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   

No comments: