Depressing sign of the times at MFA

“Stella Tennant, New  York 2006” from the exhibition “In Your Face” by Mario Testino at the Museum of Fine Arts.

mario testino

“Stella Tennant, New York 2006” from the exhibition “In Your Face” by Mario Testino at the Museum of Fine Arts.

MARIO TESTINO is a commercial artist. His photos are well-crafted celebrity photos — not art. To give him his own career retrospective exhibit is a depressing sign of the times. The exhibit will draw crowds, but it is not work that deserves to take up space in a museum of fine art.

Is MFA senior curator of photographs Anne Havinga attempting to justify the exhibit when she says "the Testino images have an “amazing vitality”? True, but is amazing vitality criterion for a major exhibit? I assume that she would rather be showing the work of contemporary or classic photographic fine artists, and that she knows, but cannot say, that showing Testino’s celebrity photos pays the rent.


Another attempt to justify the exhibit quotes director of the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego. “You have a number of people, like Annie Leibovitz, who blur those [between commercial and fine art] lines. Her work is showing in museums, and it’s collected as fine art, but she also does fashion and commercial work. For Testino, it’s not just about selling clothes, it’s about selling a lifestyle.” Yes, Leibovitz does commercial and fine art, as do many artists, and her fine art work is what I would like to see in a museum. Work that sells a lifestyle is not fine art; pretending it is lowers the standards for what is art.

I went to see an exhibit of Harry Callahan photographs a couple of years ago at the MFA in the Herb Ritts Gallery. That gallery is a converted hallway. I will not pay to see an exhibit in that poorly lit space again. I would pay to see the work of Stieglitz, Weston, Frank, or contemporary fine art photography in the space that will be taken up the Testino exhibit.

Bill Madigan


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