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   


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.


Roddy Doyle's Brave Work on Memory and Abuse

Smile (2017)
By Roddy Doyle
Viking, 224 pages.

We’ve all seen the stories. Try as it will, the Catholic Church hasn’t been able to bury its own recent past, especially insofar as the predatory priest scandal goes. As I type, the Boston Globe continues to probe the cover up its Spotlight team first unearthed in 2002, and a new report from Pennsylvania accuses 300 priests of inappropriate sexual contact with children. It’s all horrible stuff, but what does it mean to have been taken advantage of by someone you thought had God on speed dial? Does one ever recover from such a thing?

Roddy Doyle’s Smile seems to suggest that one can move forward once enough time passes and other events of life compete for personal memory space. His most recent novel centers on 54-year-old Victor Forde, who has been carefully rebuilding his life so he can move on from recent bumps in the road. He is newly divorced from his knockout wife Rachel, a celebrity TV cooking show host, but the two remain friendly and she continues to offer emotional support. Victor is also unemployed as his gigs as a music critic have dried up, but he’s upbeat even though he has moved into a new flat in Dublin near the seaside that’s less posh than his former digs. His is the classic sorting of the things one used to think mattered versus those that really do.

We find Victor wallowing in something approaching midlife contentment rather than crisis. He busies himself by banging out chapters of the book Rachel encourages him to finish, and has become a regular Donnelly’s Pub, where he makes new mates. He has even come to grips with an incident that happened when he was a 13-year-old at a Christian Brothers school. His French teacher, Brother Murphy, embarrassed him in class by blurting out, “Victor Forde, I can never resist your smile.” This led to all manner of hazing from classmates, which he tried to slough off. What he never told them was that Brother Murphy, also the wrestling coach, once groped him while ostensibly showing him a hold. Years later, the adult Victor has no problem retelling this story on a radio talk program and dismisses it as a one-time thing.

The only stone along the path of Victor’s desire to get on with his life is Ed Fitzpatrick, a character he meets in his new neighborhood. He’s the physical opposite of the trim, polished, and fastidious Victor, but he introduces himself as a former classmate from Christian Brothers. Ed looks vaguely familiar, but Victor can’t place him, nor can he recall many of the old school incidents and people Fitzpatrick mentions. He’s so insistent about them that Victor often humors him and pretends to remember, but after a while, Victor is feeling creepy. Fitzpatrick seems to know a lot about Victor, but it soon becomes obvious that Ed is a loser. He’s slovenly, cadges drinks, and is always seen wearing the same shorts and pink shirt. Is he some sort of cousin? A stalker? Just a lonely guy seeking friendship? Victor is torn between feeling sorry for Fitzpatrick and wanting to avoid him.

Doyle—known for works such as The Commitments, The Van, and Paddy Clarke Ha Ha—never really bought into the Celtic Tiger myth of Irish prosperity. His Ireland is a place where things are often tough but unlike the portraits that appear in, say, Frank or Malachy McCourt, Ireland isn't a place of unrelenting misery. Doyle books are generally splashed with dollops of humor. In Smile they pierce through the surfaces of caustic barroom banter. To a great extent, in fact, Victor narrates this short novel from the observational vantage points of barstools and pub booths.

Doyle’s greatest trick, though, is to draw us into Forde and Fitzpatrick so completely that we don’t expect the shocking revelations that come. These, including the very identity of the book Victor is writing, will leave you shattered. This is more than a book about what we recall; it’s also about how we remember and why. Everyone embellishes tales, but where is the line between memory and fantasy?

Rob Weir