Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Karsh 100 and the new Ritts room at the MFA

There are two, count 'em two, photography exhibits going on at the MFA in Boston right now. The Tanuki got to take a good long look at both of them a couple of weeks ago.

One is Karsh 100, a big retrospective on Canadian portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh. I've been aware of Karsh for a long time, although for an embarrassing reason: he did a portrait of Rush for their album Grace Under Pressure, and as an incredibly nerdy Rush fan in high school, I noticed this. Also caught an exhibit of his work at the BYU art museum in '95 or '96, must've been. The MFA's show is far more extensive, though.

It includes selections of his non-portrait work, to give a better picture of him as a technician, an artist, and I guess as a person; some of his experimental early work, before he discovered his gifts (and patronage) as a portraitist, and some of the photoessay work he undertook in his maturity, social-realist views of Canada's cities, industrial utopian jobs for corporate brochures. All interesting, but not as interesting as his portraits.

Which I'm not sure are interesting, at least not in a high-art way. I kept looking for something deeper in the portraits, but all I found was what the sitters wanted me to see - what, presumably, the people who commissioned the portraits (who weren't always the sitters) wanted me to see. Famous things like the iconic picture of Hemingway, all manly beard and weatherbeaten face; this is how people wanted to see him, and Karsh gave it to them, larger than life. Or, to pick an example less well known to people in this country, his portrait of Robertson Davies (can't find this anywhere on the web to link to - sorry), which makes the man look like a palimpsest of Dickens and Pound, which is kind of what his books read like.

And yet: there's usually a startling beauty in the portraits, because Karsh was a master of light and texture. Flesh takes on the luster of marble, hair becomes silk; he'll often focus not just on the face, but on one point in the face, the nose or the chin, and everything else is just a little blurry, but that one point is indelibly captured. How you feel about one of his portraits will often depend on how you feel about the sitter, and the persona he or she projects, but if you can ignore that, there's a lot of surface beauty to lose yourself in.

Which reminds me of a conversation I had recently about a Van Dyck in the Baltimore Museum of Art. When you look at a portrait of a wealthy Dutch patron, do you see the loveliness of light on silk, or do you see capital? They're both there, of course.

The other photography exhibit at the MFA right now is the inaugural rotation of the new dedicated photography rooms they've opened, the Herb Ritts and Clementine Haas Michel Brown Galleries. The theme of this one is the body, and it's a splendid collection of stuff to look at. It ranges from the most experimental of things to the most accessible, and it's all great.

The accessible end of things is Herb Ritts his very own self, and it's hard to argue with his humongous (that's an art historical term) portrait of Sinead O'Connor. I guess I really am hopelessly bourgeois, if this grabbed me as much as some of the thornier pieces in the exhibit. But it did.

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