Ocean Liners and Monsters at Peabody Essex Museum

 Ocean Liners: Glamour, Speed, and Style
                        (through October 8, 2017)
It's Alive: Classic Horror and Sci-Fi Art from the Kirk Hammett Collection
                        (through November 28, 2017)
Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA

The Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) wants to become New England's second leading art museum. Until recently, PEM was mostly a memorial to Salem's 18th and 19th century maritime glories, which it honored with a cabinet of curiosities assemblage of all things watery. This means that it lacks a sizable permanent collection of paintings and objects that make art critics and curators swoon. Solution: If you can't beat the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, launch exhibits outside of the venerable MFA's métier.  

Ocean Liners is a perfect PEM exhibit—one that's simultaneously right in its saltwater tradition, yet innovative and unique. Prior to the 1960s, high-speed transportation across oceans conjured ocean liners, not airplanes. * From the mid-19th century until well into the 1950s, "speed" meant New York to London in under a week and those who could afford it, went in "style." The PEM exhibit is the stuff of enchanting mid-century Hollywood films in which classy passengers donned formal-wear for dinner. There were, of course, those traveling on the cheap—below-decks budget travelers and immigrants in steerage—and the PEM show gives a nod to those with fewer means, but the ballroom set dominates. Think Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr in an Affair to Remember, a clip from which is part of the show. (So too is one of my all-time favorites, the hilarious Marx Brothers "stateroom" scene from A Night at the Opera.)

The breadth of the exhibit surprised me—more than 200 objects in all. There are numerous advertising posters from the golden age of steamship travel and these should be viewed as masterpieces of graphic design. Even smaller objects—such as dinner menus and hard-colored postcards—are exquisitely done. In fact, the word "glamorous" often seems inadequate, as well-apportioned ocean liners were floating mansions sporting carved oak paneling, detailing from masters in the decorative arts, Arts and Crafts furniture, and fine dining for 750 at tables outfitted with linen, gleaming silverware, fine china, and delicate crystal. Wallpaper, pianos, Art Deco tea services, lighting, fixtures, paintings, and decorative sculpture—you name it and it was done with upscale polish. Well-chosen costumes—of both passengers and crew—add to the ambience. It took a village to service what was, in essence, a floating small town. 

I longed for more on the below-decks crowd, but one of the more interesting things is how the ships were mirrors of social change. This is especially the case in observing  ways in which 1950s versions of modernism and 1960s trends tamped down the elegance. Seeing the well heeled in designer mini skirts, casual wear, and broad-lapeled suits reminds me that the upper crust simply can't do hipster without looking like poseurs. You can literally see Cary Grant-like sophistication losing out to the faux mod vibe of Sean Connery as James Bond. 

* Jet aircraft engines were developed in the 1920s, but World War II first demonstrated their potential. There were no commercial jet flights until 1952 and they were few in number because early "turbojet" technology led to catastrophic metal fatigue. "Turbofan" modifications moved mechanical energy away from, rather than through, the turbines and solved most turbojet problems. But jet engines didn't displace long-distance propeller planes until the late 1960s.  

It's Alive is the other end of the spectrum. It is 90 movie posters and objects from Kirk Hammett's personal collection of the era of classic horror and sci-fi, mostly the 1920s into the 1970s. If Hammett's name doesn't ring immediate bells, he has been the lead guitarist for Metallica since 1981. If you're a metalhead, you know that he usually wields guitars with movie scenes painted upon their bodies—almost always reproductions from posters he owns. I'll bet legions wish we had emulated what Hammett did and kept our childhood ephemera in mint condition.

There is, of course, a Gothic, ghoulish vibe to all of this, but because Hammett's stuff comes from the earlier era, it is more psychological horror than the blood-splattered graphic stuff of today. In a video, Hammett (b. 1962) speaks of how these old films and images were strangely comforting for an unorthodox and shy kid coming of age in the Bay Area in the 1970s. To this day he says he tries to play out horror film scenes on his guitar. Again, though, we're talking Frankenstein and Day of the Triffids, not Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Although his collection includes posters for two of the scariest films I've ever seen, Nosferatu (1922) and Psycho (1960), these films must be seen to induce nightmares. This is true of nearly everything you'll see. There's a goofy charm to Cold War sci-fi films such as The Day the Earth Stood Still, Japanese monster movies like Godzilla, and the various Frankenstein and Dracula offerings.

I pre-scouted this exhibit for friends wondering if it would be okay for their eight-year-old. Although you might want to steer clear of a creepy oversized projection from The Mummy, most kids will be fine—especially if they are in the midst of their dinosaur/monster phase. The eight-year-old in question loved the show. You will too if you just channel your own dinosaur/monster childhood.

The final takeaway is the irony of a guy from Metallica resurfacing as an art curator. It just goes to prove an old adage: live long enough and you too have a shot at obtaining respectability!

Rob Weir

Just can't trust 'fake news'


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