Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Art Review - Class Distinctions: The MFA takes on Dutch painting and scores a knock-out!

Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer will be on display at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston until January 18, 2016, and it is worth the visit.

While the title might suggest a preponderance of either Rembrandts or Vermeers to view, you'd be mistaken.  There are a few, but they are further between. No matter, the show is an opportunity to spend time among some of the artists who did not travel as famously through the centuries. In fact, the real strength of the collection comes from the many painters whom you haven't seen before who nevertheless played an important part in the 17th century scene in the Netherlands, artists who captured both a style of expression and a moment in history, combining to retell a chapter in the evolution of Western art and the time and place in which they operated.

There are majestic landscapes like the View of the Plain of Haarlem with Bleaching Grounds by Jacob van Ruisdael, a grand vision depicted on a small canvas with excruciating detail. And there is the more intimate scene captured in Street Musicians at the Door by Jacob Ochtervelt in which a complex mix of artistic and social conventions work delicately together to say a lot about the world in which the artist painted. 

Not that you won't see the genius of Vermeer and his unique insight about the meaning of external light in his world-renowned The Astronomer, nor will you miss Rembrandt, especially in a very good commentary about his brush stroke genius from an otherwise unremarkable portrait, courtesy of the museum's worthwhile audio guide.

But it is the Ochtervelt painting that lends its image to the MFA's promotional materials about the show, and for good reason. The painting's gentle play between light and dark, inside and outside, wealth and poverty, stasis and itinerancy, capture so succinctly what the museum is trying to explore: How do art and society intermingle? Sometimes their approach is a little thick in the thumbs but the curators get it right often enough, and regardless, they provoke thought.

What answer would I give to their question? Surely not in exact proximity or slavish representation, I maintain, but through ways intended and unintended, artists holding up mirrors to their times, to their worlds, to themselves.

I do recommend making your way to the MFA to come up with your own answers, or your own questions. It's worth the journey.