Lost in the MFA


Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? That is the title of this huge, stunning painting by Paul Gauguin, one that’s owned by Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

 No 1

I decided, not too long ago, to let myself get lost in the MFA. I was looking forward to seeing “Where Do We Come From” again. In the back of my mind were the “subjects” of art – and a question about how art’s subjects intersect with subjects and questions of religion.

What happens when we die?

What is the relationship between power and justice?

What is real? What is posturing and what is true? Can we trust what we think we know?

Why is there suffering? Where does evil come from?

What is the source and power of Love?

How are we connected to, related to, responsible for, one another and the world?

Where does beauty fit in?

I’ll give away the ending up front in case any of you need to be somewhere else – there are no answers here. Only questions.

And subjects is an insufficient word when applied to art: it’s wrong for what Jeannette Winterson calls the “thing in being.” Wrong for what Alice Walker calls “the wonder, the reverence, the stark recognition of shared life.” Wrong for the ways artists craft unanswerable questions into image and narrative.

If there was any justice in the world,

Walker wrote.

I’d own Van Gogh’s Starry Night – the wide horizontal one on which the paint is desperate praise.

No 2

She imagines it in its vault. Starry Night isn’t actually in a vault, unless it gets taken down and put away at night. And it’s not at the MFA.

Starry Night is in New York, at the Museum of Modern Art. I was there this summer, and nearly missed it because I was deliberately avoiding the most crowded rooms, the ones full of people, cell-phones in hand, taking photographs of famous pictures and of each other standing next to famous pictures.

Starry Night was the most crowded (and, presumably, most photographed) famous picture there. Guards stood on either side of it.   It was hard to actually look at it, under those conditions – impossible to “journey through the cosmos on the wings of Van Gogh’s brush” or see its paint as “desperate praise.”

The trip to New York helped inspire my MFA adventure. When I lived in the Boston area I would visit it a few times a year, usually with my friend Leslie. Often we started at a special exhibit – Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper, Gauguin, and lots of others. Afterwards we might wander through another gallery or two before heading for the Asian wing and the Japanese Buddhist temple, where we would sit in silence, in the dark, communing with the larger than life size Buddhas. We call it the Buddha Room.

I hadn’t been to the Egyptian section in ages. I never liked it. But this time, armed with half-formed questions about religion and art, I started there.

Egypt is on the first floor. Much of what is on display comes from tombs. The first things I saw were artifacts that might be as much as 5,000 years old – combs, hairpins, small statues to provide something for the dead person’s spirit, or ka, to inhabit in case something happened to the body.

No 3

The two figures on this relief, I read, represent districts or estates providing offerings for the cult of the deceased. Each carries a basket of food and beverages, along with a duck, intended as food for the tomb owner’s spiritual ka.

I saw reliefs that show the stages of the journey from this world to the next, and pictures of a number of gods.

I stopped for a while at an incredibly beautiful 3,000 year old coffin that holds the body of a woman called the Songstress of Amen, Tabes, wife of the Barber of Amen, Nes-Ptah. The design on the coffin is for magical protection of the deceased – with gods in the form of birds.

No 4

What happens when we die? Seven thousand years ago, in ancient Egypt, elaborate provisions were made for the ka, or spirit. Food, clothing, an alternate body, directions to the beyond. Life went on after death – and it needed to be furnished. If you were an important person, at least. I wondered a little about the unimportant person, maybe even the person who painted the coffin or carved the reliefs. What happened to his or her ka? How did it find its way to the next world?

What is the relationship between power and justice?

Egypt was reminding me that art served the powerful.

And I wondered where was the ka of Tabes, songstress of Amen, now? When did the bird-gods stop protecting her?

Egypt put another question in the back of my mind, one I’d return to when I reached the Asia wing: how did all of these artifacts and works of art end up in Boston?

If there was any justice

in the world, says Alice Walker,

I could have saved up for Starry Night

and bought it for the cost of a fancy dress

or a modest house.

I wandered away from Egpyt and saw a sign that read “Hippie Chic,” inviting me in to an exhibit of 1960s and early 70s fashion. There was a jukebox near the entrance. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (the Diana Ross version) was playing. I looked to see if it required a quarter – it was free, so I punched in a Jimi Hendrix selection.

I turned to the clothing. An outfit from a collection called the “Seven Sins of Kim” caught my attention. It featured an elaborate necklace/belt combination whose belt-buckle doubled as a container for birth control pills.

I was smiling, and sorry that there was nothing there I liked enough to imagine wearing it.

No 5

I was a also a bit sorry to be reminded of Austin Powers

No 6

and I couldn’t find the thread of any of my questions about religion and art.

The Beach Boys were singing when I left. Other people got to listen to “Purple Haze.”

(Are you wondering where these slide pictures came from? I clipped a few, including Starry Night and the Buddha Room, from the internet. But for most of the others: I had become one of those people taking pictures with her cell-phone. And yes, I felt sheepish.)

I decided to head upstairs.

There was a small gallery showing Dutch art of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Art Nouveau, the gallery sign told me – representing a break with the past, more stylized than what had come before.

There were paintings and etchings along with prints for ads and calendars. At what point in history did art begin to serve commerce? This is not a criticism. Art gives us pleasure. And artists need to eat.

Some of the Dutch work showed the influence of other cultures.

No 7

I remembered that Holland was a colonial power – this was the time of the Boer Wars – when the British fought the Dutch in South Africa.

What is the relationship between justice and power?

Moving on, I entered “Contemporary Europe” – the end of the 19th century and into the 20th.

The MFA owns two of the more than 30 paintings Monet made of the cathedral at Rouen – with their different colors and shadings.

No 8

30 different versions. What is real? What is true and what posture? Can we trust what we think we see and know?

I stopped at this painting by Vlaminck

No 9

who painted in a style that disgusted art critics of the time called “Fauve,” which is French for wild. “Les fauvistes” – “wild-ones” was a name this anti-bourgeois group of painters gleefully adopted.

The amazing Gauguin – “Where do we come from, What are we, Where are we going,” was out on loan – on its way to the MFA’s sister museum in Japan. I had to be content with the woodcut, “Be lovers, You Will be Happy.”

No 10

I saw only two Van Gogh’s – and, happily, no hordes of people. The one I stopped for was “House at Auvers,”

No 11

which reminded me of a painting that I would have wanted Vincent to give me – “The Church at Auvers.”

I love the little church. It’s lopsided and vulnerable and incredibly beautiful, to me. It cries out for love. It wants to be meaningful.

The church painting lives in Paris. I haven’t seen it since 1983.

I saw a few sculptures

And as I walked away I wondered “But where is any serious social commentary, any protest, any real critique?”

I stepped into the next gallery, an exhibit called “She Who Tells A Story.” I wasn’t sure I wanted to look at photographs, but reminded myself that I was supposed to be getting lost, on a more or less random walk, except for the first and last destinations. (I hadn’t planned on looking at granny dresses and velour suits, either.)

Here were works of twelve female Middle Eastern photographers who, according to the MFA website, have “tackled the very notion of representation with passion and power, questioning tradition and challenging perceptions of Middle Eastern identity.”

One of the first displays is a series of still color photos of five female singers. The women are all dressed in glittering dresses, and all, I learned from reading accompanying notes, are giving private performances.

Women are not permitted to sing in public in most Arab countries. Next to the photographs are five screens, showing videos of the performances. The videos are silent.   Images of the soundless singers slowly bleed away until the viewer is staring at a blank screen.

Next I saw pictures of women like this one

No 12

by Shirin Neshat, who was born in Iran and now lives in New York. Her series is called Book of Kings. In each photograph a woman is covered from head to toe with passages from an ancient Persian fantasy tale – the Shahnameh.

I stared at this chilling series by Yemeni artist Boushra Almutawakel of a woman, her daughter, and her daughter’s doll, where in each succeeding photo all three are increasing swallowed up in traditional garb.

This photo comes from the MFA website –

No 13

I walked all around this amazing exhibit and gazed at photographs of beautiful women – women who are silenced, women whose bodies and surroundings are covered with archaic, patriarchal texts, women and girls who are made to disappear.

And I saw commentary on the madness of living in a world consumed by, drenched in – violence. This one is by the Iranian artist Shadi Ghadirian

No 14

It can take a while to see the grenade.

Why is there oppression and suffering? Where does evil come from? How can the portrayal of evil be so beautiful?

As the world rushes madly to its end … one imagines the Starry Night,

lonely as Vincent himself

in its vault

bursting suddenly into flame like a bit of star or a bit of rubbish.

I was ready to visit the Buddha Room. But I ended up in the early Middle Ages, with its simple, tender images of mother and child,

and a tortured, crucified son.

No 15

Reminding me of parental love and hope and sacrifice. Of parental grief and suffering at a child’s suffering, and death. A theme that begins in some of the earliest stories of the Hebrew Bible: Abraham, Jacob, King David. A theme that recurs and reinvents itself in Christianity: with Mary the mother of Jesus, and parables like one about the man whose daughter has died, the way many Christians think about Jesus as God’s son. For me, for many of us – these are the given stories of the religion of our childhoods, stories we grew up with.

What is the source of Love?

I am actually disoriented now – and consult the floorplan.

In case I forgot who, all through history, paid for those artists who were lucky enough to sell their works – made it possible for some of them to survive – I was reminded in one of the huge galleries devoted to post-medieval Europe.

No 16

In a former life I attended one or two cocktail parties in this particular gallery. I’m not sure I saw the symbolism, back then.

Here is a princess by Van Dyck

No 17

And silver from the Royal Court at Hanover.

No 18

What is the relationship between justice and power?   Between art and power? Religion and power?

Who is Alice Walker talking about?

The same tired assassins whose blindness drove Vincent insane

seeking at last to destroy all the beauty beyond the vault

the beauty that he labored so to make them see

& seeing  



How are we connected to, related to, responsible for, one another and the world?

How does beauty fit in?

The corridor that leads to the Asian wing is lined with a display case holding beautiful, ancient vases and bowls.

No 19

However beauty fits, it has been fitting for a very long time.

Wandering through the galleries reminds me of how varied Buddhist beliefs and systems there have been, and still are today.

And that this is the core of Buddhist teaching:

All life is suffering

Suffering comes from clinging and aversion

It is possible to overcome suffering

The way to overcome suffering is via a path of compassion, of considered thought and considered behavior, and a practice of paying attention, and letting go.

This is where I end up.

In the stillness. Under the gaze of giant Buddhas.

Full of images, with “wonder, reverence, stark recognition of shared life.” With more questions than answers, questions that quiet themselves as I sit.

No 20

a path of compassion, of considered thought and considered behavior; a practice of paying attention, and of letting go.