Arts & Entertainment

Rushdie Explores Video Games In New Novel

By Jess Bidgood   |   Tuesday, November 30, 2010
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Nov. 30, 2010

Salman Rushdie in WGBH's studios. (Vanessa Weigel/WGBH)

BOSTON — The novelist who became a household name for having a Fatwah on his head is, these days, thinking about video games.

In 1981, Salman Rushdie published the novel Midnight's Children, which earned him the prestigious Booker Prize and a host of other awards. Seven years later, the Iranian government called for his death because of what they said were irreverent depictions of Islam in his novel, The Satanic Verses.

But Rushdie kept writing. His work transcends the globe and the ages, exploring past and present with his famous magical realist style.

Rushdie's newest book, Luka and the Fire of Life, is a children's book of sorts. A follow-up to Rushdie's first book for younger readers, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Luka is a fantastical journey through a video-game world.

Rushdie told WGBH's Emily Rooney that any technological leanings in Luka's subject matter don't represent a huge leap from the epic, layered historical fiction for which he's known. "The thing that interested me (about video games) were the paralells with very old-fashioned quest stories that you find in this leveling up that's what goes on in these games," Rushie said. "Because what happens in these old narratives is the same thing."


Rushdie reads the first passages of Luka and the Fire of Life

"When Beowolf kills the monster, Grendel, he immediately has to face a bigger monster, which is his mother. And that idea that the obstacles go on increasing in magnitude and difficulty and you have to overcome them as you achieve your goal, it's both a very ancient way of telling a story and a very modern (one)."

It's a very personal book, Rushdie said, written for his son Milan. Rushdie was about 50 when Milan was born -- which, he said, causes his mortality to loom large for his kids. "There's this fear amongst children that they might lose their parents," Rushdie said.

And that, he said, is the engine of the story. "He looks like his father and is in fact filling up with his father's fading life," Rushdie says of the title character.

Rushdie was relieved to learn his son actually liked what is quite a scary story. "I thought, maybe this kid has a little dark side in him."

Interview Highlights

On Children's Books vs. Grownup Books

I think (Luka and the Fire of Life) is an everybody's book... One of the things I really liked about Haroun and the Sea of Stories, what happened to that book, is that adults enjoyed it as much as children. Grown-ups came at it and got one set of things from it, kids got another set of things. There are some interesting books nowadays that sit on this borderline between young adults and adults.

There's a point at which you stop asking yourself the question who's it for and you just write. I think children are wiser and smarter than we think, and maybe grown-ups are more playful and childlike than we think so everyone crosses over and meets in the middle.

On The Harry Potter Series

I had to read them to keep up (with my son)... In fact, I was fortunate enough to be able to introduce him to J.K. Rowling and they had a few minutes of conversation, during which he spoke with the erudition of a Ph. D. student. He was saying to her, 'You know how in Vol. III, Snape says such-and-such, how do you reconcile that with the fact that in Vol. V,  the following happens.' And her jaw was hanging open and she said, 'Well, you've really read these carefully, haven't you?' Which, of course, everybody did, all these kids did. I think we all owe her a debt of gratitude (because) she's managed to persuade children to read 900-page novels. This is a good thing!

On His Favorite Writer

One of my all-time favorite writers is P. G. Wodehouse, and I can, if pushed, quote passages from various books. Christopher Hitchens and I vie for who knows more P.G. Wodehouse than the other. As usual, he wins, of course.

On His Forthcoming Autobiography

The point of origin of the book was to tell that story (of the Fatwah placed on my life by the Iranian government in 1989). I think if, as a writer, you have the misfortune of acquiring an interesting life, there's a point at which you have to tell the story.

Book Excerpt: Luka and the Fire of Life

Chapter One: The Terrible Thing That Happened on the Beautiful Starry Night

There was once, in the city of Kahani, in the land of Alifbay, a boy named Luka who had two pets, a bear named Dog and a dog named Bear, which meant that whenever he called out, "Dog!" the bear waddled up amiably on his hind legs, and when he shouted, "Bear!" the dog bounded toward him, wagging his tail. Dog, the brown bear, could be a little gruff and bearish at times, but he was an expert dancer, able to get up onto his hind legs and perform with subtlety and grace the waltz, the polka, the rhumba, the wah-watusi, and the twist, as well as dances from nearer home, the pounding bhangra, the twirling ghoomar (for which he wore a wide mirror-worked skirt), the warrior dances known as the spaw and the thang-ta, and the peacock dance of the south. Bear, the dog, was a chocolate Labrador, and a gentle, friendly dog, though sometimes a bit excitable and nervous; he absolutely could not dance, having, as the saying goes, four left feet, but to make up for his clumsiness he possessed the gift of perfect pitch, so he could sing up a storm, howling out the melodies of the most popular songs of the day, and never going out of tune. Bear, the dog, and Dog, the bear, quickly became much more than Luka's pets. They turned into his closest allies and most loyal protectors, so fierce in his defense that nobody would ever have dreamed of bully_ing him when they were nearby, not even his appalling classmate Ratshit, whose behavior was usually out of control.

This is how Luka came to have such unusual companions. One fine day when he was twelve years old, the circus came to town-and not just any circus, but the GROF, or Great Rings of Fire, itself; the most celebrated circus in all of Alifbay, "featuring the Famous Incredible Fire Illusion." So Luka was at first bitterly disappointed when his father, the storyteller Rashid Khalifa, told him they would not be going to the show. "Unkind to animals," Rashid explained. "Once it may have had its glory days but these days the GROF has fallen far from Grace." The Lioness had tooth decay, Rashid told Luka, and the Tigress was blind and the Elephants were hungry and the rest of the circus menagerie was just plain miserable. The Ringmaster of the Great Rings of Fire was the terrifying and enormous Captain Aag, a.k.a. Grandmaster Flame. The animals were so scared of the crack of his whip that the Lioness with toothache and the blind Tigress continued to jump through hoops and play dead and the skinny Elephants still made Pachyderm Pyramids for fear of angering him, for Aag was a man who was quick to anger and slow to laugh. And even when he put his cigar-smoking head into the Lioness's yawning mouth, she was too scared to bite it off just in case it decided to kill her from inside her belly.

Rashid was walking Luka home from school, wearing, as usual, one of his brightly colored bush shirts (this one was vermilion) and his beloved, battered Panama hat, and listening to the story of Luka's day. Luka had forgotten the name of the tip of South America and had labeled it "Hawaii" in a geography test. However, he had remembered the name of his country's first president and spelled it correctly in a history test. He had been smacked on the side of the head by Ratshit's hockey stick during games. On the other hand, he had scored two goals in the match and defeated his enemy's team. He had also finally got the hang of snapping his fingers properly, so that they made a satisfying cracking noise. So there were pluses and minuses. Not a bad day overall; but it was about to become a very important day indeed, because this was the day they saw the circus parade going by on its way to raise its Big Top near the banks of the mighty Silsila. The Silsila was the wide, lazy, ugly river with mud-colored water that flowed through the city not far from their home. The sight of the droopy cockatoos in their cages and the sad dromedaries humphing along the street touched Luka's generous young heart. But saddest of all, he thought, was the cage in which a mournful dog and a doleful bear stared wretchedly all about. Bringing up the rear of the cavalcade was Captain Aag with his pirate's hard black eyes and his barbarian's untamed beard. All of a sudden Luka became angry (and he was a boy who was slow to anger and quick to laugh). When Grandmaster Flame was right in front of him Luka shouted out at the top of his voice, "May your animals stop obeying your commands and your rings of fire eat up your stupid tent."

Now it so happened that the moment when Luka shouted out in anger was one of those rare instants when by some inexplicable accident all the noises of the universe fall silent at the same time, the cars stop honking, the scooters stop phut-phuttering, the birds stop squawking in the trees, and everyone stops talking at once, and in that magical hush Luka's voice rang out as clearly as a gunshot, and his words expanded until they filled the sky, and perhaps even found their way to the invisible home of the Fates, who, according to some people, rule the world. Captain Aag winced as if somebody had slapped him on the face, and then he stared straight into Luka's eyes, giving him a look of such blazing hatred that the young boy was almost knocked off his feet. Then the world started making its usual racket again, and the circus parade moved on, and Luka and Rashid went home for dinner. But Luka's words were still out there in the air, doing their secret business.

That night it was reported on the TV news that, in an astonishing development, the animals of the GROF circus had unanimously refused to perform. In a crowded tent, and to the amazement of costumed clowns and plainclothes customers alike, they rebelled against their master in an unprecedented act of defiance. Grandmaster Flame stood in the center ring of the three Great Rings of Fire, bellowing orders and cracking his whip, but when he saw all the animals beginning to walk calmly and slowly to_ward him, in step, as if they were an army, closing in on him from all directions until they formed an animal circle of rage, his nerve cracked and he fell to his knees, weeping and whimpering and begging for his life. The audience began to boo and throw fruit and cushions, and then har_der objects, stones, for example, and walnuts, and telephone directories. Aag turned and fled. The animals parted ranks and let him through, and he ran away crying like a baby.

That was the first amazing thing. The second took place later that night. A noise started up around midnight, a noise like the rustling and crackling of a billion autumn leaves, or maybe even a billion billion, a noise that spread all the way from the Big Top by the banks of the Silsila to Luka's bedroom, and woke him up. When he looked out his bedroom window he saw that the great tent was on fire, burning brightly in the field by the river's edge. The Great Rings of Fire were ablaze; and it was not an illusion.

Luka's curse had worked.

The third amazing thing happened the next morning. A dog with a tag on its collar reading "Bear" and a bear with a tag on its collar reading "Dog" showed up at Luka's door-afterward Luka would wonder exactly how they had found their way there-and Dog, the bear, began to twirl and jig enthusiastically while Bear, the dog, yowled out a foot-tapping melody. Luka and his father, Rashid Khalifa, and his mother, Soraya, and his older brother, Haroun, gathered at the door of their house to watch, while from her verandah their neighbor Miss Oneeta shouted, "Have a care! When animals begin to sing and dance, then plainly some witchy business is afoot!" But Soraya Khalifa laughed. "The animals are celebrating their freedom," she said. Then Rashid adopted a grave expression, and told his wife about Luka's curse. "It seems to me," he opined, "that if any witchy business has been done it is our young Luka who has done it, and these good creatures have come to thank him."

The other circus animals had escaped into the Wild and were never seen again, but the dog and the bear had plainly come to stay. They had even brought their own snacks. The bear was carrying a bucket of fish, and the dog wore a little coat with a pocket full of bones. "Why not, after all?" cried Rashid Khalifa gaily. "My storytelling performances could do with a little help. Nothing like a dog-and-bear song-and-dance act to get an audience's attention." So it was settled, and later that day it was Luka's brother, Haroun, who had the last word. "I knew it would happen soon," he said. "You've reached the age at which people in this family cross the border into the magical world. It's your turn for an adventure-yes, it's finally here!-and it certainly looks like you've started something now. But be careful. Cursing is a dangerous power. I was never able to do anything so, well, dark."

"An adventure of my very own," Luka thought in wonderment, and his big brother smiled, because he knew perfectly well about Luka's Secret Jealousy, which was actually Not So Secret At All. When Haroun had been Luka's age he had traveled to the Earth's second moon, befriended fishes who spoke in rhyme and a gardener made of lotus roots, and helped to overthrow the evil Cultmaster Khattam-Shud, who was trying to destroy the Sea of Stories itself. By contrast, Luka's biggest adventures to date had taken place during the Great Playground Wars at school, in which he had led his gang, the Intergalactic Penguins Team, to a famous victory over the Imperial Highness Army led by his hated rival Adi Ratshit, a.k.a. Red Bottom, winning the day with a daring aerial attack involving paper planes loaded with itching powder. It had been extremely satisfying to watch Ratshit jump into the playground pond to calm down the itch that had spread all over his body; but Luka knew that, compared to Haroun's achievements, his really didn't amount to very much at all. Haroun, for his part, knew about Luka's desire for a real adventure, preferably one involving improbable creatures, travel to other planets (or at least satellites), and P2C2Es, or Processes Too Complicated to Explain. But until now he had always tried to damp down Luka's lusts. "Be careful what you wish for," he told Luka, who replied, "To be honest with you, that is easily the most annoying thing you have ever said."

In general, however, the two brothers, Haroun, and Luka, rarely quarreled and, in fact, got on unusually well. An eighteen-year age gap had turned out to be a good place to dump most of the problems that can sometimes crop up between brothers, all those little irritations that make the older brother accidentally knock the kid's head against a stone wall or put a pillow over his sleeping face by mistake; or persuade the younger brother that it's a good idea to fill the big fellow's shoes with sweet, sticky mango pickle, or to call the big guy's new girlfriend by a different girlfriend's name and then pretend it was just a really unfortunate slip of the tongue. So none of that happened. Instead Haroun taught his younger brother many useful things, kickboxing, for example, and the rules of cricket, and what music was cool and what was not; and Luka uncomplicatedly adored his older brother, and thought he looked like a big bear-a bit like Dog, the bear, in fact-or, perhaps, like a comfortable stubbly mountain with a wide grin near the top.

Luka had first amazed people just by getting born, because his brother, Haroun, was already eighteen years old when his mother, Soraya, at the age of forty-one gave birth to a second fine young boy. Her husband, Rashid, was lost for words, and so, as usual, found far too many of them. In Soraya's hospital ward he picked up his newborn son, cradled him gently in his arms, and peppered him with unreasonable questions. "Who'd have thought it? Where did you come from, buster? How did you get here? What do you have to say for yourself? What's your name? What will you grow up to be? What is it you want?" He had a question for Soraya, too. "At our age," he marveled, shaking his balding head. "What's the meaning of a wonder like this?" Rashid was fifty years old when Luka arrived, but at that moment he sounded like any young, greenhorn father flummoxed by the arrival of responsibility, and even a little scared.

Soraya took the baby back and calmed its father down. "His name is Luka," she said, "and the meaning of the wonder is that we appear to have brought into the world a fellow who can turn back Time itself, make it flow the wrong way, and make us young again."

Soraya knew what she was talking about. As Luka grew older, his parents seemed to get younger. When baby Luka sat up straight for the first time, for example, his parents became incapable of sitting still. When he began to crawl, they hopped up and down like excited rabbits. When he walked, they jumped for joy. And when he spoke for the first time-well!-you'd have thought the whole of the legendary Torrent of Words had started gushing out of Rashid's mouth, and he was never going to stop spouting on about his son's great achievement.

The Torrent of Words, by the way, thunders down from the Sea of Stories into the Lake of Wisdom, whose waters are illumined by the Dawn of Days, and out of which flows the River of Time. The Lake of Wisdom, as is well known, stands in the shadow of the Mountain of Knowledge, at whose summit burns the Fire of Life. This important information regarding the layout-and, in fact, the very existence-of the Magical World was kept hidden for thousands of years, guarded by mysterious, cloaked spoilsports who called themselves the Aalim, or Learned Ones. However, the secret was out now. It had been made available to the general public by Rashid Khalifa in many celebrated tales. So everyone in Kahani was fully aware that there was a World of Magic existing in parallel with our own non-Magic one, and from that Reality came White Magic, Black Magic, dreams, nightmares, stories, lies, dragons, fairies, blue-bearded genies, mechanical mind-reading birds, buried treasure, music, fiction, hope, fear, the gift of eternal life, the angel of death, the angel of love, interruptions, jokes, good ideas, rotten ideas, happy endings, in fact almost everything of any interest at all.

Excerpted from Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie Copyright (c) 2010 by Salman Rushdie. Excerpted by permission of Random House Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

New Wing, New Heights For The MFA

By Jared Bowen   |   Friday, November 19, 2010
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It's a first for the Museum of Fine Arts; and maybe a first for the world. In November 2010, the MFA unveiled its $504 million Art of the Americas wing, one of the most comprehensive and expansive collections of American art to be exhibited at a single museum. WGBH covered the historic moment in full detail -- including the buzz of the wing's opening, a sneak preview of the collection and an exclusive tour of MFA Director Malcom Rogers' favorite works in the new wing.

Q&A: The MFA's Brand New Expansion

The Museum of Fine Arts, already one of the largest museums in the country,is unveiling its new Art of the America’s wing – a sizeable expansion which is actually bigger than the Guggenheim in New York City. Greater Boston’s Jared Bowen joined Morning Edition’s Bob Seay to talk about the new expansion. 

Boston Gets First Glimpse Of New MFA

Sen. Scott Brown, Rep. Michael Capuano and Mayor Menino were among those in attendance as the MFA's new Art of the Americas was dedicated and opened to its first public viewings. Elliot Bostwick Davis, the chair of the MFA’s Art of the America’s department, said the wing brings an unparalleled collection of American art to Boston.

Expansion Brings MFA To New Heights

The Museum of Fine Arts’ new addition is no mere addition. The freshly opened Art of the Americas Wing at the MFA may well be considered a whole new museum in Boston -- a grand one. Jared Bowen gives us an overview of its four floors.

In New MFA Wing, Period Rooms Unlock History

Amid the new wing’s 53 galleries, the MFA has created nine period rooms providing visitors a glimpse into the homes of prominent New England families from the late 1600s to the mid-1800s. Jared Bowen takes a tour.

MFA Director Plays Favorites With Art Of Americas

Amid all that dazzles and beckons in 5,000 pieces now on display in the new wing,  MFA Director Malcom Rogers reveals there are a few pieces that really make him marvel.

MFA Director Picks Favorites In New Wing

By Jared Bowen   |   Friday, November 19, 2010
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Our preview of the Museum of Fine Arts’ brand new Art of the Americas wing continues with an insider’s take. MFA Director Malcolm Rogers takes Jared Bowen on a tour of his five favorite spaces.

BOSTON -- Malcolm Rogers has been director of the Museum of Fine Arts for 16 years now. He’s weathered well the hits he took early on for being the brash newcomer daring to populate the museum with the likes of Herb Ritts or the cars of Ralph Lauren.

Because that same unconventional vision galvanized a city of supporters to help erect the new, 504-million dollar Art of the Americas wing -- a decade-long endeavor.

To Rogers, it didn’t feel that long. “We’ve been so busy in those years that its gone like lightning,” he said. “And of course to see a dream realized is absolutely extraordinary.”

Shaman effigy pendant Tairona, A.D. 900–1600. Gift to the MFA by London C. Clay. (courtesy MFA)
Shaman effigy pendant Tairona, A.D. 900–1600. Gift to the MFA by London C. Clay. (courtesy MFA)

The charge Rogers gave his staff was as comprehensive as it was ambitious. When they say Art of the Americas, they mean North, Central and South America – an incredibly broad collection of work.

“Our intentions are really to show all those complicated cultural ethnic which make up the continent and make America what it is today, ” Rogers said.

But amid all that dazzles and beckons in 5,000 pieces now on display, Rogers reveals there are a few pieces that really make him marvel.

We start in the gallery at the bottom of the wing, which is devoted to native North American art. Rogers explains the MFA was one of the first American museums to start collected this material.

Rogers’ first pick is an Apache war bonnet. “Something like this was supposed to intimidate your enemies,” Rorgers said. “It’s curious because now we wear camouflage. It seems people wanted to make themselves noticeable on the battlefield before.”

Next, we head to the pre-Colombian gallery. “We have a fantastic collection. And many of the pieces are tiny. Some are massive. But they all have incredible workmanship and an incredible imagination,” Malcom said.

he Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, 1882 John Singer Sargent. (courtesy MFA)
The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, 1882 John Singer Sargent. (courtesy MFA)

His favorite? “I remember a Bostonian lady saying she’d given us a wonderful pre-Columbian gold pin and she looked at it and said, that used to make a beautiful pin to wear at the symphony,” Rogers said. “And, you know, it was cheap…not cheap, but you know what I mean, decorative jewelry of a certain sort. That’s really Boston. Now it’s in the museum.”

Next where off to the second floor, to the museum’s formidable collection of John Singer Sargent paintings. It’s a unique space – few museums, Rogers said, have a Sargent collection rivaling the MFA’s. He takes me to the iconic painting of four young girls in a parlor. It’s called The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit.

“Well here we are in a gallery full of wonderful Sargeants. But this is the Sargeant,” Rogers said – indeed, the painting is something of an icon for the museum. “One of the most wonderful portraits of childhood there’s ever been. Beautiful children, but also fascinating and mysterious what with their personalities.”

Rogers explained what he knows about their history. “We know they never married, for instance. We knew they were rather pale and ineffective when they were young. But several of them led interesting lives,” Rogers said.

“The thing is, that Sargent makes you ask these questions and he doesn’t give you an answer. So you’ll look at this painting again and again and again and try to solve the mystery but never quite succeed, but you have to come see it again,” Rogers continued.

The Salon Room at the MFA. (courtesy MFA)

Now, we move to the salon gallery. This time, Malcom’s not trying to highlight a single object, but rather a gallery as object.

“It shows American painting from the second half of the nineteenth century exhibited in a way it might have been exhibited in a 19th century exhibition,” Rogers said. “From floor to ceiling, different shapes and sizes of pictures jammed together and obviously combined with beautiful sculpture.”

The gallery highlights how the very hanging of art is something of an art form. “My colleague who hung this gallery…you’re putting together a giant jigsaw puzzle where the pieces fit. But they aren’t shaped to fit if you see what I mean,” Rogers said.

The gallery shows scenes from all over the world, showing how American painters traveled the globe to find them. “The majority of them were painted Europe, in France, in Italy and so on. Some in America, though,” Rogers said. “Actually, some of the most spectacular paintings in this gallery are American.” Rogers is quite partial to the views of Niagra Falls.

The gallery seems a lot more benign than the war bonnet. But Rogers wants to show just how diverse the wing is. “That’s again, the idea that the whole wing should be a place of contrast.”

Carousel Figure of a Greyhound Charles I. D. Looff (courtesy MFA)
Carousel Figure of a Greyhound Charles I. D. Looff (Courtesy MFA)

Our last stop is the folk art gallery.

“I love Man’s Best Friend, this greyhound from a carousel. Just the kind of object you fall in love with. Such a strong silhouette. You want to pat it,” Malcom said, “We shouldn’t pat it we’re in a museum!”

Rogers laughs when I ask him if he had a “heavy hand” in the process of curating the Wing. “I have a light touch is the phrase, Jared,” Rogers said, with a twinkle in his eye. “I’ve been working on this project for 10 years. At the end I wanted a little bit of fun. So I’ve certainly been tweaking some of the displays.”

He likes the folk art room because of the unconventional pieces it holds, like quilts and weathervanes. “This is something that was a real surprise to me. A real delight,” Rogers said, noting that weathervanes are common in his home country of Britain, but rare in the U.S. “And I think in this group of weathervanes here we’ve created something that again every visitor, but particularly kids will remember.”

So how should visitors go around finding new favorites of their own?

“Well, they should make the first visit. But this is a huge project. 53 galleries. You cannot see it all in one visit, Rogers said, “It needs several visits just to begin to understand it.”

And Rogers thinks people will want to keep coming back. “I believe there’s such a profusion of material here, so many treasures that you won’t be exhausted.”

In New MFA Wing, Period Rooms Unlock History

By Jared Bowen   |   Thursday, November 18, 2010
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Nov. 18, 2010

BOSTON — The Museum of Fine Arts new Art of the America officially opens to the public with a free open house on Saturday. But WGBH's sneak preview continues as Jared Bowen tours the new period rooms that make a visit to the MFA even more engaging.

An opulent Peabody parlor, a seaside Maine mansion and the well-appointed home of a Portsmouth politician.  There are moments now in the Museum of Fine Arts new wing when you can step into history, explains Elliot Bostwick Davis, who heads up the MFA’s Art of the Americas wing.

“People do love that sense of intimacy.  Of going behind the closed doors of someone’s bedroom,” Bostwick Davis said. “I mean, how many people don’t love going on an on line tour of some real estate site, to see what different houses are like?”

Amid the new wing’s 53 galleries, the MFA has created nine period rooms providing visitors a glimpse into the homes of prominent New England families from the late 1600s to the mid-1800s.

Assistant Curator Dennis Carr says the rooms are meant to bring history to life. “It offers a sense of scale, a sense of texture and life brought back to these objects. And you see them brought together again,” Carr said.

In some cases, that’s happening for the first time. There are two rooms from a Dorchester home built in 1840 by a wealthy pewter and silver plate manufacturer. Acquired by the museum in the 1970s, they remained in storage until their reassembly here.

That process, said Carr, required painstaking research, which actually referenced some of the museums other artworks. “We did have period photographs from the late 19th century. We had objects that descended through the family, and other sources for example like mid-19th century paintings that showed how most people lived in that century,” Carr said. “And we used all that evidence together as our guide for refurnishing these rooms.”

The apex of interior design 210 years ago is captured here in three rooms from Oak Hill, a country estate in Peabody. In the bedroom, parlor and dining room, the museum has meticulously reassembled the home, mostly with its original pieces.

Bostwick Davis said the rooms were meant to be seen in once piece. “The carvings on the furniture are empathetic to the over mantels as well as the over cornices and over the doors and those over the windows, so everything works together.”

Displaying the rooms together, Bostwick Davis said, makes for a singular exhibition.  “They comprised probably the greatest group of period rooms from that era in any American museum.”

The earliest period room is the Brown-Pearl House built, around 1704 in West Boxford, Massachusetts. It is in this hall where the home’s inhabitants cooked, ate and slept.

Moving forward a century, a wealthy merchant’s home from Bath Maine features the parlor. Looking at its opulent details, Carr said, like scenic wallpapers showing Paris and Rome, tells you about the fashions of the day. “French scenic wallpaper was all the rage in the 19th century,” Carr explained. “This was a prosperous merchant family, and you can imagine them sitting in their little wooden house in small town Bath Maine and then looking out on the world.”

Adjacent to that room is the 1730 home of a prominent Portsmouth, New Hampshire merchant and politician. The front parlor would have been the family’s main entertaining space – but also a place to conduct business. “And this room is really interesting to us because we’ve got a lot of interesting material. Th e walls are original, the floors are original, the tiles around the fireplace are original,” Carr said.

When the rooms’ original material was not available, it was often the original manufacturers who reproduced wall coverings, rugs and more. Boston glassblowers recreated the chandelier’s globes in the Dorchester house—making these the most authentic homes away from home.

Expansion Brings MFA To New Heights

By Jared Bowen   |   Wednesday, November 17, 2010
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Nov. 17, 2010

BOSTON -- The Museum of Fine Arts’ new addition is no mere addition. The freshly opened Art of the Americas Wing at the MFA may well be considered a whole new museum in Boston -- a grand one.

“Just this wing alone is bigger than the Guggenheim,” said MFA Director Malcom Rogers, “I believe it is. I haven’t taken my tape measure out but, well, 53 galleries. I keep saying it.”

It seems so long ago now -- a decade, in fact -- that the MFA announced plans to create a new home for its American art collection. But one enthusiastic groundbreaking and more than $504 million later, the massive wing anchors the museum on Huntington Avenue. Between a new glass courtyard and four levels of galleries, it adds 28 percent more space to the MFA and allows for twice as many objects to be on view -- some 5,000 pieces in all.

Rogers says it’s more than he imagined at the outset of the project. “I have to say the whole team working on this—we found more treasures in our storerooms than we realized. And I never expected both the brilliance of the design from the architect, but also the design team. The way things are displayed is just spectacular.”

The George Putnam Gallery of ship models and maritime arts is on the ground floor of the new wing. (Courtesy MFA)  

New Heights For The MFA

“It’s like being in a dream,” says Elliot Bostwick Davis, who chairs the MFA’s Art of the Americas department. She has overseen the installation, which unfolds chronologically from bottom to top.

“It definitely is an evolution. The earliest collections for us are the art of the ancient Americas for us about 900 BC,” Bostwick Davis explained. “And then we extend as far forward as about the third quarter of the 20th century, and in some cases a bit later.”

Following that path would take you from pre-Columbian gold to artifacts of Native Americans. One level up, there’s a shimmering look at Paul Revere’s famed portrait by John Singleton Copley, and his own works in silver. Here too you’ll find one of the most impressive galleries in all the museum. Next to Gilbert Stuart’s famed portraits of George and Martha Washington—on which the one-dollar bill portrait of the former was modeled – is the imposing Passage of the Delaware.

Bostwick Davis explained that the whole wing was thought through with the MFA’s collection in mind – but for no work is that truer than this one. “The ceiling actually had to be cut out in cove to make sure that the original frame by John Doggett would fit in,” Bostwick Davis said. “So that it could be installed. And it’s installed I think beautifully in terms of really filling the space.”

Another level up, you’re delivered into galleries of breathtaking design with masterpieces from a burgeoning nation courtesy artists like Winslow Homer. Then atop it all, you’ll find modern art with classics by Edward Hopper, Jackson Pollack, Grant Wood and Art Deco design.

So how does one even begin to take this all in? Bostwick Davis says it’s easy. “Follow your path and your heart and see what captures your imagination. We hope that with over 5,000 objects there’ll be something here that will capture everybody’s imagination.”

Structure As Art, Too

The structure itself was imagined by the firm Foster and Partners of London. A signature space in the museum is a new glass-covered courtyard saturated in natural light.

 “This new courtyard is very much a space where people will be able to sit, to think, to ponder, to talk, to have a cup of coffee, to have a croissant, whatever,” said Spencer de Grey, the head of Foster and Partners. “And it’s a sort of release, it’s a breathing space independent of all the wonderful galleries both old and new in the museum.”

The wing as a whole is designed for moments of respite with glass-lined halls that reveal the landscape around the MFA, which de Grey explained are meant to serve as a visual sorbet between art-infused strolls.

 “It’s also important to be able to literally rest your eyes when you’re looking at things very close up, to have opportunities where you get big distant views, whether it’s to the court or whether it’s to the outside,” de Grey explained.

That’s because inside is sumptuous. Rather than staid gray or bright white, the new gallery walls are rich with color.

The Ancient Mezoamerican Gallery. (Courtesy MFA)  

Framing The Work, Framing The Wing

Keith Crippen, the MFA’s head designer, said they tried to stylize the galleries to fit the artwork. “Like a painting has a frame and all the objects should have this framework, the colors of the galleries as well and the other stylized trappings that we’re using,” Crippen said.

The display cases are unlike anything you’ve seen before—because they were designed specifically for the wing in Milan. They feature non-reflective glass and hidden hinges and climate control.

 “The casework would be the most innovative material that we’re using in these galleries,” Crippen said.

Literally pulled from either the basement or their cramped quarters in the former East wing. Many of the works now on display have been painstakingly restored including 4,000 hours spent on the Delaware alone. In a word, the state of the art here is glorious.

Tune in to Greater Boston Wednesday at 7 p.m. for part two of our three-part MFA preview.

Boston Gets First Glimpse Of New MFA

By Jess Bidgood   |   Friday, November 12, 2010
0 Comments   0 comments.

Nov. 12, 2010
Kristin and Roger Servison Gallery / Arts of the New Nation: 1800-1830 (Courtesy MFA)

BOSTON — On Friday morning, the MFA’s Ruth and Carl J. Shapiro Family Courtyard was brimming with light and people. It was a first for the soaring indoor atrium, which serves at the gateway to the MFA’s new Art of the America’s wing – which opened it doors for the first time that day.

Sen. Scott Brown, Rep. Michael Capuano and Mayor Menino were among those in attendance as $500 million wing was dedicated and opened to its first public viewings.

Elliot Bostwick Davis, the chair of the MFA’s Art of the America’s department, said the wing brings an unparalleled collection of American art to Boston.

“This whole new wing for the Art of the Americas places us at the forefront,” Bostwick Davis said. “There is no other institution of our scale, any other of our peers, attempting something so ambitious.”

Four stories tall, the new wing, which was funded by donations from over 25,000 individual donors, contains 53 galleries with 5,000 works on art on view. The bottom floor holds the wing’s earliest art, which varies from Mesoamerican art to early American ship models. As you move up, “you move along time, along the history of art,” Bostwick Davis explained.

The wing seems to be at once inside the museum and sitting free of it. Architect Michael Jones explained the wing’s many glass walls and huge windows are meant to connect the MFA to the city around it. “We’re sitting in a building that is in landscape,” Jones said, explaining he wanted to pull the scenery of the fens into the building – and allow people to see the historic section of the MFA from its new sister.

In some cases, the new wing was literally built around the work it holds. The 17-by-14 ft. Passage of the Delaware, painted in 1819 by Thomas Sully, was literally too big to hang in its original frame in any other part of the museum. Now, it’s the centerpiece of the first floor gallery.

“The whole thing was restored specifically for installation in this location,” said Rhona MacBeth, the head of Paintings Conservation for the MFA.

After spending a year restoring the work in the lobby of the MFA, they brought the work into the new wing before it was complete. “We had to get it in here before they put the casework in because there wouldn’t be room!” MacBeth said.

She remembers how her team unrolled the painting on the floor, and brought its frame in, piece by piece. “We’d actually never seen the painting and the frame come together until the moment in here, so that was quite dramatic,” MacBeth said.

The MFA’s Art of the America’s wing will be open to the general public for the first time on Nov. 20.

About the Authors
Jess Bidgood Jess Bidgood
Jess Bidgood is's news editor and producer.
Jared Bowen Jared Bowen
Jared Bowen is WGBH’s Emmy Award-winning Executive Editor and Host for Arts. 


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