Of Porcelain, Postcards, Posters and Princes

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The Museum of Fine Arts Boston is something of a misnomer as New England’s premier all-purpose art museum does not show only fine arts. Currently, for example, several of the most interesting MFA exhibitions feature works of craft, applied art, commercial art and portrait photography.

The exhibition that caught my attention is New Blue and White (through July 14), a show of some 70 objects by 40 artists and designers that might have been called Neo-Delft, Modern Ming and/or Blue Willow Now. Emily Zilber, curator of contemporary decorative arts at the MFA, has assembled works in ceramics, glass, sculpture, fashion and furniture that that make modern, updated use of the distinctive blue and white aesthetic associated with Dutch Delftware, Ming vases and Blue Willow porcelain houseware.

Work 0808, 2008, by Harumi Nakashima. Collection of Samuel and Gabrielle Lurie. Photo by Geoff Spear

The works in the show range from abstractions such as Harumi Nakashina’s glazed stoneware polka dot polyps to functional pieces such as a pair of shoes by Rodarte (Kate and Laura Mulleavy) and conceptual works such as Spin, a set of bone china plates by Robert Dawson that start out with a traditional Blue Willow pattern and become increasingly blurred.

Organizing an exhibition around the color combination of cobalt blue and china white is a refreshing and insightful conceit. I’d love to see what curator Emily Zilber could do with international orange.

Mele Department Store, c. 1900, probably by Aleardo Villa

The elevation of the everyday to the status of art object, the ephemeral to the eternal, animates The Postcard Age: Selection from the Leonard A. Lauder Collection (through April 14), an exhibition of some 700 vintage postcards from the collection of Leonard Lauder, retired chairman of the Estée Lauder Cosmetics Company, who has given the MFA tens of thousands of a rare postcards, promised a gift of 100,000 more, and endowed the Leonard A. Lauder Curator of Visual Culture position at the MFA. Lauder Curator Benjamin Weiss co-curated the postcard show with Lynda Kilch of Hunter College.

“The MFA shares my vision of the postcard as both a modern art form and a revolutionary means of communications,” says Mr. Lauder, 80. “This exhibition highlights both the beauty of the postcard and its historical importance. The MFA’s commitment to exploring visual culture brings postcards into a dialogue with other forms of modern art – like posters and books as well as prints and paintings.”

Lauder’s collection, which began with a postcard of the Empire State Building he purchased when he was seven years old, is now one of the world’s most extensive and is focused on the decades around 1900 when postcards were the text messages and Twitter of the times. Lauder’s fine art and fortune has largely benefited the Whitney Museum of American Art, but he has been placing his postcard collection elsewhere with prior gifts both to the Boston MFA and the Curt teach Postcard Archive of the Lake County Discovery Museum in Illinois.

Delftsche Slaolie (Delft Salad Oil)Johannes Theodorus Toorop (Dutch, 1858 -1928),1894. Color lithograph printed in black and yellow. Lee M. Friedman Fund. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Hand in glove with the Lauder postcard exhibition, the MFA is also featuring 40 of the turn of the century posters from its collection of some 2,500 posters. Art in the Street: European Posters (through July 21). Posters are the medium through which many of us first acquired fine art imagery if not fine art itself. In my case, it was posters of works by Andrew Wyeth and Ben Shahn. The posters in the MFA show date from 1878 to 1941 and were designed by artists such as Toulouse Lautrec, Bonnard, and Kandinsky.

TRH The Duke & Duchess of Cambridge, London, 2010* © Mario Testino

Finally, the MFA has taken some critical grief for a pair of exhibitions of photographs by celebrity fashion photographer Mario Testino. Mario Testino: In Your Face (which came down February 3) featured 122 often large-format glamour portraits of celebrities such as model Kate Moss, rock star Mick Jagger, and Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Mario Testino: British Royal Portraits (through June 16) features 16 somewhat more subdued photographs of the British Royal Family.

Mario Testino is one of the most famous fashion photographers in the world, but the glitzy nature of his work apparently makes some people uncomfortable with it in the relatively staid confines of the MFA. But then the MFA has a gallery named after fellow glamour photographer Herb Ritts, who in 2007 gave the Boston museum $2.5 million and 180 of his own photographs. Fine art it certainly is not. Fun it surely is.

[Museum of Fine Arts Boston, 465 Huntington Ave., Boston MA, 617-267-9300.]



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