On this last day of 2022, I visited Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, to see a special exhibit devoted to the rich history of Life magazine and how photojournalism shapes our perceptions of world events around us. The exhibit was engaging and thought-provoking and well worth the visit. I made a bit of an event out of it by treating myself to lunch in MFA’s open air café and by visiting its excellent bookshop, where I made a couple of purchases.
Perhaps I was also drawn to MFA today because of an odd sense of nostalgia. It was roughly three years ago that I decided to join the museum, inspired by a visit there with my long-time friends Sharon and Don Driscoll. Don and I are college chums going way back, including a semester abroad in England. During that semester, I received by far my lowest grade in college, a D+ in Art Appreciation. I’ll spare you the bloody details about how I earned that grade, but suffice it to say that I was not interested in an early morning class that featured slides of a lot of old paintings. I had more important things to do. Like sleeping.
Anyway, during one of the Driscolls’ welcomed trips to Boston, the MFA was on our list. The highlight of that visit was a wonderful introductory tour by one of the super-knowledgeable MFA docents. One of my digital mementoes of that visit is this photo that Sharon took, with a painting of the Boston Common behind me:
I decided after that visit to join the MFA, which happens to be three short subway stops away from my home. With unlimited museum admissions as a benefit of membership, I figured that I could make periodic short visits as interest and opportunity dictated.
During my first sojourn there as a member, I texted Don and Sharon to announce my new quest for cultural literacy. Don, recalling my D+ in Art Appreciation, replied that I was proof of the theory of evolution. As I looked ahead to 2020, I figured that regular visits to MFA would be part of the upcoming year.
Well, we know what happened a few months later. Talk about a global tsunami of an event. And we’re still living with it.
This is my long-winded way of saying that with 2023 just hours away, I am making few assumptions about how the year will go. I have hopes and aspirations for it, of course, but if nothing else, the past three years have taught us how quickly our lives can change in dramatic ways outside of our control. The new normal puts a premium on changing and adapting to new circumstances.
So, I’m buckled up again for the journey. I hope it’s a happy and healthy one for you and yours. And maybe it will include visits to great museums and other fine places.
A greater appreciation for the cultural amenities of my home town of Boston and its surroundings has been an unintended but welcomed benefit of this otherwise awful pandemic. Yesterday this manifested in a short visit to the city’s venerable Museum of Fine Arts, which reopened for visitors earlier this year.
I spent most of my time at a special exhibition celebrating the work of impressionist painter Claude Monet. Among my favorites was his 1900 oil painting of the Charing Cross bridge in London. You can check out the photo above and the story behind the painting below.
It was an exceedingly pleasant visit, including lunch at one of the museum’s cafés and a stop in its bookshop. I’ll be back for more visits during the months to come. Among other things, later this year, MFA is reopening its redesigned galleries covering Ancient Greece and Rome, two historical periods of interest to me.
Monet’s Charing Cross painting triggered a bout of nostalgia, for London has long been one of my favorite cities, a huge yet walkable metropolis steeped in history, tradition, culture, and entertainment. I first discovered it during my 1981 semester overseas as part of Valparaiso University’s Cambridge, England study abroad program. My grainy, first-ever photo of London is below.
That semester would draw me to city life forever. No doubt those days spent in London would pave the way for my decision to go to law school at New York University, located in the heart of Manhattan.
When I began teaching in the 1990s, a week-long, spring break visit to London was made affordable by $300 round trip tickets from the East Coast. My fascination with the city and the relative affordability of traveling there made for some great visits during my younger days. I haven’t been to London in some time, but it’s definitely on my bucket list for a return trip.
(I will save for another writing the explanation behind the once extremely unlikely prospect that I would ever write with affection about a visit to an art museum. For now, let me say that the backstory also traces its origins to my semester abroad and what was, by far, my lowest grade in any college course!)
“Have I not enough without your mountains?”
In 1801, Charles Lamb, essayist, poet, and lifelong Londoner, declined an invitation from friend and fellow poet William Wordsworth to visit him in England’s northwest countryside, explaining:
The lighted shops of the Strand and Fleet Street; the innumerable trades, tradesmen, and customers, coaches, wagons, playhouses; all the bustle and wickedness round about Covent Garden; the very women of the Town; the watchmen, drunken scenes, rattles; life awake, if you awake, at all hours of the night; the impossibility of being dull in Fleet Street; the crowds, the very dirt and mud, the sun shining upon houses and pavements, the print shops, the old bookstalls, parsons cheapening books, coffee-houses, steams of soups from kitchens, the pantomimes – London itself a pantomime and a masquerade – all these things work themselves into my mind, and feed me, without a power of satiating me. The wonder of these sights impels me into night-walks about her crowded streets, and I often shed tears in the motley Strand from fullness of joy at so much life.
Ultimately, Lamb asked, “Have I not enough without your mountains?” (You may read the full letter here).
Now, unlike Charles Lamb, I’m not so totally stuck on cities that I cannot appreciate a beautiful countryside. But I get where he’s coming from in terms of being stimulated by city life. I’ve lived in cities my whole adult life, first New York (1982-94), then Boston (1994-present). And if New York has been my stateside London, then Greater Boston has been my stateside version of the historic university city of Cambridge (UK variety).
In short, I’ll probably be a city dweller for the duration.
A Foggy Day
Because I’ll use any excuse to listen to Sinatra, I will close with his perfect rendition of Gershwin’s “A Foggy Day (in London Town).” Enjoy.
Displayed above is a picture of a pizza place in some unspecified Italian setting. No, I didn’t buy it at a gallery or from a street artist. I cut it out of a pizza box top, from Il Panino Cafe & Grill in my Boston neighborhood of Jamaica Plain. It’s my favorite Italian/pizza delivery place. The food is a solid cut above the usual delivery fare, and the service is great. I’m a steady customer; in fact, I order from them often enough to know that the pizza box art, done by CM Design, isn’t even their normal box.
I realize that I’ve just betrayed one of my culture blocks: I’m just not that big into art. In fact, my lowest grade in college by far was a D+ in . . . drumroll . . . Art Appreciation. And in my own perma-adolescent sort of way, I’m kinda proud of it. That said, I’ve taken steps to alleviate my block, including taking an art history course at a local adult education center, which I enjoyed.
Anyway, having cut out the picture, I don’t know what I’m going to do with it. It’s not exactly suitable for framing — if you had it in front of you, you’d see a small grease stain. (It was a working pizza box, after all, not some stuffy show box.) But it captures for me the idea of good food in a relaxed, informal setting, with the water in the background — what I imagine a nice place in Italy would be like, which someday I hope to visit. And given how I’ve been feeling about work and my schedule lately, that makes for an appealing daydream.
Well, I’ve just gone rhapsodic over a pizza box with some commercial art on it. I’ve taken up too much of your time already. But especially in the event I’ve inspired you to order a pizza, bon appétit. I happen to have some leftover slices in the fridge; I may have to heat them up now.