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Sunday, 8 May 2016

SELFIES

SELF PORTRAIT OF ELISABETH LOUISE VIGÉE LE BRUN
DOUBLE DIPPING AT THE MET
By RICHARD CARREÑO
[WC News Service]
New York
I doubled dipped at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in a visit last week, expanding my afternoon to the museum's new modern and contemporary outpost, housed in the old Whitney building a bit south of the main redoubt on Fifth. The 'new' gallery is still the legendary, five-storey Brutalist concrete slab at 945 Madison. What's different is the gallery's conversion to what is now billed as The Met Breuer (honouring the structure's architect, Marcel Breuer). The rechristening further forms part of a overall institutional rebranding that has also refashioned the main building as The Met Fifth Avenue. (Taking a titling cue from the Tate Modern and Tate Britain, perhaps? The Met's able director, Thomas P. Campbell, is a Brit, after all).
 
The continuing Breuer exhibit I came to see, 'Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible,' is the gallery's first 'blockbuster' show in its new reincarnation, and involves a broad range of pictures from ancient to modern times notable for a single shared attribute: all are 'incomplete' works -- either my circumstance or by intention. Before showing up, I had no great immediate feeling for what, at first, I thought was simply a curatorial contrivance -- all quirky stagecraft, I believed. I was wrong.


In fact, because of their partial state and, for the most part, not hot properties to be widely displayed, I was introduced to many paintings for the first time. Even an early representational self-portrait by Picasso showed up, a novelty piece that I had never seen before 'in the flesh,' so to speak. A more serious note was underscored by numerous, incomplete 18th-century portraits that had particular attraction -- at least, to me -- because of their instructional value. As unfinished efforts, the painterly mechanics of their time-stopped, yet on-going construction (the disclosure of drafting, emerging colouration, the selection and definition of prominent figures and their facial features, and the like) were on full display.

I wandered amid some of my favourite English portraitists (Thomas Lawrence, Thomas Gainsborough, George Romney, Joshua Reynolds; each, in his own way, 'explaining' his discipline as it unfolded before me. In no small way, each master was providing his own public art lesson. The result was not only an insight into a sitter's 'being,' as could be detected in any given painting's finished parts, but an unveiling of how the artist went about achieving that being. Soon, the unfinished forms freely welcomed us to be present at the creation. Then, by looking just a bit harder, and you might even become momentarily a party to the work. A rarity, indeed!

Juxtaposed to another exhibit, at The Met Fifth Avenue, the widely heralded show of works by Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842), my time at The Met Breuer was nothing short of an epiphany. The Vigée Le Brun retrospective, titled 'Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France,' in turn, was nothing short of a disappointment. My bad.

Over the years, I've seen maybe a dozen or so pictures by the artist, and I've always been intrigued by her virtuoso abilities as a skilled technician. Still, I was hoping for more. But, finally, as they say, 'there was no there there.'

Vigée Le Brun, it turns out, is pretty much a painter of pretty pictures of nobility, including her favourite, Marie Antoinette. With such a patron, Vigée Le Brun, a beauty herself, had little difficulty in being favoured with commissions from all sorts of fashionable courtiers and even lesser species of hangers-on at Versailles. Most were women. Most were attractive -- at least portrayed as such. And most seem vacuous. The pictures lack narrative. Few even display any animation. (Two portraits of her daughter, Julie, another stunner, are exceptions. One wonders if their blood ties might account for Vigée Le Brun's otherwise missing blood pressure).

In contrast to her English contemporary Gainsborough (1727-1788), who often drilled into the personalties of his privileged subjects, Vigée Le Brun is, finally, little more than an 18th-century celebrity paparazzo. Her snaps are surely pleasurable to behold. But they hold all the insight of an ad for Ralph Lauren, beautiful people modelling beautiful clothes -- all playing dress-up. Today, these same court slackers of Vigée Le Brun's pre-Revolutionary day would be taking selfies.

'Unfinished' closes 4 September. 'Vigée Le Brun' closes 15 May.
 

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