Art for everyone!
It's Upstairs, Downstairs at MFAH: Art you're supposed to laugh at contrastsserious sittings
What’s that sound I hear in the customarily tranquil Museum of Fine Arts, Houston? Could it be someone laughing?
As it happens, it is — and it’s perfectly appropriate in the context of “The Art of Exaggeration,” the exhibition that opened earlier this month at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Caricatures lampooning the privileged offer much to amuse those visiting this show on the first floor of the Beck Building, which presents its own witty Upstairs, Downstairs contrast to the British exhibition featuring numerous high society portraits on the floor above.
That would be “Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough: The Treasures of Kenwood House, London.” Here, we may look up at a parade of oil-painted people to the manor born or otherwise acquired, including a series of giant glamour shots of Lady/Countess/Mrs. Somebodies.
Caricatures lampooning the privileged offer much to amuse those visiting this show, which presents its own witty Upstairs, Downstairs contrast to the British exhibition featuring numerous high society portraits on the floor above.
While I always spend time admiring the skills of this exhibition's great artists, I invariably find myself wondering what their subjects were thinking during the sitting. In the case of “Mrs. Musters as Hebe” by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1785), one might guess the pleasant-faced young Missus was contemplating how brilliant Sir Joshua was to see her as a goddess.
Mrs. Musters made quite a commitment to this complimentary portrayal of her as the Greek goddess of youth. The wall text says she sat for the artist 18 times while Sir Joshua created the portrait. Talk about Olympian endurance.
As “Goddess” trumps “Lady” and other earthly titles, she probably got a lot of social mileage out of this inspiring feat. At least, I hope so.
I’m equally mesmerized by Sir Anthony van Dyck’s grand portrait of “Princess Henrietta of Lorraine Attended by a Page” (1634.) In it, the imposing princess, whose hairstyle was adopted many years later by First Lady Mamie Eisenhower (U.S. President Dwight D.’s wife), is wearing a dramatic, double-decker, black and silver gown straight out of a Verdi opera. You can tell she ordered it just for the occasion, which must have been a big deal, even for a princess.
Just think of the prep time for these sittings, not to mention the hours spent holding a pose. No wonder the princess looks so frozen-faced, as if she’s fallen into a trance. That would explain why her little page, whose shoulder the princess is gripping with one hand, is looking up at her with such a worried expression. If she keels over in a faint, she’ll topple onto him. Egad.
Comic relief just down the escalator
In the wake of all this somber reflection, comic relief is, thankfully, just down the escalator and around the corner in the form of the artful “Exaggeration.” The show, curated by MFAH assistant curator Dena Woodall and Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation assistant curator Leslie Scattone, consists of 60 works on paper from the 16th through the 21st centuries that exaggerate or distort features, characteristics and situations. I can’t draw stick men, so I love looking at the work of people who can draw well, especially when it’s really well done, like this.
It’s fascinating to look through time at funny sketches drawn under trying circumstances in countries all over the world, executed by masters like Honore Daumier and Francisco de Goya, and realize that besides being accomplished painters, these artists had the bonus of a great sense of humor. As such, they were the Stephen Colberts and Jon Stewarts of their day.
I can’t draw stick men, so I love looking at the work of people who can draw well, especially when it’s really well done, like this.
They satirized the foibles and abuse of power of the upper class, warned of behavioral pitfalls to which all were vulnerable, and recorded their own comic perspectives of societal changes. Even after centuries, their work is still amusing, and powerful, today.
I enjoy hearing stray chuckles from visitors pointing out funny things to each other in this gallery, getting a kick out of the equivalent of supremely well-drawn political cartoons in these etchings, engravings and lithographs.
In a 1799 etching and aquatint entitled “Ni mas ni menos (“Neither more nor less),” Plate 41 from the series “Los Caprichos (The Caprices)” by Spanish artist Francisco de Goya (1746-1828), a monkey is painting a portrait of a donkey. According to the text, the title suggests that a portraitist should record the subject without embellishment, and that’s “clearly not the case here;” it looks to me as if the donkey’s ears have disappeared and been replaced by a period wig on the monkey's canvas. The text explains that by depicting a monkey painting a portrait of “an aristocratic ass,” the artist is “ridiculing the pretensions of the upper class.”
The recently divorced, and anyone dedicated to remaining single, should appreciate the guillotine humor in the same artist’s “Disparate Desordenado (Disorderly Folly), Disparate Matrimonial (Matrimonial Folly),” published posthumously in 1864. The etching depicts a man and woman, each with hideously distorted faces, their backs fused to form “a double-bodied monster signifying wedlock,” the text explains.
I have to wonder what the young hand-holding couples are thinking as they look at this one, as they tend to move on quickly without a smile or comment. Ah, romance!
Also in the marital revelations category, we find the hand-colored lithograph “Plaisirs de la paternite (Pleasures of Paternity)” (1847) by French artist Honore Daumier (1808-1879.) Here we see a man desperately trying to work on some papers he’s holding high as four children climb all over him. This work served as a comment on the changing roles within the family, the text reveals.
“Honey, come look at this one, it’s about fire and brimstone!” a smiling woman near me beckoned her significant other, gesturing at William Hogarth’s 1762 “Credulity, Superstition and Fanaticism” etching and engraving. High in a church pulpit, a preacher holds forth, his hands dangling puppets of a devil and a witch, while a nearby cherub bears a sign reading “To St. Money-Trap.” In the congregation below, all kinds of bizarre things are going on, including a woman who looks as if she’s giving birth to rabbits, representing a real-life hoax.
“Exaggeration” is a fun way for people of all ages — and socioeconomic brackets — to enjoy some cool weekend entertainment this summer. It runs through Sept. 23, but try to go to the MFAH before Sept. 3, when the Kenwood House exhibition ends, and see both shows. Art for everyone!