Whimsical Pooh and Oldenburg at Boston MFA

Winnie the Pooh: Exploring a Classic (through January 6, 2019)
Claes Oldenburg: Shelf Life (through December 2, 2018)
Boston Museum of Fine Arts

 Click on images for larger version.

Venerable institutions such as the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) have historically catered to what is glibly labeled high culture. They are places intellectuals visit to expand their understanding of the fine arts and cultivate refinement. There is nothing wrong with that per se, except that museums have become expensive places to visit—$25 in the MFA's case—and a reputation for stuffiness doesn't exactly encourage the hoi polloi to pony up serious cash. It literally pays to lighten up now and again, and it's in everyone's interest to erode arbitrary barriers between art and non-art.

There's plenty in the MFA for devotees of the serious, but in part one covering the MFA's fall/early winter season, let's take a look at two whimsical exhibits, one that looks at a children's classic, and another that features an experimental sculptor.

Christopher Robin Milne
I did not grow up with Winnie the Pooh, but it has been great fun discovering him in the autumn of my life. The MFA has borrowed 200 objects—ranging from drawings and letters to stuffed toys, photographs, and posters—from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Only a curmudgeon sucking on a pickle could fail to be charmed by this magical retrospective of A. A. Milne's stories and E. H. Shepard's artwork. The Pooh oeuvre, if you will, consists of four collections of tales bookended by When We Were Very Young in 1924 and House at Pooh Corners in 1928. In them we meet the principals of the Pooh universe: nervous Piglet, serious Owl, sensible Rabbit, motherly Kanga and baby Roo, grumpy Eeyore, bouncy Tigger, Christopher Robin, and the pivot around which most "expotitions" revolve: the honey-loving bruin of "very little brain," Edward Bear—know to all as Winnie the Pooh. (The name comes from Winnipeg, a Canadian black bear cub Milne first encountered as a military mascot during World War I that finished her days in a London zoo.)  Milne (1882-1956) extrapolated Hundred Acre Wood from the Sussex countryside to which he, wife Daphne, and infant son Christopher relocated after the war. 

11 O'Clock is 'snackeral' time!

The MFA show amuses us through its variety, its playfulness, and its utter simplicity. The opening gallery showcases the original stuffed toys and a variety of early Poohphernalia—okay, I made up that word—such as games, postcards, and foreign editions of the books. Then you enter the main galleries, where you can stand upon a makeshift bridge as digital Pooh sticks float from one side to the other. You can also sit by wall-painted scenes from the books, or hunker down on all fours to spend time in Eeyore's house. The main attractions, though, are pictures of Christopher and his family, and Shepard's sketches that became illustrations for the books.

Silly Bear stuck in Rabbit's house

Pooh and Piglet tracking a wuzzle

Shepard (18769-1996) created ingenious illustrations that paid great attention to natural detail. His was a great balancing act. On one hand, he anthropomorphized stuffed toys to give each distinct personalities, yet did so in ways that retained an air of fantasy. Pooh is real to us in Shepard's drawings, yet he isn't. His deft touch engages the imagination—just the sort of thing needed for a child of developing brain. 

Trudging through the snow

The last gallery demonstrates how brilliant Shepard's drawings were. We are shown—and I wouldn't use the phrase "treated to"—modern adaptations of Pooh. In almost all cases, Shepard's pencil sketches are vastly superior to recent color renderings of the Milne classics. Worst of all are the regrettable Disney updates. Disney now franchises Pooh stories and films, but it does so in ways that are bloodless and soullessly commercial. You can buy a smiling Eeyore plush toy courtesy of Disney, though why anyone would wish to is beyond me. If you're the parent of a small child, by all means expose that child to the original; Disney knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. I came out of the main galleries humming like Pooh, but by the time I zipped through the Disney updates, the phrase "That's all very well for some" echoed in my brain in an Eeyore voice. Winnie the Pooh is a classic that needs no updating.   

The rare well-done adaptation

Eeyore as he should be!


Pop, op, and avant-garde artists have done a great service in knocking the pretense out the fine arts community. I have had a fondness for Swedish-born sculptor Claes Oldenburg (b. 1929) since he was briefly an artist-in-residence at my undergraduate college, Shippensburg. Oldenburg, like Andy Warhol, often made gigantic versions of everyday objects such as stamp pads, ice cream cones, shuttlecocks, and saws. One of the points was to make the viewer consider line and form in ways that move beyond mere utility.

The MFA show displays Oldenburg in a different puckish mood. If you've ever been to any decent-sized museum, you will have encountered still life oil paintings. Perhaps these don't float your boat; even some of my artist friends see endless compositions of fruit, bread, and goblets as more of an exercise than as intrinsically interesting. Dutch painters excelled at these—especially in the 16th and 17th centuries—and for reasons other than practicing their painterly chops. Still lifes often had embedded metaphors. Skulls, for instance, often set upon tables as reminders that life was fleeing, no matter earthly indulgences were consumed. If there was a main theme, though, it was to call attention to the wealth and opulence of the Dutch Golden Age, a time in which the tiny Netherlands was a military power with colonies, cutting edge science, and wealth pouring into its ports. (The Dutch also controlled much of the slave trade during this period.)  All that fruit, meat, bread, and wine on the canvas symbolized Dutch power. Think of these things the next time you see iconic work from painters such as Pieter Claesz (above).

Oldenburg's shelves are riffs on and lampoons of Golden Age still life. He uses soft sculpture, found objects, built forms, and paint to build giant shadow boxes that are equal parts parody, surrealist, and pure whimsy. Here are a few installations at the MFA show.

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