Lawren Harris, Picasso and Magacities at Boston MFA


Three Art Exhibits Challenge How We See

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
The Idea of the North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris (Closes June 12)
Pairing Picasso (Closes June 26)
Megacities of Asia (Closing July 17)

How and what do we see? Twentieth-century Modernism challenged the very presumption that governs computer interfaces: WYSIWYG. To Modernists, what you see is limited only by one's imagination. They excelled at eliminating extraneous detail to emphasize color, line, shape, and texture. In an odd way, though many of them rejected religious dogma, they were profoundly spiritual in that they sought the essence of their subjects. Three exhibits currently showing at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston superbly challenge how we see. Hurry though, as all three will close soon.

Did you know that the United States trades more with Canada than with China? How is it that we are so woefully ignorant of our northern neighbor? Lawren Harris (1885-1970) was part of a famed group of Canadian artists known as the Group of Seven that thrived between 1920 and 1933. All were fascinated by the Canadian landscape and sought ways to render it in deep ways. (My favorite was Emily Carr, though she was an associate and never a formal member.) If you know anything at all about Lawren Harris, you probably heard that actor/comedian/musician/art collector Steve Martin is a fan and that he co-curated the MFA exhibit.

Harris' great love was the Canadian Arctic, an often inhospitable place, but one whose stark landscape is a dramatic geometry of arcs, angles, blobs, and circles. And this is exactly how Harris painted it. It doesn't look "realistic" in the sense that Harris reduced it to shapes and colors, but that's the point. The Arctic made Harris feel as well as see, and he wanted others to do the same; he stopped signing his canvases so that viewers would look deeply into his subjects rather than dwelling upon the painter. As a painter, though, his biggest challenge in painting the far north was color, as in a lack thereof. His northern palette consisted mostly of blues, browns, and whites, though another virtue of the exhibit is that it challenges our perceptions of hues. Harris often accomplished this by doing exactly what Monet did with Rouen Cathedral: repeatedly paint the same subject under different light.

And, yes, those subjects held mystical qualities for Harris, though not in any conventional sense—Harris was a theosophist, a modern mash-up of ancient Greek ideas that sought eternal truths in nature. He was also a follower of the occultist Madame Blavatsky and engaged in séances. In other words, Harris thought the lines between the real and the spiritual were quite thin. Harris' work is often compared to that of American artists such as Arthur Dove and Rockwell Kent. Frankly, both were better artists than Harris, but Harris is well worth a look—a deep look. 

Pairing Picasso is one of my favorite concepts in modern curation: present just a few works and say something small and unique about them. (Anyone who has ever walked out of a Met blockbuster exhibit feeling bludgeoned knows exactly what I'm talking about!) This one has just eleven works, 4 pairings and a triple, showing Picasso's different treatment of the same subject. Of particular interest to me was Picasso's treatment of the formal portrait. Have you ever zipped through a museum filled with stiffly posed upper-class toffs? You gaze upon them, know that they cost a king's ransom, and perhaps even admire the craft of the artist, but in the back of your mind is this: "Who gives a damn about some rich old bastard/biddy trying to look regal?" (Confession: I've even sped through some of the galleries in the Rijksmuseum.) As it turns out, Picasso had the same thought! So what he did was explode the very notion of a formal portrait and let's just say that I'll linger over one of his far longer than I'll stare at any formal portrait not painted by either Rembrandt or Sargent. Another nice touch in the MFA exhibit is its pairing of two takes on the rape of the Sabine women—one in color and one in black and white. They are quite different in feel and I can't say which I prefer.  

 The last exhibit is postmodern. Megacities Asia is a look at cities of hitherto unknown population sizes. If you feel overwhelmed by New York City, consider that it's a relative piker at 18.5 million (if you add adjacent Newark and other New Jersey 'burbs). Tokyo is now said to be home to nearly 38 million, Delhi 25 million, and Shanghai 23 million. How do you make sense of such things? This exhibit is from young artists, many of whom you've never heard and may never again, but they do an interesting thing. As any photographer knows, when confronted with something so vast you can't capture it in the viewfinder, go small. Look for an intriguing detail or angle that portrays scale in ways that make sense. How about making a U-shaped walk-in box and showing skyscrapers, traffic, and architectural detail in 3-D but from any perspective other than straight on? Or making an assemblage of a bunch of traditional Chinese doorframes? Or commenting on the scale of consumer activity by stacking products that come in supernatural green? This works for me! Rob Weir


No comments: