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Surprise at the MFA

“Class Distinctions” at the Museum of Fine Arts was closing in a week, and beloved family had just renewed (and upgraded!) my membership. Dutch paintings from the 17th century…OK, I should see these. I headed for Boston.

The Monday quiet of the vast place was delightful and I lurked for a while in my favorite haunts: 19th century European paintings, a couple of rooms in the new American wing, and a breezy appreciation of a Tara Donovan cloud by the old west entrance. My iPhone twinkled and I learned that a family meetup I’d been expecting would be rescheduled. Time to look at the Dutch work.

A little cloud of skepticism hovered over the dark stairwell entry to the show. I’m drawn to thoughtfully designed paintings, possibly with intriguing layers, energetic marks, provocative color interactions and so on. I was pretty sure the Dutch show wasn’t going to provide that (though I was looking forward to the Vermeers). Also, I’d spent the previous few months trying to untangle for myself 20th century American art, and had a sort of amnesia about the purpose of all of it. Oh yes, and these big shows are always too crowded.

After an hour with the Dutch – mostly people posing or simply going about their business – I was surprised to find a skip in my step. This art was offering something different and wonderfully affirming: a straightforward connection with the great human family! Here were proud aristocrats wearing finery and heartbreaking expressions: world, I want to be seen and maybe even liked. Familiar? The sea of peasant faces (square, beseeching) in an almshouse opened a place in my heart. In dark little paintings, women were humbly making lace to add to the family income. The as-painted acceptance by these ruddy folk of the class structure and their place in it by was poignant and oddly joyful. Hopes, needs, work, acceptance – humanity. In the final gallery were three vitrines (one for each social class) displaying dining room relics, their quotidian tools. That just put me over the edge. It’s an inborn and through-the-ages type of connection I’m trying to describe, perhaps beyond words. Hello, humans. Family.

I stayed right there, with my people, for the rest of the afternoon.


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