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Gallery Review | MFA poster exhibit shows breadth

Groundbreaking art remains under−exhibited at MFA

Published: Monday, February 4, 2013

Updated: Monday, February 4, 2013 08:02

If you were to make the trip to the Museum of Fine Arts, you’d probably walk past one of its latest installations, “Art in the Street: European Posters,” and not even stop to smell the roses — or gaze upon the lithographs as it were. And that’s a shame because this artwork deserves a bit more attention, from visitor and curator alike.

The exhibition, which opened Dec. 15 and will run through July 21, brings together 40 outstanding posters from the MFA’s collection of more than 2000. Those that were chosen to fill the two separate galleries of the installation are meant to give a brief look into the poster craze that overtook Europe from the late 19th to the mid−20th century.

Bringing together many of the medium’s greatest artists, including Henri de Toulouse−Lautrec and Pierre Bonnard, the exhibit largely delivers on this goal — in no small part because the pieces chosen are spectacular.

Take, for instance, Toulouse−Lautrec’s “La ChaÎne Simpson” (1896), which is a brilliant example of the simplistic nature of posters. The piece captures wonderful movement in the scene of a bicycle race — a nod to its purpose as an advertisement for the eponymous bicycle chain company. It also serves as a glimpse of pop culture history as Toulouse−Lautrec portrays legendary cyclist Constant Huret.

This poster, like so many of the colorful lithographs put on display, demonstrates the beauty of poster design as an art form. This blend of simple text, cultural reference and bold color was present regardless of the time−period each piece came from. The result is art designed to be enjoyed by the masses. And despite some pieces being over 100 years old, nearly all make good on this promise.

A perfect example is Niklaus Stoecklin’s “Binaca” (1941). This poster, done in the Swiss object style, is tongue−in−cheek at its best, as it perfectly advertises for the toothpaste company. All you’re given is the boldly constructed image of a cup, toothbrush and toothpaste, executed in starkly realistic detail.

This piece, like so many others, feels utterly self−aware — as if the artist intended for it to be a commentary. This self−referential feel is at times displayed in actuality through the multitude of designs commissioned by artists for artists.

The most captivating example of this is Franz von Stuck’s 1893 “Die Suende.” This prime example of the Northern variant of Art Nouveau style reflects its artist’s German home in the darker, more somber colors used — as compared with the bright and airy pieces of the French artists across the hall.

Beyond this playfulness, the piece is interestingly confrontational. Like many of these posters, von Stuck’s work is hypnotic in its execution because it never fails to draw you in.

This immersive experience is the perfect forum for what feels like an education in poster history on behalf of the museum’s curators. Despite the exhibit’s diminutive size, it is grand and daring in its scope.

It is no surprise then that the first room is more successful than the other. In only twenty or so pieces, the room dedicated to the late 19th century feels all−encompassing.

Here, you have poster after poster that each define what Art Nouveau is all about. A prime example: the 1892 poster for Encre L. Marquet done by Eugène Grasset. The stunning image of a girl staring wistfully with quill in hand and ink nearby is a masterpiece of the art form. Grasset’s work is all flowing lines, sharp angles and expressive colors.

Despite all the success of the one room, the other sadly disappoints. This is not because of the work. The collection of posters, such as Anton Lavinsky’s mixed media work for the poster of “Battleship Potemkin” (1905), feels fresh and bold in the messages it carries. But the through−line is missing here. Besides hailing from the same short time period, these posters have little to nothing in common.

One moment you’re looking at Lavinsky’s affronting work, the next you’re losing yourself in the majesty of Cassandre’s (Adolph Jean−Marie Mouron) 1927 railroad poster “Éoile du Nord (The North Star)” — one of the finest examples of Art Deco style ever created.

The entire exhibition feels like it is lost, literally. Its location near the Fenway entrance does the artwork a disservice as too few museumgoers find their way to this back corner of the MFA during a regular exhibit, especially given flashier pieces near the main entrance.

These minor complaints aside, a visit to “Art in the Street” is worth it, simply because the posters featured are breathtaking. It may take a while, but this is something worth repeating.

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