At a museum: from gloom to beauty

I wandered over to Boston's Museum of Fine Arts at lunchtime this week, not exactly sure why I went.

As a response to the terrorist attacks in the United States last week, the museum is free to visitors this month. I found myself in front of George Morland's painting "The Wreckers" (1791), which depicts a shipwreck on a stormy coast. A man on land reaches his hand toward a figure in the water to haul him out, a kindly act of the type seen so much right now.

Nearby was J.M.W. Turner's "Slave Ship" (1840), which depicts a barbarous act as a slave ship captain dumps some of his weak and sickly "cargo" of human beings into a churning sea to drown.

Two powerful works of art. Two views of man - at his best and at his worst.

Sometimes out of gloom, a higher view of mankind emerges in art. In "Hamlet," the prince has "lost all my mirth." Yet immediately after that he utters, "What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world!"

Art can revolt, disturb, even horrify us. But what we mostly see preserved in museums is beauty: the beauty of the human form and the beautiful creations of man's thoughts and hands.

In the museum's Islamic Art exhibit, I admired textiles and other objects intricately patterned with geometric and plant designs. I "knew" Islam didn't allow the human figure to be depicted. But wait! Here are bowls from Iran showing court figures - people!

Apparently, I have much more to learn about both art and man.

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