By Thane Peterson One of my favorite things to do is spend a few hours wandering through a big old municipal art museum. In the last couple of years, I've visited the museums in Kansas City, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Chicago, Indianapolis, Detroit, Columbus, and Hartford, and I've never failed to find something wonderful. But, if I had to pick a museum anywhere in the country to visit right now, it would be the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The obvious reason is the extraordinary Rembrandt exhibit that's on through Jan. 18, but it has many other treasures to see, even on a quick trip.
The Rembrandt show is a typical blockbuster in that it's crowded and expensive ($22, plus a $3.75 per-ticket handling fee for ordering online). Admissions are for a specific time, and you probably won't get a ticket unless you book in advance. But once you're inside, the show is a revelation. Like most people, my familiarity with Rembrandt is mainly from his paintings.
Only a few of them are included in this show, notably a stunning 1659 self-portrait from the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. Most of the 218 works on display are tiny etchings and drawings, many of them barely 4 inches across. The museum allows you to lean unusually close to look at them. I got by with reading glasses, but I noticed a lot of people had rented magnifying glasses.
HUMAN TOUCH. Looking at these small works is a little like peering through a window into tiny lost worlds. Rather than being shown chronologically, the works are grouped by theme. Some deal with biblical themes, such as Cain killing Abel and the crucifixion of Christ, as well as groupings of self-portraits and likenesses of Rembrandt's wife, Saskia, and their son, Titus, and landscapes and scenes of 17th century Holland. There's even a section called Flirtation and Fornication that includes a 1646 etching of a hooded monk lustily coupling with a maiden in a cornfield.
Rembrandt was one of the greatest portraitists ever, and even in this tiny format the expressiveness of his portrayals is astonishing. Much of the horror of the pen and brown-ink drawing Abel Slain by Cain, which is only 6 3/8-in. by 9 3/4-in., comes from the delicate features of Abel's face as he's pinned to the ground about to be clubbed with a roughly drawn jawbone held in Cain's raised right hand. When you look closely, you see other elements of the terrible story unfolding in the background, such as the defenseless Abel's fallen staff, and one of Cain's dogs feasting on a sacrificed lamb on an altar.
The other thing that's fascinating about this show is the way it humanizes the artist. We tend to think of figures like Rembrandt as born geniuses, but this exhibit shows him learning, borrowing from other artists, and making mistakes. Many of the early etchings are quite rudimentary in comparison to the later ones. In one from 1626, The Rest on the Flight from Egypt,, the figures of Joseph and a horse are barely visible in the rough scratches and cross-hatching Rembrandt used in his early etchings. The faces of the Madonna and child are circular and formulaic, and the artist has crudely burnished out some of the rough cross-hatching to suggest a radiant light around the two figures.
ARTIST'S CHOICE. That said, even Rembrandt's earliest works are rarely perfunctory. In The Descent from the Cross by Torchlight (1654) and Beggars Receiving Alms at the Door of a House (1648), it's endlessly fascinating to study the secondary figures and clothing, and such elements as how the night darkness is suggested while the landscape in the background is kept faintly visible. To fully appreciate these works, I recommend buying the catalog. At $60, it's expensive, but it allows you to study the compositions without feeling pressured by the crowds. If you miss the Rembrandt exhibit in Boston, you can catch it at the Chicago Institute of Art from Feb. 14 to May 9, 2004.
If you do make it to Boston, the MFA has plenty of other things worth seeing. A roomful of Impressionist works in the permanent collection is not to be missed. It includes a stunning series of Monets, several van Goghs, including one of his famous portraits of the Arles postman Joseph Roulin, one of Cezanne's best-known portraits of his wife, and several wonderful Degas portraits. You'll rarely again see so many terrific works of art in one room.
LOOKING FOR "MAGIC." The other exhibit I liked is called John Currin Selects, for which the MFA invited this 41-year-old American painter to go through its permanent collection and create a show of his favorite works. As usual when an artist is doing the choosing, the selections are idiosyncratic and often quite surprising.
Currin is known for his technical prowess as a painter, but he tended to deemphasize technique in favor of works that he found "magical." For instance, there's one by the self-taught African-American artist Horace Pippin, who Currin ranks among the greatest American artists, and another by Edward Hopper, who Currin admires for his psychological insight. One of the odder choices is a life-size white marble church sepulchre of a beautiful young woman made 100 years ago.
John Currin Selects only lasts until Jan. 4, and it's well worth seeing. All the more reason to get to Boston in the next few weeks. Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BusinessWeek Online