Mario Testino Exhibit at MFA Misfires

Bold, or clichéd? 

Mario Testino Photographs
Museum of Fine Arts (Boston)
Through June 16

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is a national treasure. It’s less pretentious and more accessible than the Met, the Getty, or the Smithsonian; yet more cerebral than peers in cities such as Atlanta, Houston, Milwaukee, or Philadelphia. I adore the MFA, am an active member, and have been attending exhibits there for over 30 years. But even the greats misfire. I will not mince words: the current exhibit featuring the work of Peruvian fashion photographer Mario Testino is the single worst thing I’ve ever seen at the MFA.

Testino made his reputation doing glamour shots for magazines such as Vogue and Vanity Fair, as well as filming in official capacity for some of the highest profile designers on the planet. Like many fashion photographers his stock-in-trade is the high contrast glossy, especially those oozing attitude. Testino is a first-rate technician who occasionally snaps a stunning image, but that’s as far as I’m willing to go. Frankly, I’m not sure why subjects are anxious to have their images captured by Testino unless they are more interested in notoriety than flattery.

I liken most of Testino’s photos to the more unwatchable films of Quentin Tarantino. In each case there is a sense of failed ironic detachment–we’re supposed to be looking at something else, but what we really see is the creator enamored of his own supposed cleverness. Testino seeks to shock, but we see the contrivance in each pose. Quite a few of his images are soft porn, the grabbed crotch being a favorite ploy. There is often a lot of flesh exposed in his shots, but mostly in a slutty “white trash” sort of way. Put another way, he’s no Robert Mapplethorpe! He’s no better in manipulating fear. The MFA choice–for obvious reasons­–was to spotlight an image of Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady exchanging toothy snarls with a Doberman pincher. Does this horrify? Does it impress as unique? Is there an older contrivance in all of journalism than the man-bites-dog trope? He’s also been the go-to shutterbug for Brady’s supermodel wife, Giselle Bundchen, whom he alternatively presents as akin to a high-priced hooker, or as an anatomical freak whose legs attach in unnatural ways. Both, of course, are forms of objectification.    

One might call the MFA show the beautiful and the damned. The latter category is reserved for his portraits of British royalty. Were she alive, I’m sure that Queen Victoria would proclaim, “We are not amused.” In his royalty shots Testino feminizes most of men and masculinizes the women. Prince William looks like the biggest toff in British history–quite a statement, but not the kind the Windsors are likely to sanction. Ten minutes in this gallery will make you wonder why on the earth the British public countenance the use of public monies to pump up these pimps; fifteen will make you think guillotine!

Testino’s photos are ultimately a form of self-serving decadence–devoid of content and, more distressing still, utterly without character. In fact, they are not even about their subjects; they are look-at-me images that focus on the man behind the lens, not who’s in front of it. Ego and art are a delicate balance. Andy Warhol, for instance, was also a pompous twit, but he knew when to draw attention away from himself–even if he had to bore us in order to do so. (Think some of Warhol’s tedious films, or his endless reproduction of iconic images such as Marilyn Monroe or Campbell’s soup.) Would that Testino could fake detachment as well as Warhol.

Those planning a trip to the MFA should skip this exhibit and head instead for the delightful exhibit titled “The Age of the Postcard.” It is a dizzying display in miniature of 400 cards (mostly from Europe) spanning the years 1890 to 1930. That’s where you’ll find unalloyed whimsy, the protean rhythms of daily life, and intriguing caricatures of famous people. It also possesses a quality sorely missing in Testino’s photographs: humanity.
-Rob Weir


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