A Day at the Boston MFA

Posted January 6th, 2011

My Dear One says, “I don’t know anyone who likes riding subways except you.” He laughs. I smile. He’s right; I do like riding public transportation, at least in Boston. I told him that it makes me feel like a teenager again, and it does. The feeling is not so much a matter of physical youth as the absolute sense of freedom that I associate with the rocking rhythm and sequence of station names and vistas: the Red Line and Harvard, Central Square, Kendall, and whoosh! aboveground and the Charles River’s glorious expanse from every window at Charles/MGH, then back underground for Park (change for the Green Line), Downtown Crossing (change for the Orange Line), South and onward.

We lived near Waverly Square in Belmont for a few years while I was at Emma and when home on between semesters I would pull a dollar out of my wallet, take the trolley into Harvard Square, wander about, then go to the Blue Parrot—the old, dark and smoky coffeehouse, not the current incarnation as hip restaurant—for a cup of coffee. Two cups, usually. It was a pleasant place, where people chatted easily or left one alone to read or write or think deep thoughts. Once I had a dream about being there and having a long conversation with some stranger. In Spanish.  This is odd because I was studying French, not Spanish.  Anyway, as the last few runs of the trolley approached, I would drain the lukewarm dregs in my cup and head home, arriving with a dime to spare. Ah, the value of a dollar in the nineteen-sixties.

In college at Boston University and in later years as I moved from one apartment to another, the subways and buses of Boston got me where I needed to go and etched indelible memories. There was one hot summer’s day, for instance, when I was riding the Red Line. The cars at that time had long benches on either side of each car, so that passengers faced each other. The car I was in was relatively empty. Across from me was a bearded fellow in shorts and tee-shirt, knees bent and feet propped on the seat, immersed in some book. I watched him idly. Eventually I notice that his shorts—loose, camping shorts that billowed around his skinny thighs—were short enough that it was obvious that he wasn’t wearing either briefs or boxers.  The train rocked forward on that humid evening, I relaxed against the bench back, and the gentleman in question kept reading.

It was cold today, though, and everyone was bundled up.

The new Art of the Americas Wing—a space that feels as large as the original building—is four floors of gallery space. As is usually the case in a Foster + Partners building, there is a vast enclosed area, here a cube with the ochre brick exterior of the original structure on one side, floor-to-stratosphere windows in parallel on two sides, and the stairwell of the new wing on the fourth. The ground level is a sumptuous display of the MFA’s Copleys, and Colonial- and Federal-era furniture and silver. Floor two is all about John Singer Sargent and landscape. The really cool bits are the “ears” of the Wing, the small galleries across skyways. From these pavilion galleries one can continue on to the classical collections and European art. I thought that the new museum would be a hopeless maze; it turns out to be surprisingly coherent.

The American Wing was absolutely mobbed. At least part of the invasion seems to have been launched by Oracle.  Innumerable clusters of well-dressed young business folk clutched photocopied sheets and made notes on them.  They were too well dressed for college students, too young for most continuing education programs, and finally I tapped one of them on the shoulder.  Turns out they were there for a team-building exercise.  Based on Oracle-type logic, “riddles” identified some of the chestnuts in the collection.  The Oraculars had to work together on a scavenger hunt to identify the works.  With luck, they would have time to eat before they had to turn in their sheets.  On floor three of the American wing, I gave in to my Elephant-Child-sized ‘satiable curiosity and asked to see a sheet. My group were struggling with the “riddle” that they were sure identified something in the Egyptian galleries.  I am pretty sure they were looking for Elihu Vedder’s Questioner of the Sphinx (1863). But maybe not.  When I didn’t see it during our stroll, I checked the museum website, which says it is not on view.

Lunch was so-so. Seating was in horribly short supply at the New American Café and the Garden Cafeteria alike, and who wants to pay the premium for lounging on the banquettes in the restaurant now called Bravo, so we grabbed a soup at The Galleria.  Not going to call Zagat’s any time soon.

Rested if not entirely restored, we, well I, had reunions with favorites: Rogier van der Weyden’s St. Luke Painting the Virgin (1435-40) and Rosso Fiorentino’s Dead Christ (1524-7).  We found the exhibition called “Fresh Ink: Ten Takes on Chinese Tradition” which is quite certainly the best contemporary exhibition I have ever seen. Then it was back onto the T and “home” to the Homewood Suites in Arlington.  We have tickets to the Boston Symphony tonight and I, at least, need to marshal my strength.


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