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Swapping eight paintings for one a bad deal for the MFA

Posted by Alan Wirzbicki  September 19, 2011 01:46 PM

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Now wait a minute, Mr. Malcolm Rogers, prestigious Ann and Graham Gund Director of the Museum of Fine Arts. You are going to sell eight paintings from the MFA collection — eight paintings worth up to $24 million — to raise money to buy a view of a gentleman’s just-bathed backside?

Call me a philistine, but somehow this just doesn’t strike me as an astute trade. Why not? Well, let me count the ways.

This painting, “Man at His Bath,” is not an eye-catching celebration of the human form, a la Michelangelo’s "David." Rather, it’s an everyday view of… well, mostly of an everyday butt. Which is basically what George Shackelford, chairman of the museum’s Art of Europe Department, said in Monday’s Globe.

“This guy is no Arcadian bather,” he noted. “It’s perfectly mundane — and expressly so.” One would think that self-evidently accurate appraisal would lead to this equally obvious notion: It’s probably not worth selling scenes by Monet, Gauguin, Sisley, Pissarro, and Renoir to acquire that perfectly mundane scene. Look, I’m not saying I wouldn’t trade one of those Jean Baptiste Camille Corot’s more-milky-March-sky-over-the-river scenes, but that’s about as far this guy would go. And I expect most museum-goers would agree with me.

But for you museum guys, that same mundanity seems to be a major selling point. Actually, make that buying point. The painting, says Shackelford, “adds a dimension to what’s already one of the world’s greatest Impressionist collections.” Let’s call it the Pasty Keister Dimension (PKD). Perhaps every truly great museum must have the PKD covered (or rather, uncovered). And yet, this decision reminds that of that season when former BSO music director James Levine thought he could improve Boston Symphony goers’ experience by force-feeding them a diet of Schoenberg. I’m sure he saw great artist achievement in doing so. But what I saw was lots of empty seats.

Looking at “Man at His Bath,” I just keep thinking: Eight paintings? And, what’s more, one of them a Monet view over the water of the fort at Antibes. Yes, yes, I know, the museum has another of the same subject in different light. But the reason Monet painstakingly painted the same scene at different times of day was to show the effects of the changing light. I’ll tell you this: I don’t think the great Impressionist would have painted this guy’s hind-end time after time.

Now, let’s be fair. You and your team have a great job building the museum’s exciting new “Art of the Americas” wing. That is truly a great achievement.

But… but… but… eight paintings — and several with prestigious exhibition histories — for this? I just hope we can at least have a public farewell party before you send them off to their new homes.

Email: lehigh@globe.com

Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts: The Fort of Antibes (1888) by Claude Monet, one of the eight works from the museum's collection that will be sold to raise money to acquire a painting by Gustave Caillebotte.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the first name of MFA director Malcolm Rogers.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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