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Italian Baroque exhibit opens a bold new year at the Museum of Fine Arts

Bill DeYoung



Guillaume Courtois, called “Il Borgognone", Agar and Ismael, c. 1670, Oil on canvas, Courtesy of Collection Fagiolo, Palazzo Chigi, Ariccia.

The Museum of Fine Arts St. Petersburg is premiering Bernini and the Roman Baroque Saturday. It’s the first new exhibition of 2022, arguably the most significant show at the MFA since it re-opened 17 months ago.

According to museum director Kristen Shepherd, this exhibition – celebrating the work of Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) and other artists of the Roman Baroque period (c. 1600-1700) – is just the opening salvo of what will be a big year at the museum.

“The Baroque period is known for so much movement, sensuality and drama,” she explains. “So you get these dramatic lighting effects. It’s really rich in detail, it’s really bold. And the works that we’re showing are extremely rare.

“It’s one of the first times that these works have been seen in the United States. They’re coming to us from the Palazzo Chigi, in Ariccia in Italy, which is right outside Rome. When you’re in Rome, you’re surrounded by Bernini, between the fountains and the artwork and the sculpture.”

Carlo Maratti, called “Il Maratta” and Mario Nuzzi, called “Mario de’ Fiori”, The Summer, 1658-59, Oil on canvas, Palazzo Chigi, Ariccia.

On Sunday (Feb. 13) a chamber ensemble from The Florida Orchestra will perform From Bach to Baroque in the MFA’s Marly Music Room, to inspire, elucidate and otherwise whet appetites for the Baroque exhibit.

Are things getting back to normal? Well, Shepherd laughs, that depends on one’s definition of the word. “I do think we’re going to see a return to more in-person events,” she says. “There may be precautions taken, of course, but we’re ready and excited to be back in person.

“We just want to make sure we’re doing so in a sensible and safe way, for our patrons and for our staff.”

Bernini and the Roman Baroque will be on view through May 8. “So we’re starting the year in Rome … and ending the year in Paris, with Rodin and Impressionism.”

On loan from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, True Nature: Rodin and the Age of Impressionism (opening Nov. 12) presents a who’s-who of Impressionist masters, including Rodin, Monet, Degas and Cezanne.

In between those visits to Italy and France, the Museum of Fine Arts has a few more creative cards to play.

Defining Lines: The Prints and Drawings of Maxime LaLanne (Feb. 26-July 17), from the MFA collection, brings to the forefront the 19th century French artist who raised the art of printmaking to a new level of artistic excellence. It includes original works and prints.

Explore the Vaults: Cabinet Pictures and Works on Paper (opening March 12) is an exhibit of small paintings and other diminutive works from the museum collection.

Overseen by the museum’s new photography curator Jane Aspinwall, Women’s Work: A Survey of Female Photographers (April 16-Sept. 11) features work from the MFA’s extensive photography collection (the largest in the southeastern United States), spotlighting (among others) Julia Margaret Cameron, Gertrude Kasebier, Margaret Bourke-White, Diane Arbus and Sally Mann.

Bahamas-born interdisciplinary artist Gio Swaby’s Fresh Up goes on exhibition May 28 through Oct. 9. “Gio Swaby is an emerging artist,” enthuses Shepherd, “and she is incredible. She is a young Black woman who is doing these life-sized, or over life-sized embroidered portraits. And they’re stunning. We are going to be her museum debut.”

The Art Institute of Chicago expressed an interest in co-curating the exhibit – there’s that much buzz about Swaby – so Fresh Up wears a “co-organizer” tag (it’ll open in Chicago in 2023.).

Gio Swaby, Pretty Pretty 8 (detail), 2021, Thread and cotton fabric on Muslin.

Shepherd points out Pretty Pretty 8, a piece from the Swaby show that’s more than seven feet tall (the MFA has purchased this particular work for its collection).

“That’s muslin; it’s like raw canvas,” she says. “It’s embroidered, and what you see is actually the back side of the embroidery. So you see the hanging threads. You see the knots.

“She says these works are love letters to Black women. And that the imperfections that are part of embroidering are just like with us. We as people, we often show our more perfect side, and not the side that has the loose threads and the knots. But those things are what make us beautiful and unique, and who we are. It’s a really positive, wonderful message.”

Then there’s the grand re-opening of the museum café in March, “a new concept.”

And, of course, Rodin and his pals, come next winter.

“It’s going to be a great year here,” Shepherd insists. “We’re pretty excited.”

Museum of Fine Arts St. Petersburg website.









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