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Walk This Way

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Sept. 27, 2007 – March 23, 2008

If you’ve been avoiding any of Boston’s museums because you can’t tell a Renaissance painting from a Post-Impressionist, your excuse has just been smashed. “Walk This Way,” one of the Museum of Fine Art’s latest exhibits, is a parade of shoes, some new and some old. Everyone can understand shoes — we wear them, don’t we?

That doesn’t mean this show will be old news to viewers. You won’t find your ratty flip-flops here. The variety of footwear is simply stunning. A miniature pair of doll boots will entice museum-goers to step closer to the glass to examine the rich detail. These miniature pieces of art are an unexpected deviance in the parade of shoes and part of what makes this exhibit so much fun. Viewers will leave with an expanded definition of the shoe.

“Walk This Way” shows that artwork is more than just sculptures and paintings. You may not think of your Nikes as art, but once you’ve seen Daisuke (Dice-K) Matsuzaka’s Nike baseball cleats behind glass, you’ll think differently. The obvious design that goes into the specially-made shoes — constructed to protect his right toe — highlight the craftsmanship of shoe-making. This realization probably would have been common knowledge a couple centuries ago, but in today’s age of cookie-cutter shoes, the idea of shoes as art is an original one.

If you’re not particularly crazy about shoes, there’s still another reason to see “Walk This Way.” A history lesson is waiting for you. Even if you don’t care about the history of shoes, you’ll find that shoes have been important to people for thousands of years. That means the story of shoes is the story of human beings. Ingeniously, each shoe is placed near artwork that reflects the time period or design of the shoe.

Some of the other shoes deserve to be called sculptures in their own right. A pink silk velvet and gold metallic lace Venetian chopine will leave viewers ogling both its intricate detail and towering height. Gorgeous, yes. Functional? I’m not too sure. A scarlet Miu Miu platform wedge has a brilliant gold carved heel that is surrounded by artifacts embellished with the same gilt gold and is placed in a room bordered with Versailles-like paneling.

In some cases, the shoes are seen in work from the same era. A pair of men’s English leather boots is near the painting “Lute Player,” which shows a man wearing similar footwear. But there are some less direct juxtapositions. Dice-K’s cleats and Kevin Garnett’s Adidas basketball shoes can be found in the Early Greek Art room, along with a vase that shows Greek athletes running without shoes.

Maybe the idea of seeing shoes in their proper historical context isn’t enough to interest you, but this exhibit is such pure, simple fun, too! To see all the shoes, you have to follow a map through many of the MFA’s galleries. It’s the perfect way to take a quick tour of the museum. And, if the idea of hunting for shoes doesn’t entertain you, you’re just a lost cause.

Watch out for some well-known, cult-inducing pieces, like Manolo Blahniks and Marc Jacobs, but I would recommend spending the most time on the little gems, like a shoemaker’s sample shoe. These strange shoes have a heel in the front and the back, so that the wearer is walking on something like a platform. The carefully punched leather, with silk tassels and various other little adornments, will convince you, too, that shoe-making is a craft.

This exhibit’s main message is that even though shoes seem to be such normal, everyday items, they can be considered works of great art and design. So maybe there is a glass case somewhere waiting for those Havianas. Who knows?