Boston


Madonna of the Star

Several weekends ago, J and I went to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum to see Heaven on Earth, an exhibition of works by Fra Angelico. The highlight of the exhibit is a collection of four reliquaries originally commissioned by the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. The Gardner Museum owns one of these reliquaries, and the others are visiting from Florence’s Museum of San Marco: the first time in two centuries that the four pieces have been displayed side by side.

Assumption and Dormition of the Virgin

Heaven on Earth is an eye-popping display of radiant richness. J and I went to see the exhibit the weekend it opened because J is a fan of Italian Renaissance art, and Fra Angelico (aka Guido di Pietro) is one of his favorites. Seeing these four reliquaries in person, I can see why.
Fra Angelico’s paintings gleam blue and gold in a darkened gallery, museum-goers crowding and craning to admire intricate details up close while attentive guards repeatedly reminded us to step back.

Annunciation and Adoration of the Magi

You can’t blame us for hovering close. The figures in these paintings are small; unlike a mural or altarpiece, a reliquary doesn’t offer much space to work with, and Fra Angelico had a lot of iconographic ground to cover. These four reliquaries depict in sumptuous detail key moments from the life of the Virgin Mary: the annunciation and adoration of the Magi, the infancy of Christ, Mary’s dormition and assumption, and her coronation in heaven.

The Coronation of the Virgin

Although Fra Angelico was Italian, his paintings reminded me of the works J and I had seen at the Museum of Russian Icons earlier this year. In each case, an intricately detailed painting is intended as a window from this world to the next, the physical properties of gilt and pigment serving a larger spiritual purpose. Museum-goers at the Gardner were looking at rather than through Fra Angelico’s artistry, but it was impossible not to feel transported by so much grandeur collected in one small space.

Frozen lagoon

Today J and I took the T into Boston, where we had lunch at Quincy Market then walked the Greenway to Chinatown, through Chinatown to Boston Common and the Public Garden, then through the Public Garden and down Newbury Street to Mass Ave, where we caught the T for home.

Mehdi Ghadyanloo, Spaces Of Hope

It was good to be out walking on a gray and warm day. Nearly all the snow has melted, so the earth looks bare and barren–just muddy, as if the landscape were under construction, caught between seasons. Plenty of people were out, Boston living up to its reputation as a pedestrian city. One of these days, we’ll keep track of the various languages we hear on a typical trip downtown and back: today we heard Spanish several times and Chinese at least once.

Holocaust memorial

At Haymarket, we walked through the weekly farmers’ market, with stalls selling produce and fresh fish arranged under long tents. Not all the food for sale is local: there were bags of out-of-state oranges piled into pyramids next to flattened skids of emptied cardboard boxes. Whether from near or far, the food was hawked by farmers, fishermen, and wholesalers who seemed eager to haggle. Yes, you could buy similar fruit, fish, or vegetables at your neighborhood grocery store, but would you have an actual conversation with your grocer before heading for home?

Chinatown gate

In Chinatown, there were red paper lanterns hanging from utility wires in advance of next weekend’s Chinese New Year’s celebration along with even more open-air merchants selling fruit and firecrackers out of trucks and car trunks. Everywhere, people were walking and trying to do business: merchants in Haymarket and Chinatown, panhandlers outside of T stations, and buskers in the Public Garden.

In case you forget where you are

At City Hall, there were families skating on a rink leftover from Christmas; at the Public Garden, small throngs of twenty-somethings were out on the ice, walking where the Swan Boats and ducks float in summer time. The ice was porous with puddles–I wouldn’t have trusted it–but more enticing than the chance to walk on water was the promise of the yellowing willows that fringe the lagoon. If the willows are brimming with yellowing buds, spring can’t be far behind.

View from footbridge over Leverett Pond

Today J and I took a trolley to Longwood, where we walked the Emerald Necklace to Jamaica Pond and back, stopping for lunch along the way. It was a perfect day for walking–partly cloudy, warm, and windy–with bare ground and long, stark shadows.

Muddy River at Longwood

All along the way, there were scattered throngs of pedestrians, Lycra-clad joggers, dog-walkers, families with strollers, and one rollerblader in shorts, taking advantage of the weather. In January, any day above freezing is a delight, so a day in the 50’s felt like spring, even with a brisk wind.

Sailboats in winter

The stretch of Emerald Necklace J and I walked today–a woodsy stretch of path connecting the Back Bay Fens, Olmsted Park, and Jamaica Pond–follows the Muddy River and runs through otherwise busy Boston neighborhoods, snaking along Brookline Avenue, crossing Route 9, and running parallel to the Jamaicaway with its constant stream of vehicular traffic. There is, in other words, no denying you are in the heart of a busy city.

Yellowing willow

But the genius of Frederick Law Olmsted is this: when he designed the Emerald Necklace, he knew natural landscapes needn’t be distant and untamed to refresh the human heart and mind. At no point today were J and I more than a literal stone’s throw away from traffic and densely populated urban neighborhoods, but we enjoyed the placidity of walking among trees and geese and flowing water all the same.

Leverett Pond

Olmsted believed that city-dwellers need green spaces to help soothe the stresses of urban life, and I think he was right. After we’d had lunch and were retracing our steps back toward Longwood, J and I saw an elderly couple sitting on a park bench overlooking Everett Pond. The woman had a walker and the man fingered a well-worn rosary as they sat chatting in Russian. How good it must have been for their bodies and souls to sit outside on a sunny January day, and how good it was for us, as well.

Long shadows at Longwood

Once we’d returned to Longwood, J and I boarded a crowded trolley headed toward home. Standing alongside fellow strap-hangers didn’t feel any more stressful than walking alongside dog-walkers, runners, and baby-strollers. During the hour or so J and I had been walking, our daily lives felt very far away. At a time of year when cabin fever is endemic, it’s a welcome gift to spend an afternoon outside.

Stage from our seats

Last weekend J and I saw the musical Fun Home at the Boston Opera House. Ever since Fun Home debuted on Broadway in 2015, I’ve been quietly skeptical that Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir could be adapted for the stage, even after the show won multiple Tony awards and A (not her real initial) had seen and raved about it. Despite these glowing reviews, I wasn’t completely convinced a playwright could translate Bechdel’s book, which is masterfully told and powerfully illustrated, into another genre. I so closely associated the content of Bechdel’s memoir with its visual format featuring cartoon drawings of her childhood memories, journals, and family photos juxtaposed with her middle-aged commentary, I couldn’t imagine telling that complex and complicated story any other way.

Washington Street

Clearly I wasn’t imaginative enough. From its opening scene, Fun Home drew me and other audience members into Alison Bechdel’s unique family history. The daughter of a small town funeral director, Bechdel came out as a lesbian in college, discovered soon after that her father was secretly gay, and then lost him to an apparent suicide. On stage, this story is told with three different actresses playing Bechdel: young Alison, college Alison, and grown-up Alison, who observes from the margins, sketchbook in hand, as her life literally plays out before her (and the audience’s) eyes.

Set before the show

As a musical, Fun Home doesn’t try to replicate the visual format of the book. A small desk represents adult Alison’s cartoonist studio, the place where she struggles to understand and portray her conflicted relationship with her father, and individual props stand in for significant scenes in her life: the couch and piano in her meticulously restored, museum-like childhood home; a coffin in the funeral home (dubbed the “Fun Home” by Alison and her young brothers) that is the family business; and the door to the Gay Union where she came out as a lesbian in college. Audiences have to imagine the rest of the story.

Boston Opera House

The hand-drawn map of her father’s life that Bechdel provides in the book, for example–his birthplace, home, and site of death all contained within a tiny circle of rural Pennsylvania–is described in song but never shown. Instead, we imagine the vista of Bechdel’s childhood from her own imagined perspective as she plays airplane with her father and imagines a bird’s-eye view of her life.

Audience members also have to imagine a nameless character who plays a brief but pivotal role in Bechdel’s childhood: a butch truck driver who walks into a diner where young Alison is eating with her father. In the book, we see Bechdel’s drawing of a woman who never knew the impact she had on a girl who bridled against the dresses and barrettes her father forced her to wear. In the musical, young Alison stares at an off-stage, invisible figure who is invoked only through a recitation of her emblematic appearance: short hair, dungarees, lace-up boots, and a large ring of keys. The outfit and its impression are magical to young Alison: her first realization that people like her exist in the world outside her small circle.

Ladies' lounge

Fun Home the book bills itself as “a family tragicomic,” and I have no shame in admitting I wept as the show turned toward its conclusion. Yes, there are moments of comedy in the story, such as the over-the-top, 70s-psychedelic dance number young Alison and her brothers create to advertise the family funeral home or the awkward bumbling of college Alison’s first sexual encounter. But college Alison’s earnest interactions with her father are heartbreakingly powerful without even a hint of sentimentality. Desperate to understand and be understood by her father, both college and adult Alison encounter instead silence, her questions cut off as abruptly as the oncoming truck that took her father’s life.

Overhead

Whereas I approached Fun Home the musical with high expectations based on multiple readings of Alison Bechdel’s book, J intentionally did no research into the musical beforehand, knowing nothing more than my brief explanation that the show was based on a memoir by a lesbian cartoonist. His reaction to the show was the highest form of praise, as he said he was immediately drawn into Alison’s life not because it was a “gay story” but because it was an engaging and relatable story about an ordinary person who happens to be gay. Although the exact details of Alison Bechdel’s family upbringing are unique, her story is easy to relate to if you’ve ever had a family member (or a childhood) you’ve struggled to understand.

Alongside the World Trade Center

Today J and I went downtown to see the Tall Ships that are in town for this week’s Sail Boston festivities. It was a warm and sunny day, and there were thousands of people strolling along the waterfront, many of them queued to board the ships in port. J and I didn’t board any ships, but we walked alongside them, admiring and taking pictures from shore.

Happy kid

Security for the event was tight: earlier this week, I heard a radio interview with the Massachusetts Undersecretary of Homeland Security, who explained Sail Boston had received the highest possible risk rating from the Department of Homeland Security given the large number of people it was expected to attract to a variety of land and sea venues over a large area. Today, J and I saw local and state police everywhere, a mobile Homeland Security command center, and massive plows and salt trucks parked at every intersection to prevent unauthorized vehicles from gaining access.

Our Lady of Good Voyage

On our way home, J and I stopped at Our Lady of Good Voyage, a new church built in the Seaport neighborhood to replace a tiny chapel that once bore the same name. The new church is on a now-busy corner with new skyscrapers, upscale offices, and luxury apartments on all sides: an island of calm in the city’s hottest (and rapidly developing) new neighborhood.

Inside Our Lady of Good Voyage

One thing that traditionally Catholic cities do well, I think, is provide places for contemplation in otherwise bustling neighborhoods. Our Lady of Good Voyage was open to passersby today, so Jim and I went inside to sit a spell, admiring the maritime-themed decor and relishing the chance to sit somewhere quiet, apart from the bustling crowds.

Ship models and stained glass

When I lived in Beacon Hill as a stressed and over-worked graduate student, I occasionally visited two Franciscan shrines in the heart of downtown Boston: the St. Anthony Shrine on Arch Street, and the St. Francis Chapel in the Prudential Center. Although both shrines offered frequent Masses for nearby workers to attend on weekdays, I never actually went to Mass at either. Instead, I appreciated them as open and available spaces where anyone could step inside, take a seat, and enjoy a quiet moment of private contemplation.

At a time of my life that was busy and bustling, those sacred spaces provided a safe and reliable harbor in the midst of my own personal storms, and I trust Our Lady of Good Voyage will do the same for its new neighbors.

Henri Matisse at the MFA

This week when J and I went to the Museum of Fine Arts to see Botticelli’s Venus, we also saw “Matisse in the Studio,” which places the personal belongings of Henri Matisse alongside the paintings they inspired.

Henri Matisse at the MFA

The exhibit does a wonderful job juxtaposing art and the ordinary. It’s obviously true that every artist paints in a particular place, surrounded by furniture and decor. What this exhibit explores, however, is the direct connection between artistic creation and its material environment. How do the paintings of Matisse provide a window into not merely his mind, but his actual studio?

Henri Matisse at the MFA

An artist might start with a blank canvas, but that artist isn’t a blank canvas. Artists are visual creatures, so it’s no surprise they surround themselves with visually interesting objects that subsequently appear in their works.

We don’t normally think about the material conditions of an artist when we view their art, however. Usually, we mentally erase any image of an artist standing in a studio or behind an easel, focusing on what the artist saw rather than the place from which he saw it.

Henri Matisse at the MFA

“Matisse in the Studio” invites viewers to place the artist back into his artworks, suggesting that Matisse wasn’t merely a painter of images but an assembler of objects. Before a museum curator decided which artworks and objects to include in an exhibit, Matisse’s studio was curated by the artist himself, who handpicked these objects to be his domestic cohabitants.

Henri Matisse at the MFA

Browsing “Matisse in the Studio” is an almost magical experience: at several points, J burst into laughter upon seeing a painting of a chair or vase displayed alongside said chair or vase. There is an electric moment of recognition–the satisfaction of turning a key within its fitted lock–when you recognize this pot, figurine, tapestry, or table as the very one depicted in a painting nearby.

Henri Matisse at the MFA

It’s the same satisfaction you feel when you’re sorting socks and set one alongside its mate: a perfect match. In an ideal world, art and the ordinary walk hand in hand, and it’s the job of a skilled curator to reconcile them.

Botticelli at the MFA

Yesterday J and I went to the Museum of Fine Arts to see “Botticelli and the Search for the Divine,” a small but impressive exhibit of paintings from Renaissance Florence.

Botticelli at the MFA

The highlight of “The Search for the Divine” is Botticelli’s Venus, a life-size painting of the goddess of love. Whereas Botticelli’s earlier, more well-known Birth of Venus depicts the goddess arising from a shell attended by mythological figures, the painting currently on view at the MFA is deceptively simple. Set against a plain black background, Venus gleams like a diamond set on velvet, her skin glowing and flawless, her limbs long and languid, and her hair snaking free from an elaborate tangle of braids and curls.

Botticelli at the MFA

Equally impressive is a large crucifix painted on a cut-out wood panel, as if to be carried in procession. Looking at this crucifix, I was struck by the physical similarities between Botticelli’s Jesus and Venus. Both figures are idealized, nearly nude figures almost entirely free from blemish, and both exude an air of restful power and athletic grace.

Admiring Venus

Venus and Jesus both represent the best of human nature embodied: two complementary answers to the question of what love looks like in the flesh. Venus represents carnal love and Jesus represents spiritual love, but both are beautiful, flawless beings because they represent love’s transformative power. Viewed through the lens of love, all is perfect and well-formed.

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