Gender Bending and Lautrec at MFA Boston

Gender Bending Fashion (through August 25, 2019)
Toulouse-Lautrec and the Stars of Paris (through August 4, 2019)
Boston Museum of Fine Arts

Have you seen Sally Potter's 1993 film Orlando? If not, you should. It's a mind-blowing work that casts the androgynous Tilda Swinton in the title role of a tale that will make you think that Ms. Potter was way ahead of the curve in calling into question gender assertions. If you follow up by attending Gender Bending Fashion, a show at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), you'll quickly learn that Sally Potter wasn't a pioneer; she merely did her homework.

The MFA show has the glitz, impact lighting, and glamour of a designer's runway, which is appropriate given that many past and present designers have work on display. It might, at first, shock you to witness video footage of a man in high heels rocking form-fitting tights, or another man sporting zombie-like makeup to go with his golden boots and flowing flowered dress. Perhaps you might wonder if current discussions of gender fluidity and its dizzying array of terms–agender, bigender, cisgender, intersexual, Third gender, etc.–have gone too far, perhaps even transgressed the borders of absurdity and obscenity. Reserve your judgment.

As curators Michelle Tolini Finamore and Penny Vinick remind us, gender barriers have long been porous and it's not just fashion designers who have noticed, though they have certainly exploited it more than most. Marlene Dietrich shocked audiences when she donned a tuxedo in the 1930 film Morocco, and Katherine Hepburn scandalized traditionalists when she started wearing tailored pants in 1931. Okay, so Dietrich and Hepburn would look fabulous wearing shredded newspaper and bottle caps, but they weren't pioneers either–merely two women powerful enough to do as they wished. Vaudeville performers, double-voiced singers, emcees, and black vaudevillians obliterated gender dress lines decades earlier, and even they were upstarts. What, for example, does one do with Scotsmen in kilts? Or Greeks in chitons. Is it worthwhile even to open discussions of the foppish costumes and nosebleed shoes worn during the Baroque era? Lest you think Americans have more commonsense (whatever that might mean), gaze upon a 19th century painting of two young boys in dresses. The custom of the day was that a male child wore gowns until "breeched," that is placed in trousers, around age 9.

In other words, fashion has long been both a mirror of custom and a cultural provocateur. Think of bloomers, Edwardian dandies, the "masculine" shirtwaists of the Gibson girls, 1950s Teddy Boys and Girls, unisex clothing, and wear-whatever-the-hell-you-wish hippies. Each time the old guard reacted with horror and predicted the impending collapse of Western values. Each time, of course, we got over it.

In the category of what goes around comes around, the first thing that confronts us at the MFA are clips from a 2004 Viktor&Rolf show titled "One Woman Show." In this case, "woman" is used ironically and ambiguously. The star model is none other than Tilda Swinton, though you might not recognize her in what looks to be a form-fitting black onesie blended with a ruffled fan on steroids. The latter is open at the collar and plunges toward the waist, but none of the exposed flesh suggests femininity. If anything, Swinton looks as if she might be a castrati. It reminded me of a line from Orlando in which the formerly male Orlando awakes as a woman, gazes upon her female body, and remarks, "Same person. No difference at all… just a different sex."

Indeed. What we learn most from the MFA show is that we fret too much over perceived differences. Take it from another gender bender: David Bowie. The cover of his 1971 album The Man Who Sold the World featured Bowie sprawled across a daybed attired in a tasteful frock and staring demurely at the camera. That is, if you happened to live in Britain. North American releases used various alternative covers: Bowie's face, Bowie kicking his leg into the air, or a truly absurd cartoon of a man carrying a gun.

Oh, for heaven's sake! Have we finally gotten over this sort of thing? Yes and no. We celebrate Janelle Monáe's transgressions of gender boundaries, but how comfortable are we when we see a man wearing a dress consisting of yards of shingled grey material and carrying a white parasol as if he were on his way to sip mint juleps at a cotillion? I confess that it made me wonder what the point is, but then again I've seen pictures of myself from the 1970s wearing stack heels and butt-ugly polyester trousers. (No, you may not see these shots!) Perhaps today's fashion rebels are no more dangerous than Hepburn in her pants. Kudos the MFA for a provocative show. Go ahead and enjoy it. It only looks dangerous. 

Also on the bohemian side of the ledger, the MFA is also showing Toulouse-Lautrec and the Stars of Paris. It's always wonderful to view a Lautrec show. His career was a short as his stature (4'8" due to a genetic disorder) and his life. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) died from a combination of absinthe addiction and syphilis at age of just 36, yet left behind an astonishing output of more than 6,500 works (paintings, posters, drawings, ceramics, stained glass). The MFA assembled 200 pieces–some from contemporaries ranging from Cassat and Degas to Sargent and Tissot–mostly on the subject of Parisian celebrities known to Lautrec. That pack included performers such as Jane Avril, Sarah Bernhardt, Aristide Bruant, and Loïe Fuller, but since Lautrec spent much of his time in brothels, can-can houses, and salacious cabarets as well as legitimate clubs, theaters, and the ballet, we also see the Parisian underbelly: prostitutes, lesbians, johns, gamblers, and hard drinkers. 

Objectively speaking, we don't learn much about Lautrec that we don't already know. If I had to pick the two takeaway points, the first would be that Lautrec's infatuation with celebrities sometimes approximated what we'd today call fanboy culture. The second is a reminder that the Paris he knew in both its glamour and its unseemliness was largely a new city. The Paris most of us think of today is the reinvention of Baron Haussmann, who was commissioned by Napoleon III to open up the city and bring air and sunlight into it. Much of old Paris disappeared between the years 1853 and 1870, less than two decades before Lautrec arrived to the Montmartre section of the city in 1889. He lived in the shadow of the Moulin Rouge until 1894.

I always enjoy Lautrec, but he's been done a lot lately, including a 2009 show at the Clark in Williamstown and one at the National Gallery in 2018, both of which focused on Paris. There was also a show at the Currier in Manchester, New Hampshire in 2018 that was organized by the Museum of Modern Art. The MFA was late to the party on this one.

Rob Weir

No comments: