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‘Postcard Age’ displays fascinating art from bygone era

Excellently curated exhibition shines at the MFA

Published: Thursday, February 21, 2013

Updated: Thursday, February 21, 2013 02:02

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Leonard A. Lauder Postcard Archive—Promised gift of Leonard A. Lauder / Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

For many of us, postcards are trivial little things, meant to be bought and sent on a passing whim. Smaller and less expensive than a real letter, the postcard occupies a strange little niche. The picture on one side lets the recipient know where we are, and the other side informs of some adventure on a beach somewhere. Even though postcard art has degenerated into gag pictures of naked women tanning on a beach somewhere, it wasn’t always so.

In the Museum of Fine Arts exhibit “The Postcard Age,” hundreds of postcards taken from the Leonard A. Lauder Postcard Archive, a collection of thousands of postcards, are grouped in broad categories such as “Women” and “About Town” and then set out for visitors to see. These pieces of history offer interesting little visual vignettes of a time and place entirely separate from our own.

Around the turn of the 20th century, postcards were ubiquitous, and people sent them even when not on vacation. Because people were continually sending them to friends, companies and artists had to keep them fresh and interesting. The result is that postcards accurately reflected the latest trends and fashions of the day on a miniature canvas.

Not surprisingly, the cards are absolutely beautiful and well preserved. The majority of postcards displayed are photographs or lithographs, meaning that there is a good mix of black− and−white and color pieces. Some of the photographs have a strange and haunting look — one card shows a group of butchers standing together in bloodstained aprons and staring straight into the camera. There is no explanation but for the fact that this was one of a set entitled “At Work.” The show features colorful and lighthearted lithographs that show a strong Art Nouveau influence. There are some over−the−top pieces too, including some cut in unusual shapes, and others containing pull−tabs that reveal another part of the scene or cellophane screens allowing lights to shine through.

The back wall of the exhibit sports the most unusual postcards, including many whose main purpose seemed to be advertising. The Michelin man has never looked so good. These ads depict cartoon women opening boxes of chocolates, a man riding a bicycle or a shiny new fleet of planes flying over a city—but there is a darker set of ads not too far off. Much to my surprise, there was a tradition of putting military propaganda on postcards. The cards from the World War I era are particularly striking.

Obviously, not all the postcards are so dark. Some postcards also draw on previous artistic traditions, giving these little treasures a place in the larger continuum of art. One of my personal favorites was made during the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris, and shows runners in the style of a Greek white figure vase. This card both shows the Olympic Games as a continuation of an ancient tradition and sells Paris as a high−class location.

Though the postcards are the focus of the exhibit, “The Postcard Age” is excellently curated. Set up without any particular viewing order in mind, the exhibit, contained in a single room, is meant to prompt discoveries and associations between times and places. Rather than using just the walls, the curator decided to make several jointed screens that resemble a laid−out deck of cards and display the postcards on those. There is also very little commentary, aside from the text near the door. Some cards have small blurbs, but they are left to speak for themselves. The effect is that the exhibit has no direction, and visitors are invited to go where they please, finding their ways among the postcards just as the cards once found their ways among the postal system. Viewers can move around, between and among the different screens as they choose, creating an order and experience unique to each visitor.

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