With great fanfare, the Museum of Fine Arts opens two photography shows this weekend. “Mario Testino: In Your Face” runs through Feb. 3, and Testino’s “British Royal Portraits” through June 16. Both shows are open to MFA members Friday and Saturday before opening to the general public Sunday. They are the first US museum shows for the Peruvian-born, London-based fashion and celebrity photographer, whose work is familiar to readers of Vogue, Vanity Fair, and other glossy magazines.
How much fanfare? “In Your Face,” which is in the Ann and Graham Gund Gallery, commences with a 90-second video on 16 screens and concludes with a shop selling Testino-associated items. The video may be the single most interesting part of the exhibition. With concision and dash, it presents Testino working, traveling, being feted, being fawned over. The fawning continues with the show’s introductory wall text. The exhibition “invites you into Testino’s own world, as if stepping into the pages of one of today’s great fashion magazines.”
The rube breathlessness of those words would be endearing if it weren’t so sad. It’s the tone of someone promoting Las Vegas night at the parish hall. The sad part isn’t so much that “In Your Face” resembles Las Vegas night, though it does. Or even the spectacle (a very Testino term) of one of the world’s great art museums aspiring to be a spread in Vogue. It’s that museum demonstrating its utter incomprehension of how fashion magazines function.
“In Your Face” consists of 122 photographs. Most of them are in color. All are large, some extremely so. The show’s signature image, of model Kate Moss staring at the camera in front of a panoply of mirrors, measures nearly 5½ feet by 9 feet. A photograph of Tom Brady and a dog both baring their teeth (maybe they’re channeling their Rex Ryan) measures nearly 8 feet by 5½ feet.
So “In Your Face” is supersized, and what it’s supersizing are superstars and supermodels. It’s like a police lineup conducted by Anna Wintour and Graydon Carter: Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Lopez, Brad Pitt, Gwyneth Paltrow, Charlize Theron, Lady Gaga, Madonna, Beyonce, Rihanna, Reese Witherspoon, Stephanie Seymour, Claudia Schiffer, Gisele Bundchen, Naomi Campbell. You get the idea.
The principle is the larger the better, and the more the merrier. Except that so many famous names, famous bodies, famous faces (famous places, too) quickly blur, a blurring that the oversized scale adds to. These are images that definitely grab your attention but then don’t hold it.
“I make certain prints very large to fill the viewer’s vision,” Testino says, “the way a photograph can fill an entire magazine page.” Fill — or assault? Hey-look-at-me can work to memorable effect, a spread at a time, in the context of a magazine. Clumped together in a gallery, it’s optical cacophony and exhausting. Say this for “In Your Face”: The title is fair warning.
Magazines, especially ones as visually sophisticated as Vogue or Vanity Fair, achieve a rhythm for the eye through the interplay of text, image, even advertising. It’s true that “In Your Face” has an affinity with advertising. The pictures all look like ads for some unmentioned product marketed to very rich (if not very discriminating) consumers. But there’s no rhythm. Even text is effectively eliminated. Rather than being printed on the wall, captions are on a narrow shelf beneath the pictures and at a right angle to them. The idea is presumably to minimize distraction from the image proper. But these are images that would very much benefit from distraction, which in this case would be a form of breathing room.
There’s another peculiarity to the captions. They list the magazine where the picture originally ran. Now that’s a distraction. It’s as if the fact an image appeared in, say, Harper’s Bazaar somehow enhances or validates it. Artistry makes a photograph worth looking at. So does subject. But publication history? We’re back in the realm of breathlessness.
MFA director Malcolm Rogers describes Testino as “one of the greatest and most mercurial image-makers of our time.” Well, it’s his museum. Testino certainly has a style. It’s cold, loud, louche. It’s unclear whether he has a sensibility, unless excess married to self-satisfaction qualifies. He can be witty in a cruel sort of way. A model sipping Chanel No. 5 through a straw is funny, especially in this context. A model with scissors going after a tropical fish in a bowl is funny, too, until you stop to think about it.
Testino favors certain tropes: a woman cupping a bare breast, a figure looking over his or her shoulder, the display of long, long legs. In that last preference, and the loucheness, he’s like a skim-milk Helmut Newton. That’s to say, he is to transgressiveness as truthiness is to truth. Wouldn’t you love to step into the pages of the magazine — now I’m doing it — where Stephen Colbert sits for Mario Testino?
The emblematic image as regards transgression shows Jennifer Aniston wearing a man’s white dress shirt, which is carefully arranged so as to reveal a discreet curve of breast — no nipple or areola visible, thank you very much. Yes, there’s nudity elsewhere in the show: a lot of nipples, a penis, various famous buttocks. But it’s nudity drained of feeling and warmth, surprise and chagrin, which is to say drained of sexiness. Testino may startle, but he doesn’t shock. Of course one doesn’t succeed as he has, and where he has, without being discreet even (or especially) about indiscretion.
A museum exhibition involves many things, from aesthetics to economics to crowd flow. It’s also a cultural transaction. A museum bestows its authority, and prestige, upon an artist or genre or school. Conversely, the merit of that artist or genre or school affirms the museum’s authority. In mounting a show, a museum might also seek an association with hipness, contemporaneity, glamour.
Usually the transaction nets out. Here it would seem the balance of payments favors Testino. Yes, he’s famous, highly able, and very well situated. Yet somehow, as noted, that fame, ability, and situation have not resulted in a US museum exhibition. Nor is either of the Testino shows traveling to another venue. Another aspect of the cultural transaction is the quality of the other sites mounting a show — or the fact of there simply being any. Maybe the MFA is shrewdly ahead of the art-canon curve. There was a time when Richard Avedon or even Irving Penn was not treated seriously in museum circles. Or maybe it’s the institutional equivalent of a dowager trying to look good in fishnets and spandex.
The pictures all look like ads for some unmentioned product marketed to very rich (if not very discriminating) consumers. But there’s no rhythm.
The 16 photographs in “British Royal Portraits” show Testino on his best behavior. They’re on an imposing scale, too (some are as big as 4 feet by 5 feet), but somehow sedately so. He treats the royals like celebrities, but a special class of celebrity. He photographs Moss one way and Princess Diana another (Testino’s famous 1997 black-and-white portrait is the show’s standout) and Queen Elizabeth very much another.
In a photograph of Prince Charles with his sons, Testino manages to capture a resemblance to Elizabeth that I, for one, have never noticed before. If monarchy has any meaning in the 21st century beyond selling magazines and raising museum attendance, it’s the demonstration of continuity across eras. This Testino has done.
The Royal Family entrusted him with Prince William and Kate Middleton’s engagement portraits, two of which are in the show. Testino is able to make even the Duchess of Cornwall (the former Camilla Parker-Bowles) look nearly as attractive as Diana. The massive white hat she’s wearing helps. It’s easy to see why the Royal Family likes Testino so much. He glamorizes the royals even as he humanizes them. Four years after its opening, the Herb Ritts Gallery gets a show worthy of its name.Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.