National Portrait Gallery Part One: Art Road Trip

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Most art lovers who find themselves in Washington, DC seldom venture very far. That’s understandable, given that you can take in five major art museums without straying from the National Mall. But if you wander four blocks up 8th Street from the National Gallery of Art, you’ll come to an underappreciated gem: the National Portrait Gallery (NPG). Don’t be put off by the name; there’s a whole lot more there than stiff formal portraits. I’d even go so far as to suggest that it's one of the best places in the city to get (ahem!) a good picture of America. 

In Part Two I’ll discuss some of the more unusual things you’ll find at the NPG, but first let’s consider lessons embedded within the namesake images of well-known people, beginning with those who have served as President of the United States. Many of these provide insight into the character of the individual represented and the times in which they served. I will skip most of the early portraits, as images of Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, and other such figures are precisely the ones you’ve seen in textbooks since the time you were in primary school. I was, however, quite taken with a Lincoln portrait painted by George Peter Alexander Healy. It shows Lincoln chin on hand, as if he were pondering the nation’s future. That’s exactly what he was doing. Remember that seven Southern states had left the Union before Lincoln even took office. No president other than Franklin Roosevelt ever faced such perilous burdens or had a shorter honeymoon transition period.

Lincoln conveys thoughtfulness; FDR opted for confidence. FDR gazes at us with sphinx-like steeliness, a strong leader to guide Americans through the Great Depression. If the splotch of red behind him seems hagiographic, you have but to read accounts from the legions of ordinary Americans who saw Roosevelt as a secular savior. Artist Douglas Chandor used FDR's trademark cigarette holder to contrast his imperial cape and suggest folksiness that resonated with the era’s appeal to ordinary Americans.

Official portraits are often an assemblage of impression, pageantry, stagecraft, and ego. Sometimes they offer unintended psychological insights, or eerily foreshadow fate. Elaine de Kooning painted John F. Kennedy in loose brushstrokes and splotches that give an impression of JFK, not a spitting image. She painted Kennedy in 1963, and it’s hard not to think of Dallas when one sees the tattered texture about Kennedy’s head. The intended message was that JFK heralded a new era and a new spirit. That was the case, but not in the ways anticipated, and de Kooning's (deliberately) indistinct brushstrokes now evoke a torn body and faded hope.

If you wonder if Richard Nixon had a soft spot, the answer is maybe. Norman Rockwell’s image suggests there is one. It’s a surprisingly tender look at a guy almost no one associates with such a quality. Like FDR, Ronald Reagan wanted to invoke the common man. Aaron Shickler’s portrait is very Rockwell-like and shows Reagan in a blue work shirt, as if ready to dispense backwoods wisdom. Anyone familiar with Reagan nostrums knows that’s exactly what he often did.

On the other hand, the terms ego and Bill Clinton interlock like the bubbles of a Chuck Close painting, which is precisely who painted him. The portrait is huge and you can draw your own conclusions from that. I also found it unflattering in cartoonish ways suggestive of clownishness. Is that also telling?

The star of the hall right now is Barack Obama, painted in the style of an African chief by Kehinde Wiley. It’s simultaneously formal and relaxed. You can snap a shot of it from the side, but if you want to stand directly in front for a selfie, be prepared to queue for about 45 minutes. I heard no grumbling, though I did see tears, smiles, and genuine outpourings of respect. The Obama portrait is unique, even if it’s not your cup of tea. I can’t imagine we shall see such enthusiasm when #45 is hung on the wall.

To round off Part One, a few comments are in order on the differences between men and women in high places. There is a quiet dignity to the robed figures that make up the entire pantheon of female Supreme Court Justices. These individuals radiate competence and seriousness—more as if they just want to get on with their jobs rather than casting lines upon the waters of reputation.  Eleanor Roosevelt’s portrait looks a bit like that as well. She has a Mona Lisa-like smile, but she also looks as if she has just come in from puttering about the gardens of her Val-Kill retreat. 

You’ve probably seen the famed painting of Marian Anderson, but it’s even more powerful in person. She looks defiant and strong, as if to say, “You can deny me, but you cannot break me.” If you don’t know what I mean, educate yourself and find out how she and Eleanor Roosevelt said no to racism and turned one of America’s ugly moments into a glorious triumph. I see Anderson and Eleanor as bookend portraits, not to mention examples of American history that is too often left off the table. The Hall of Presidents if history; Eleanor and Anderson represent herstory. 

Currently, one of the NPG’s most controversial portraits is that of Michelle Obama. Many have said that Amy Sherald’s likeness doesn’t look like Mrs. Obama. It doesn’t, actually, but in some ways Sherald succeeded where de Kooning and Close came up short. As we've seen, there's no rule that says an official portrait must look like a painted photograph. The Michelle Obama representation makes more sense if you see it as an icon inspired by African art. Michelle has always been bolder in asserting her heritage than her biracial husband. In this portrait, Obama is both First Lady and mindful of her African heritage. This is Michelle on her own terms. 

Rob Weir


Love, Gilda: Yes, We Did!

Love, Gilda (2018)
Directed by Lisa Dapolito
Magnolia Pictures, 86 minutes, Not-Rated

From time to time extraordinary ensembles arise—a successful sports team, the perfect symphonic orchestra, an office that runs itself…. These moments are sublime and, generally, short-lived, but they sure are special while they last. The 1975 original cast of Saturday Night Live was such a troupe: Dan Aykroyd, John Beluschi, Chevy Chase, George Coe, Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, Laraine Newman, Michael O’Donoghue, and Gilda Radner (1946-1989). And when producer Lorne Michaels assembled it, Radner was the first person he hired.

Love, Gilda has a tragic ending—Radner died of ovarian cancer shy of her 43rd birthday—yet director Lisa Dapolito’s documentary feels joyful. That’s because Ms Radner was the ultimate shooting star whose brilliance lit up the sky before fading. Who can forget the characters she inhabited: Baba Wawa, Emily Litella, Lisa Loopner, Roseanne Roseannadanna…. Dapolito’s documentary skirts a few issues on her way to a celebratory portrait, but she captures Radner’s magic and keeps us smiling right down to the bitter end.

Radner was born into comfortable circumstances, a successful Detroit Jewish family that employed a white nanny, “Dibby,” who was Gilda’s inspiration for Emily Litella. Gilda was a ham at an early age, though there were also hardships along the way, including losing her beloved father at an early age. A lot of people know that Radner suffered from bulimia as an adult; it may surprise to learn it was compensation for being a pudgy child and teen. Being picked on is a textbook path to comedy. Strike first to take the starch out of the bullies!

Dapolito doesn’t give much insight into the specifics of how Gilda gained and lost control over eating, as she pretty much skips from childhood home movies to the 1960s, when Radner dropped out of the University of Michigan to follow a boyfriend to Toronto. There she joined a sketch comedy group that would later form part of the nucleus of SNL’s Not Ready for Prime Time Players. Several others came via her next project, working with the National Lampoon Radio Hour.

Lorne Michaels chose Radner as his first SNL hire because she was simply funny to her core. Amy Poehler appears on screen and confesses that much of her own early career involved channeling Gilda. Melissa McCarthy and Cecily Strong speak earnestly of how any woman who was ever a SNL cast member knew that Gilda was the gold standard against which she’d be judged. In a similar vein, Chevy Chase and Bill Murray note how just being on camera with Radner made them appear funnier. She was also a brilliant physical comic, a trait that often enhanced fairly lame material. Dapolito includes a sketch that's the ultimate illustration of this: a Radner/Steve Martin lampoon of Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse as if Astaire was a maniac and Charisse a complete klutz. It’s complete slapstick, yet it’s masterful and hysterical.

The film concentrates on Radner’s SNL years (1975-80) and her 1979 one-woman Broadway show Gilda Radner-Live from New York. As such things tend to go, the original SNL cast began to fall apart. Aykroyd and Beluschi did the Blues Brothers (over Michaels’ rabid objections) and made a few successful films before Beluschi OD'ed in 1982. Radner’s career was not as successful. Her first marriage collapsed before the ink was dry on the certificate. She tried her hand at a few plays, and made several films that bombed, including several with her second husband, Gene Wilder. She wasn’t very good at being a non-celebrity civilian either, but once she contracted cancer, she became an inspiration for millions. Dapolito's use of Radner's letters takes us inside of her changing career and moods.

There’s only so much one can stick into a short documentary. Though we indeed wish to remember Radner fondly and accentuate the positive, Dapolito is guilty of making a hagiography. There’s nary a mention of how SNL was fueled by cocaine, nor of Lorne Michaels’ meddling introduced the cast to the serpent of disharmony. We see nothing of Radner’s raunchier material from her one-woman show.

Dapolito trapped herself within a chronological biographical arc. Gilda’s battle with cancer was courageous and deserves to be spun that way, but it was of course, a final battle. It would have been inappropriate to dwell on Radner’s demons given how the film must end within such a frame.  More adventurous filmmaking would have given Dapolito leeway that could have actually made Radner more human and less iconic. The thing about true hagiographies is that even saints struggle before they achieve grace.

For all of that, Gilda Radner was a unique talent and Dapolito’s film is very welcome reminder of it. It’s also a trip down Memory Lane, to a time in which the perfect storm blew in a perfect cast.

Rob Weir


Catch Ogunquit Art Exhibits Now!

Just 2 Weeks Left to See 2018 Season at the OMAA
Through October 31, 2018

The leaves are turning, which means the doors will soon be closing for the season at the Ogunquit Museum of American Art (OMAA) in Ogunquit, Maine. It's one of my favorite small museums, as it showcases exhibits unlike those you'd see at a larger institution. Three caught my eye this year.

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Lois Dodd: Drawings and Paintings casts light on a lesser known but highly respected modernist. Born in 1927, Ms Dodd was among the mid-century New Yorkers who drew inspiration from both the boroughs and the coast of Maine. Now 91, Dodd still occasionally creates from her homes in New York and Lincolnville, Maine. The OMAA show includes some 21st century work, but the bulk is from the 1950s and 1960s. Sometimes it has a "dated" feel, but because Dodd is unfamiliar to most, she's worth exploring.

Dodd intrigues because she's hard to pigeonhole. Her paintings are often open and flat in perspective, and she uses geometrical shapes that skirt the line between realism and abstraction. An oil titled Chickens (1957) is true to its title, but it looks like cubism collided with a paint spill. The same effects can be seen in a simple look at laundry hanging from a line. 

A more recent work Four Nudes and a Woodpile (2001) is a Gauguin-like feminist take on Lunch on the Grass (Manet).  And Dodd's naked ladies are busy working on their winter fuel supply, not posing for the male gaze. My favorite, though, is one I call "Loose Moose"—her title is simply Moose—a collage of colors and shapes that define the beast. It's childlike in its wonderment, but artisanal in assembly.  


The most provocative work of the summer is Boundaries, a collaboration between photographer Jacob Bond Hessler and poet Richard Blanco. Each photo comes with a side poem and theirs is an unabashed political statement about the Big Four social categories: class, gender, race, and ethnicity.   

Hessler's photos are strongly evocative. Do you think borders are rational? Take a look at Hessler's shot of the narrow Rio Grande River as it threads its way through a remote slot canyon. It's no wider than my driveway and easily waded. But if think a wall is a good idea, look hard into Hessler's Tijuana/San Diego divide. It looks more like a prison than the dividing line between two sovereign nations, a reminder that all such lines are political fiction.   

Hessler's work is strongest in Boundaries when he is at his most literal. Many of the other shots explore metaphorical boundaries or require foreknowledge of the subject matter—for example an empty street that you need to know was where a lynching once took place. It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words, but Richard Blanco's poems throw that adage into doubt. If you ignore wall text when you're in a museum, this would be a good time to break that habit. Blanco, a gay Latino, was the youngest poet to read at a presidential inauguration. Blanco's "Burning in the Rain" makes the soul weep. Blanco wears his worldview on his sleeve, but what a glorious raiment.   


Wood Gaylor
The View from Narrow Cove is simultaneously the OMAA's largest exhibit, its most conventional, and its most diverse. The art world often wars against itself. In each age there is art that critics and patrons treat as fashionable, but also outliers who rail against the fashion du jour. Outsiders, like misery, love company. For every formal school of art, you can find artist "colonies" where the outlaws gather. Ogunquit became such a place when Charles Woodbury moved there in 1888, and painted oils that Victorian elites didn't like.

Soon, a summer art school opened for those bored with society and salon painting. Some of the artists aligned with the Ash Can school, which favored gritty realism; others with avant-garde modernists and abstract expressionists. And so it went. The only constant is that most wanted to do anything other than what was en vogue in the moment.

It's not easy to display fungible principles. One of art's great ironies is that a lot of rebellious art gets "discovered" and becomes the new convention that future artists will reject. Keep this in mind, because a lot of The View from Narrow Cove might not strike you as outside the mainstream. It once was!

The most obvious thumb in the eye of convention is Wood Gaylor's whimsical Arts Ball (1921), a Roaring 20s Bacchanal that's equal parts burlesque, masked ball, and critique of the arts establishment.

Rockwell Kent
Vincent Canade
Rockwell Kent's Alaskan Sunrise (1919) is clearly in line with Canada's Group of Eight painters, especially Lawren Harris. Let's just say that Kent's landscape is miles from how Hudson River luminists interpreted nature, not to mention how it would have startled the early 20th century stuffed and stifled middle class, which preferred tranquil park-like scenes. Marsden Hartley's bold look at snowy Mount Katahdin would have similarly baffling, as would the dreamy muted trees of Vincent Canadé, whose forest looks a bit like crystal rock candy in the early process of being consumed. 
Marsden Hartley

Bernard Langlais
Antonio Mattei was a neo-primitivist whose very style defied that of academically trained artists. His take on Maine village life is meant to be evocative, not photographic. There is also a superb painting from Jacob Lawrence in which he puts an African American spin on Matisse cutout, and Bernard Langlais, who chucked his formal training in favor of offbeat folk art sculpting. My favorite image, though, was Will Barnet's charcoal Emily Dickinson: Poem #1101. It's not Ms Dickinson, rather an evocation of Penelope that's linked to a Dickinson poem. The female figure looks away from us, her expression enigmatic, and brushes her hair. For me, it was as like a Pre-Raphaelite in the hands of a Japanese master. I was transfixed! 

Will Barnet

Rob Weir  


The Wife: Thin Material Redeemed by Great Acting

The Wife (2017/18)
Directed by Bjorn Runge
Sony Pictures Classics, 100 minutes, R (language)
★★★ ½

Among the immutable laws of the film universe are that great actors can transform lackluster scripts and, secondly, Smith College is a go-to surrogate for scenarios involving smart young women making foolish choices.

By the time you read this The Wife probably won’t be playing at a theater near you. That’s a safe prediction, as it’s unlikely it ever did in the first place. There are three very compelling reasons, however, to see this film on DVD or download: Glenn Close as Joan Castleman, Jonathan Pryce as ageing Professor Joe Castleman, and Annie Starke as young Joan.

Most of the story—based on a Meg Wolitzer novel—centers on the Castlemans in their twilight years. They are parents of a daughter, Susannah (Alix Wilton Regan in a brief role), and tormented son David (Max Irons).  Paterfamilias Joe has an ego the size of Sweden that further inflates when he, Joan, and David are flown to Stockholm so that Joe can collect his Nobel Prize for literature. The latter two don’t wish to go, but we quickly learn that Joe is a bit of a bully who passively manipulates Joan through treacly pleas, and browbeats David, an aspirant author with low self-esteem. Joe is also abusive to journalist Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater), who yearns to be his biographer. A big event such as winning a Nobel Prize is, of course, the perfect setting for revelations.

Director Bjorn Runge highlights two overlapping narratives of the Castleman marriage. In flashback sequences we meet 28-year-old Joe (played by Harry Lloyd) in his first marriage and in the role of teaching literature to a late 1950s classroom of Smith College students. We can see he’s mostly puffery, but Joe dons tweed, clenches a pipe in this mouth, savages student papers, and expostulates high-toned generalities about tortured writers to a class of gobsmacked Smithies. But he is struck by a story submitted by young Joan (Starke), though he tells her she must “go deeper.” Joan’s voice is stymied further when an acclaimed female writer—Elizabeth McGovern in a cameo—acidly remarks that women writers are not taken seriously and that pursuing a literary career isn’t worth the anguish. We watch as Joan goes from serious student to babysitter to mistress to second wife. In the last role, she is basically the handmaiden that allows Joe to be Joe.

Joan is an extension of Meg Wolitzer’s ego. Wolitzer has been outspoken about what she sees as sexist standards that don’t take women seriously enough to award them big prizes. She’s undoubtedly correct about that, though her angling to be the one who breaks the barrier will require her to write a book better than any she has written thus far. Wolitzer’s oeuvre consists of a several perfectly fine books (The Wife, The Interestings, The Female Persuasion), but none has been of the quality of the dozen women who have won literature Nobels, nor the dozens who’ve won National Book Awards. Wolitzer is a ghostly character haunting The Wife but the truth is, the script based on Wolitzer’s novel is among the film’s weaknesses.    

To elucidate that point, The Wife is more of a short play than a movie. We only enjoy it as a film because of the strength of three fine actors. This film might be Annie Starke’s breakout role for the silver screen. Her skillful depiction of young Joan Castleman is a dance between naivety, vulnerability, and simmering disgust. She makes unwise decisions at several junctures, yet we understand how an incompletely formed personality might do so. As for Glenn Close, what more can one say about an actress who has won a whopping 44 major awards? In The Wife one admires her steely resolve, the way she toys with Nathaniel Bone as a cat would a mouse, and her kettle boil anger. I also suggest you watch her closely. Ms. Close has one of the great plastic faces of all time; simply by the way she tilts her head she can appear older or younger, haggard or maturely beautiful. (Can anyone forget the astonishing scene of Close removing her makeup in Dangerous Liaisons?”) Jonathan Pryce, whose chops were honed in theater, is just a step behind Close. It’s no easy task to imbue a bombastic character with likable qualities. If we view his Joe through Joan’s eyes, you can fully understand why Joan embraces the playful fool one moment and wants to throw him under a bus the next.

It’s hard to imagine this would be a very good film if we took away Starke, Close, or Pryce. The proof is in the secondary characters. Although Slater is fine as the oily Nathaniel Bone, the rest of the cast is, to be charitable, mediocre. This is especially the case with Lloyd and Irons, each of whom is as wooden as an old growth forest. McGovern does what the script demands, but her role is on the edge of being over the top. There are decided script weaknesses, not the least of which is that Wolitzer has dumbed down Smith College students to get us to the Joan/Joe nuptials. One wonders how Joan could be lured into thinking women shouldn’t write, given that Natalie Babbitt, Sylvia Plath, and Jane Yolen were among the literary lights that attended Smith in the 1950s. (Is it worth mentioning that Meg Wolitzer attended Smith, but transferred after her sophomore year?)

Despite my reservations, you should watch it for three performances as crisp as a handpicked Golden Delicious apple. As for the narrative, you might see its major reveal coming, but it still packs a wallop. My biggest frustration is that this is good film that could have been better. Sound familiar?

Rob Weir


Other Shows at Boston MFA

French Pastels: Treasures from the Vault
    through January 6, 2019
Lorraine O’Grady: Family Gained
     through December 2, 2018
The Art of Influence: Propaganda Postcards from the Era of World Wars
     through January 21, 2019
Casanova’s Europe: Art, Pleasure, and Power in the 18th Century
      through October 2, 2018.

Boston Museum of Fine Arts

For those who prefer their art more elevated and less popular culture-oriented, the MFA has four small exhibitions sure to engage your eyes and brain cells.

The first of these is drawn from the MFA’s collection of French pastels. Although you will know most of the names—Cassatt, Degas, Manet, Millet, Monet, Pissaro—you may not have seen these canvases as they have been rendered in pastels. There are familiar themes—dancers, horse races, still life, flowers, water lilies, street scenes—the images themselves don’t stay on display for long. That’s because pastels (chalk, soft crayon) is exceedingly fragile. Even today, in which chemical fixatives stabilize the drawings, pastels must be handled with great care. As you can imagine, that was all the more the case in the 19th century. 
I don’t mean to sound pretentious in saying that I’ve seen a lot of 19th century French painting. To me, Degas and other Impressionists are more striking in oils and watercolors. My greatest enjoyment came from witnessing the pastels of Barbizon school cofounder Jean-Francois Millet (1814-75). Barbizon artists—the name comes from the French village from which Millet hailed—painted and drew in the artistic style known as realism, which has nothing to do with looking like a photograph. It’s also known as naturalism and is noted for its looseness of form. What makes it “real” or “natural” is that its subject matter comes from everyday life rather than being metaphorical, stylized, or iconized. Few have ever rivaled Millet in depicting peasant and rural life. Millet’s pastels show us ordinary people engaged in prosaic activities.

The other great joy was seeing the work of Norwegian-born Frits Thaulow (1847-1906), who is in this show because he worked in France and because he hung out with French artists. It’s always revelatory to discover a new figure whose work resonates. I had never heard of Thaulow before, but I shall henceforth be on the lookout for his work.

I had hitherto also been unaware of the work of Lorraine O’Grady (b. 1934). I have subsequently learned she is the mixed-race offspring of Jamaican immigrant parents to Boston. When she was in her twenties, her only sibling, Devonia, died. During her mourning period, she visited Egypt, where she discovered that her sister had a striking resemblance to 13th century B.C. Queen Nefertiti. 

O’Grady is also known as a feminist and performance artist, but the MFA show displays her photographic prowess. On view are 16 diptychs (side-by-side panels) from her Miscegenated Family Album (1980/94). In each, she juxtaposes an ancient Egyptian figure with a contemporary African American. If you need more proof that race is a fiction we choose to imbue with significance, it’s on the walls of the MFA. It’s worth noting that when O’Grady began to assemble her work, intermarriage had only been legal in the United States since 1967.

Sometimes small things make big statements. The MFA holds postcard collections that are often dusted off for thematic exhibits in the corridors and anterooms that house bigger shows.

 What is propaganda? Although we generally think of it as a negative thing, such a judgment is uncomfortably subjective. At its heart propaganda is a form of persuasion—advertising if you will. The MFA features 150 postcards from the massive Leonard A. Lauder Collection to look at how war was “sold” during World War I and again during World War II. You will see small images from Europe, the United States, the Soviet Union, and Japan and the messages tend to be the same, whether the image’s creators supported democracy, monarchy, fascism, or communism. In each case war is justified, glory is promised, and the enemy is Othered. 

The show lets the images speak for themselves and makes no overt political statements. One can debate whether or not a given conflict is justified; what’s not up for grabs is that war ever delivers upon its romantic promises. It doesn’t. Historians seldom make universalist statements, but here’s one that works: The sides that go to war never look the same when the fighting ends. 

If you hurry you can still catch the show devoted to the European world that spawned Giacomo Casanova (1725-98), a man whose infamy is such that his name is synonymous with male adulterers. Casanova was far more that that; he was also a historian of his native Venice, a world traveler, a florid writer, and a courtier as well as a libertine.

The MFA  exhibit puts Casanova into context—perhaps an important lesson for the #MeToo generation. Appalling behavior is never to be cavalierly dismissed, but it’s generally the case that the parameters of bad behavior are defined by historical circumstances, including changing views of what constitutes acceptance, moral, amoral, and immoral standards.

I didn’t rush to this exhibit for a different reason: 18th century Baroque art is my least favorite. All of the frippery, gilding, powdered wigs, lunatic footwear, brocade furnishings, fussy furniture, and ludicrous clothing makes my skin crawl.  I won’t pretend that I spent hours in these galleries, but I spent enough time to say that the mood is set by Canaletto’s large oil of San Marco Square in Venice. You quickly get the point that great wealth, the quest for status, and unbridled power often go hand in glove with corruption, sexism, and debauchery.

The MFA goes to great lengths to emphasize female power and resistance during the era, but it’s hard to escape the fact that sex and power were linked to the disadvantage of women. Even those women seeking to choose how to display or use their bodies did so within frames mostly constructed and controlled by men. Egos and art were both supersized during the 18th century. In fact, you could easily conclude amidst the glitter and glitterati that includes large works by Boucher, Canaletto, and Tiepolo, only the pornography was small. A small curtained off side chamber displays some quite graphic imagery from Claude-Louis Desrais. Apparently there was enough hanky panky to partially redeem Casanova’s reputation. At the very least, he was in the swing, not the one who defined swinger. 

Replace the word “pleasure” with “sex” and you can draw whatever parallels you wish between 18th century art, sex, and power, and how images, gender, and politics play out in an age in which the Baroque boudoir is reborn as Mar-a-Lago.

Rob Weir   


Whimsical Pooh and Oldenburg at Boston MFA

Winnie the Pooh: Exploring a Classic (through January 6, 2019)
Claes Oldenburg: Shelf Life (through December 2, 2018)
Boston Museum of Fine Arts

 Click on images for larger version.

Venerable institutions such as the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) have historically catered to what is glibly labeled high culture. They are places intellectuals visit to expand their understanding of the fine arts and cultivate refinement. There is nothing wrong with that per se, except that museums have become expensive places to visit—$25 in the MFA's case—and a reputation for stuffiness doesn't exactly encourage the hoi polloi to pony up serious cash. It literally pays to lighten up now and again, and it's in everyone's interest to erode arbitrary barriers between art and non-art.

There's plenty in the MFA for devotees of the serious, but in part one covering the MFA's fall/early winter season, let's take a look at two whimsical exhibits, one that looks at a children's classic, and another that features an experimental sculptor.

Christopher Robin Milne
I did not grow up with Winnie the Pooh, but it has been great fun discovering him in the autumn of my life. The MFA has borrowed 200 objects—ranging from drawings and letters to stuffed toys, photographs, and posters—from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Only a curmudgeon sucking on a pickle could fail to be charmed by this magical retrospective of A. A. Milne's stories and E. H. Shepard's artwork. The Pooh oeuvre, if you will, consists of four collections of tales bookended by When We Were Very Young in 1924 and House at Pooh Corners in 1928. In them we meet the principals of the Pooh universe: nervous Piglet, serious Owl, sensible Rabbit, motherly Kanga and baby Roo, grumpy Eeyore, bouncy Tigger, Christopher Robin, and the pivot around which most "expotitions" revolve: the honey-loving bruin of "very little brain," Edward Bear—know to all as Winnie the Pooh. (The name comes from Winnipeg, a Canadian black bear cub Milne first encountered as a military mascot during World War I that finished her days in a London zoo.)  Milne (1882-1956) extrapolated Hundred Acre Wood from the Sussex countryside to which he, wife Daphne, and infant son Christopher relocated after the war. 

11 O'Clock is 'snackeral' time!

The MFA show amuses us through its variety, its playfulness, and its utter simplicity. The opening gallery showcases the original stuffed toys and a variety of early Poohphernalia—okay, I made up that word—such as games, postcards, and foreign editions of the books. Then you enter the main galleries, where you can stand upon a makeshift bridge as digital Pooh sticks float from one side to the other. You can also sit by wall-painted scenes from the books, or hunker down on all fours to spend time in Eeyore's house. The main attractions, though, are pictures of Christopher and his family, and Shepard's sketches that became illustrations for the books.

Silly Bear stuck in Rabbit's house

Pooh and Piglet tracking a wuzzle

Shepard (18769-1996) created ingenious illustrations that paid great attention to natural detail. His was a great balancing act. On one hand, he anthropomorphized stuffed toys to give each distinct personalities, yet did so in ways that retained an air of fantasy. Pooh is real to us in Shepard's drawings, yet he isn't. His deft touch engages the imagination—just the sort of thing needed for a child of developing brain. 

Trudging through the snow

The last gallery demonstrates how brilliant Shepard's drawings were. We are shown—and I wouldn't use the phrase "treated to"—modern adaptations of Pooh. In almost all cases, Shepard's pencil sketches are vastly superior to recent color renderings of the Milne classics. Worst of all are the regrettable Disney updates. Disney now franchises Pooh stories and films, but it does so in ways that are bloodless and soullessly commercial. You can buy a smiling Eeyore plush toy courtesy of Disney, though why anyone would wish to is beyond me. If you're the parent of a small child, by all means expose that child to the original; Disney knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. I came out of the main galleries humming like Pooh, but by the time I zipped through the Disney updates, the phrase "That's all very well for some" echoed in my brain in an Eeyore voice. Winnie the Pooh is a classic that needs no updating.   

The rare well-done adaptation

Eeyore as he should be!


Pop, op, and avant-garde artists have done a great service in knocking the pretense out the fine arts community. I have had a fondness for Swedish-born sculptor Claes Oldenburg (b. 1929) since he was briefly an artist-in-residence at my undergraduate college, Shippensburg. Oldenburg, like Andy Warhol, often made gigantic versions of everyday objects such as stamp pads, ice cream cones, shuttlecocks, and saws. One of the points was to make the viewer consider line and form in ways that move beyond mere utility.

The MFA show displays Oldenburg in a different puckish mood. If you've ever been to any decent-sized museum, you will have encountered still life oil paintings. Perhaps these don't float your boat; even some of my artist friends see endless compositions of fruit, bread, and goblets as more of an exercise than as intrinsically interesting. Dutch painters excelled at these—especially in the 16th and 17th centuries—and for reasons other than practicing their painterly chops. Still lifes often had embedded metaphors. Skulls, for instance, often set upon tables as reminders that life was fleeing, no matter earthly indulgences were consumed. If there was a main theme, though, it was to call attention to the wealth and opulence of the Dutch Golden Age, a time in which the tiny Netherlands was a military power with colonies, cutting edge science, and wealth pouring into its ports. (The Dutch also controlled much of the slave trade during this period.)  All that fruit, meat, bread, and wine on the canvas symbolized Dutch power. Think of these things the next time you see iconic work from painters such as Pieter Claesz (above).

Oldenburg's shelves are riffs on and lampoons of Golden Age still life. He uses soft sculpture, found objects, built forms, and paint to build giant shadow boxes that are equal parts parody, surrealist, and pure whimsy. Here are a few installations at the MFA show.


Roddy Doyle's Brave Work on Memory and Abuse

Smile (2017)
By Roddy Doyle
Viking, 224 pages.

We’ve all seen the stories. Try as it will, the Catholic Church hasn’t been able to bury its own recent past, especially insofar as the predatory priest scandal goes. As I type, the Boston Globe continues to probe the cover up its Spotlight team first unearthed in 2002, and a new report from Pennsylvania accuses 300 priests of inappropriate sexual contact with children. It’s all horrible stuff, but what does it mean to have been taken advantage of by someone you thought had God on speed dial? Does one ever recover from such a thing?

Roddy Doyle’s Smile seems to suggest that one can move forward once enough time passes and other events of life compete for personal memory space. His most recent novel centers on 54-year-old Victor Forde, who has been carefully rebuilding his life so he can move on from recent bumps in the road. He is newly divorced from his knockout wife Rachel, a celebrity TV cooking show host, but the two remain friendly and she continues to offer emotional support. Victor is also unemployed as his gigs as a music critic have dried up, but he’s upbeat even though he has moved into a new flat in Dublin near the seaside that’s less posh than his former digs. His is the classic sorting of the things one used to think mattered versus those that really do.

We find Victor wallowing in something approaching midlife contentment rather than crisis. He busies himself by banging out chapters of the book Rachel encourages him to finish, and has become a regular Donnelly’s Pub, where he makes new mates. He has even come to grips with an incident that happened when he was a 13-year-old at a Christian Brothers school. His French teacher, Brother Murphy, embarrassed him in class by blurting out, “Victor Forde, I can never resist your smile.” This led to all manner of hazing from classmates, which he tried to slough off. What he never told them was that Brother Murphy, also the wrestling coach, once groped him while ostensibly showing him a hold. Years later, the adult Victor has no problem retelling this story on a radio talk program and dismisses it as a one-time thing.

The only stone along the path of Victor’s desire to get on with his life is Ed Fitzpatrick, a character he meets in his new neighborhood. He’s the physical opposite of the trim, polished, and fastidious Victor, but he introduces himself as a former classmate from Christian Brothers. Ed looks vaguely familiar, but Victor can’t place him, nor can he recall many of the old school incidents and people Fitzpatrick mentions. He’s so insistent about them that Victor often humors him and pretends to remember, but after a while, Victor is feeling creepy. Fitzpatrick seems to know a lot about Victor, but it soon becomes obvious that Ed is a loser. He’s slovenly, cadges drinks, and is always seen wearing the same shorts and pink shirt. Is he some sort of cousin? A stalker? Just a lonely guy seeking friendship? Victor is torn between feeling sorry for Fitzpatrick and wanting to avoid him.

Doyle—known for works such as The Commitments, The Van, and Paddy Clarke Ha Ha—never really bought into the Celtic Tiger myth of Irish prosperity. His Ireland is a place where things are often tough but unlike the portraits that appear in, say, Frank or Malachy McCourt, Ireland isn't a place of unrelenting misery. Doyle books are generally splashed with dollops of humor. In Smile they pierce through the surfaces of caustic barroom banter. To a great extent, in fact, Victor narrates this short novel from the observational vantage points of barstools and pub booths.

Doyle’s greatest trick, though, is to draw us into Forde and Fitzpatrick so completely that we don’t expect the shocking revelations that come. These, including the very identity of the book Victor is writing, will leave you shattered. This is more than a book about what we recall; it’s also about how we remember and why. Everyone embellishes tales, but where is the line between memory and fantasy?

Rob Weir