So, for the first time in almost a year I decided to head back to my old stomping grounds, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. I wasn’t sure what to expect since they’ve been undergoing major construction for a new wing for a while now. For museums, this usually means things are in some state of chaos; the art I want to see is probably in storage and the art that has somehow managed to stay on the walls is off in some other part of the building that I didn’t know how to reach even before all of this nonsense.
This time though, I have to say that even with the changing entrances to the general confusion of all, the MFA has mostly preserved the nature of its displayed work. It’s still a large museum with a large collection, some of which is middling and some of which is truly fantastic. The current exhibition, the one that they are really pushing, is Tomb 10A, an excavated Egyptian tomb that some archeologists from Harvard and the MFA discovered in 1915. The exhibition is really pretty cool, but I won’t get into it here, you can’t really do a visual analysis on it, and I don’t know enough about Egyptian art to actually do a full review. I did however manage to find myself by the adjoining exhibitions of Harry Callahan and Albrecht Durer which were both quite beautiful and interesting, both separately and together.
Harry Callahan, 1912-1999, was a photographer known, curiously enough, for his urban landscapes as well as intimate portraits of his wife and daughter. The small exhibition featuring his life’s work focuses primarily on those portraits but also includes images of pedestrians on the streets of Chicago and Detroit.
One of the most striking of the images was of his wife, titled Eleanor, 1948. The image is both moving and fascinating despite its initial simplicity. The camera looks directly at a bright window puncturing a dark wall. The wall curves in towards the viewer, flush with the bottom of the window but approaching the camera at the ceiling, creating an overhang of light. Shuttled off to the right is the back of Eleanor, looking out the window; she is naked, but her dark hair has been carefully bound into a bun. She is sitting the wrong way on a chair, looking towards another spot of brightness, perhaps another room or window? The center of Eleanor’s back is dark, like her hair, but each of her sides are highlighted by different windows, making them pop against the dark walls.
What becomes so powerful is the simple compositional construction. Callahan allows for the architecture of the room to frame the image and dictate how we, the viewer, see it. The eye is immediately drawn to Eleanor, despite her being tucked away in the lower right of the image. It’s due in part to the blocks of light to her right and the pentagonal shape above her head that seems to point directly at her. It is only afterwards that the eye is drawn to the window in the direct center of the photograph.
Once the viewer sees the major components of the photograph, he is allowed to begin to notice the subtleties that make the picture truly fantastic. The velvety grays and blacks that slide over the wall reveal inconsistencies in the plasterwork, with the paint above the window peeling. The top two windows are beautiful in their simple design, at home in the polygonal room.
In some ways, both in terms of the era and the construction of the composition, this image reminds me of the color plane paintings of Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, although the subtle changes in tone on the wall are more reminiscent of Rothko. The inclusion of the figural body, however, throws it off; figuration was considered uncouth by the abstract expressionists of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Nevertheless the addition of the body adds not only an incredible amount of visual interest; it also gives soul to the piece. This is the body of his wife, two years later his daughter, Barbara, will be born, and also show up frequently in his work. The enclosure is at once purely compositional but also intimate. It becomes a space for this couple, it allows for a story to evolve behind the scenes. The viewer begins to wonder, is this where they live? There appears to be a table next to Eleanor, is that their dinning room table? Are they poor? Is that why the room seems to be so bare and in such disrepair? Abstract expressionism becomes a tool that allows Callahan to move away from “pure” painting or photography and show what is truly meaningful to him.
Following the Callahan exhibition, which holds many other photographs of such subtlety and restraint, is the Durer show. It mostly consists of woodblock prints and engravings, with a few drawings sprinkled in. Making this transition, an interesting dichotomy in artistic approach appeared. With a camera all detail is available, you only have to show it in the light, while with the pen (or engraving tool as the case may be) nothing is available and everything must be rendered by your hand. Thus, while Callahan makes a consistent effort to only show certain details, Durer strives to show everything.
Unfortunately, the MFA does not have all of its Durers available to view online. One good and available example, however, is Saint Jerome by the Pollard Window. The engraving features the Saint seated outside on a chair carved from rock, a piece of wood for a desk, a lion, a desk, grass, a brook, there is almost an endless amount of visual information offered up to the viewer. Partially, it’s due to the medium itself, dry point engraving in which the artist uses a sharp pen-like tool to engrave into metal. Depending on the frequency of the strokes in a particular area, the artist can render something darker or lighter and give an object a sense of volume. Thus, the higher the density of the scratches, the darker the area once the ink is rolled onto the metal plate and pressed onto a piece of paper. Thus, depth and composition are almost necessarily accomplished through increased detail through more abundant and varied strokes.
Coming from the Callahan show the Dürer works appeared almost garish in their incredibly intricate detail; my eyes were overwhelmed. Like the Callahan photographs, however, these images offer much to the slow meditation of the viewer’s eyes across the picture’s surface. Unlike the Callahan photographs, they hit you with all of that information on the first perusal, making each engraving seem like more of a commitment. You feel like you’re obliging yourself to examining each pen stroke.
On further thought, though, I began to see real similarities between, if not through the images themselves, then through the mediums. Engravings/woodblock prints and photographs are means of mass producing images. The benefit of either a woodblock print or an engraving is that multiple prints can be made from the woodblock or metal sheet, which can then be placed into books or sold. They are also tools for disseminating information to a wider audience. Some of his images include pictures of towns that he visited on his travels. In some ways, then, his use of incredible detail makes sense, it allows for him to prove to the viewer the veracity of what they are seeing. In the same vein, by placing too much information into a photograph, it can decrease the force of the image by making the subject less important.
The MFA, as such an expansive art museum, allows for such connections to be made. The large and rambling display makes a simultaneous perspective on Albrecht Durer and Harry Callahan possible, whether intentional or not.
link to MFA: www.mfa.org