May 21, 2024

When a city finds itself wet with wealth the way Houston is dripping in it, there’s often an eagerness to be ostentatious about its display – as if somehow all that money can mask a lack of taste or instill some fragile sense of self-worth where none exists. Yet contrary to any preconceived notions, The Bayou City – despite the highest concentration of Fortune 500 HQs outside of New York and all that Texas tea – is downright demure. (Amongst Houstonians I learned that in the Texas hierarchy it is, in fact, Dallas that is looked down upon as the vulgar upstart) To my surprise, Houston has more in common with New York City than I could have anticipated:  a dazzling city skyline, civic pride bolstered by a confident sense of its own superiority, and most notably a cultural cup that overfloweth with expensive good taste – and even more, great art. Much like our own Museum Mile, Houston boasts an area where the chief museums reside. The creatively named Museum District is home to Rice University Art Gallery, the Holocaust Museum, Houston Center for Photography, and Houston Museum of Natural Science among a handful of others. First among equals is The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, which consists of more than 60,000 works of art from the Stone Age to the present day spread over two main-campus buildings. If 60,000 sounds like a lot, consider this: there are 380,000 items in the Louvre Collection and more than two million at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. What MFAH lacks in quantity, however, it more than makes up for in quality. Like a high-end Tokyo fruit shop, nearly every piece on display is an example of aesthetic perfection. The small room of Greek and Roman antiquities holds maybe two dozen items, yet I found myself in there for over an hour admiring the figure of Gorgons intricately carved into handles of a perfectly preserved krater, a jug used for mixing water and wine in Ancient Greece. Who needs an exhaustive show of ten thousand pottery shards when you can have one idealized object? The Egyptian collection is displayed in an area at the top of an escalator to the second floor. There are maybe seven objects in total but each is a wonder: the intricately decorated sarcophagus of Pedi-Osiris, an astonishingly unblemished wood and bronze funerary Ibis, a delicate headpiece of myrtle, hammered out of gold. This ethos continues throughout the museum, most notably when it comes to American and European paintings; Church, Eakins, Cassatt, Singer Sargent, O’Keefe, Seurat, William Merritt Chase, Remington, Picasso, Pissarro, Courbet, Turner, Motherwell all are represented by style-defining, textbook images. A real discovery are the canvases of Remington, better known for his agile bronzes. He paints a harsh and unforgiving portrait of the American frontier, in studied contrast to the inherent romance of his sculpture. Wealth turns out to be a great public benefit: MFAH is the most civilized of civic institutions. Instructive yet efficient, it will sate you – not exhaust you. That’s the kind of leisure only lots and lots of money can buy.

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