The Nature of Art

October 28, 2023 through April 14, 2024

Image: Henry Koehler, Lake George, Florida (detail), 1881, Oil on canvas, Gift of Spanierman Gallery

As an encyclopedic museum, the MFA aims to examine the whole of human art production, and one of the most exciting possibilities of a collection that spans 5,000 years is the ability to explore big ideas across space, time, and geography. This allows us to see the commonalities of the human journey and contemplate how specific conditions produce unique works of art with a strong sense of place. The Nature of Art looks at the disparate ways humans have engaged in artistic expression to understand our environment, mediate our relationship with nature, and attain a more profound comprehension of our role within the world.

This exhibition is a celebration of the highest aspirations of humankind—our intellectual and creative activities that reflect and shape the world in which we live. Our mission is to preserve art objects in perpetuity. The pleasure and honor we have in doing so is our collective ability to “interpret” these objects and to use them as prompts to engage, educate, and excite our community.

The Nature of Art brings together, for the first time, our special exhibition galleries in the Hough Wing with the MFA Collection galleries in the Volk Wing. The connected ideas generated from The Nature of Art traverse throughout the MFA campus, sparking conversations with works in the collection and allowing visitors to experience them through a new lens.

The exhibition features themed sections, each anchored with select artworks from the MFA Collection and complemented by contemporary works from some of today’s most influential artists, all viewed through the distinctive lens of The Nature of Art. Contemporary artists participate in various sections of the exhibition, fostering dynamic conversations with artists of the past in the MFA Collection. This interaction brings to life 5,000 years of human artistic expression through the lens of modern practitioners. Contemporary artists featured in the exhibition include Daniel Lind-Ramos, Janaina Tschäpe, Postcommodity, Alexis Rockman, Sarah Meyohas, James Casebere, Duke Riley, Christian Sampson, Brookhart Jonquil, and Jason Middlebrook. 

The artist’s role continues to evolve across space and time, as seen in the expansive encyclopedic collection of the MFA, which reveals the artist as a craftsperson, an intellectual, an interpreter, and an observer, among other roles. Through The Artist as Sentinel, we see the role of the artist as a herald of climate realities and as a steward of the environment, watching over and caring for the land, air, and water. At this moment in time, with environmental challenges threatening life and livelihood worldwide, this role of steward is more crucial than ever. The Artist as Sentinel serves as a platform for contemporary artists who illuminate our troubled environment, offering not only inspiration and solace but also cautionary tales. 

Art museums have long held importance in the lives of contemporary artists, from Picasso and Braque’s inspiring visit to the Cézanne retrospective that gave rise to Cubism, to the long-held practice of artists sketching in the galleries, “learning from the masters.” This symbiotic and inspiring relationship between artist and institution is at its peak when curators cede some territory to artists and allow them to choose works in the collection that hold a special place in their practice. This is the most direct form of dialogue between artists of different periods and is especially illuminating for the visitor. 

Throughout history, human consumption of natural resources has often far exceeded available supplies. This exhibition features objects made from a number of materials derived from plants and animals that are today threatened with extinction: elephant ivory, coral, ebony, and tortoise shell. For centuries, these precious materials—valued for their beauty or for their perceived healing or spiritual qualities—have been exploited to create remarkable works of art. I Love You to Death gives us a chance to contemplate these objects not only aesthetically but also how they reflect humankind’s obsession with luxury goods at the expense of the environment.

From the primordial mineral-rich seas from which life emerged to the massive air-conditioning systems that allow the world’s digital data to be cooled and thus preserved, we are from and dependent upon water. Throughout history, artists have made works associated with this essential substance, including depictions of gods and spirits, vessels containing the substance, and countless images of the ocean, rainstorms, lakes, seas, ponds, rivers, pools, and springs. This exhibition examines the vital human relationship with water and how artists from diverse cultures have explored this crucial, life-giving, and yet threatening resource. Sine Acqua, Nihil / Without Water, Nothing features works that reflect the wide-ranging role of water as a source of respite, a mysterious quasi-spiritual entity, a dangerous force, a homely necessity, a mode of transportation, or a finite, surprisingly delicate resource.

Duke Riley’s painted plastic trash emulating scrimshaw critically examines the pollution of waterways, its effect on sea life, and destruction of the ocean due to consumption and capitalism. Inspired by the maritime museum displays he saw while a child in New England, Riley created these sculptures for the fictional Poly S. Tyrene Memorial Maritime Museum. They are contemporary versions of sailors’ scrimshaw, though made of painted trash rather than delicately etched whale teeth and bones, accented with dark pigments. 

Reminiscent of Voltaire’s Micromégas, artist Janaina Tschäpe’s fantastical scenes dissolve boundaries, seamlessly intertwining in an ever-flowing continuum of evolution and transformation in a grand opera that delves into themes of change, gender, and the construction of myth and history. The universe created by artist Tschäpe beckons one into a parallel world of ambiguous scale—indeterminate in both time and space. The spring-fed grotto provides the scenographic impetus for this grand production, a captivating fusion of a theme park nestled within a state park and bearing the distinction as one of Florida’s oldest roadside attractions. The sea maiden mythologies that inform Blood, Sea link endless stories from across time and space, as many cultures have some version of a water goddess.

In this group of installations, Brookhart Jonquil creates art that engages physics, architecture, and ecology to explore the immaterial, shifting aspects of the natural world. His work reflects influences ranging from Minimalism to theories of utopia and perfection; it offers viewers new ways of seeing and a nuanced understanding of our place in the world. The works exhibited in the Great Hall and in the Sculpture Garden encompass over a decade of his career, illustrating how nature has always influenced his artistic practice.

During the 1960s, just a few years before the founding of the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, astronauts propelled beyond the confines of Earth into space. There—as the first humans to see our planet from a distance—many of them were utterly overwhelmed: spiritually, emotionally, existentially. Describing their reaction to the sight of the Earth existing within the broader cosmos, many noted feelings of profound awe, heightened self-awareness, and deep appreciation of beauty—as well as an increased sense of connection to other humans and the planet itself. Together, their reactive experiences to something of extraordinary beauty and power are known as the Overview Effect. The expression suggests the importance of seeing something from above and at a great distance, offering the chance to form new perspectives and perceptions. Although the phrase was coined to describe reactions to seeing the Earth from space, it is akin to similar experiences throughout human history, triggering profound insight, stirring deep emotions, and engendering a sense of interconnectedness between the individual and nature. As part of The Nature of Art exhibition, The Overview Effect follows these interwoven lines, concentrating upon selected works within the MFA Collection and focusing on them as individual art pieces and objects that reflect larger questions about our relationship with nature.



Sponsored in part by the State of Florida through the Division of Arts and Culture and the National Endowment for the Arts.