Ly and Tran Dynasties after having become extinct in China.

10. One of Japan’s major art forms, ukiyo-e, was actually a natural venue for various artists to display a humorous bent. In fact, many ukiyo-e works would reference the Heian period in a nostalgic manner while simultaneously poking fun at it. For example, some ukiyo-e artists would depict scenes from Lady Murasaki’s famous novel The Tale of Genji, but they would add humorous twists by altering key plot details in their prints.

From my perspective, the museum is really an art lover’s paradise, and one could spend hours browsing its various exhibits and learning about art from a plethora of perspectives. I thought it was quite neat that the Oceania, Africa and Asia section was near the entrance on the ground floor; I initially wandered into that section from the Shapiro Rotunda, and I was exposed to an art genre with which I was only vaguely familiar.

In terms of drawbacks, as alluded to above, the museum is quite expansive, which makes it difficult to explore in its entirety during a one-day visit. Note that the museum is only open from 10 a.m. until 4:45 p.m. on Saturdays. Also, as expected, the food options at the museum were rather pricey.

Overall I enjoyed my time at the museum and I learned a lot, though I would like to return at some point to browse the exhibits that I missed.

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