Of the two new exhibitions at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, one appears to be a sure-fire crowd pleaser, while the other yields unexpected pleasures that prove ultimately more substantial. Put another way, maybe I'm just not that keen on looking at women's dresses.
"CUT! Costume and the Cinema" consists of 43 getups worn by big-name stars in period pictures, mostly from the past two decades or so. The emphasis, not surprisingly, is on feminine attire. The dresses really are exquisite, the attention to detail staggering.
While I felt less than satisfied by ensemble after ensemble (accessories included), my dissatisfaction melted away when I moved on to the far end of the museum's first floor. That's where "California Impressionism: Paintings from the Irvine Museum" is on view.
With "CUT!" I flashed back to when I worked at the Museum of Art|Fort Lauderdale several years ago and was bewildered by the daily crowds for the museum's landmark "Diana: A Celebration." That show featured a flashy array of outfits once worn by the late Princess of Wales and, as its show-stopping centerpiece, an entire gallery devoted to her wedding gown and its paraphernalia. The public gobbled it up as if it were a lavish Thanksgiving spread.
It's not that I don't register the significance of both Diana's royal wardrobe and the cinematic closet that has been raided for "CUT!" I get it that these are cultural signposts and that museums are rightly the repositories of our common culture and its artifacts. It's just that, presented with a choice between pop-culture ephemera and fine art, I'll opt in favor of the latter almost every time.
That said, there are modest pleasures to be had when you pass through "Costume and the Cinema" on the way to "Paintings From the Irvine Museum." Pause to picture Emma Thompson, for instance, wearing an elegant dress from the incomparable Howards End (1992), the film for which she won one of her Oscars. Or imagine an understated beauty of a gown on the formidable frame of the great Vanessa Redgrave, dressed for the title character's life-altering party in the Virginia Woolf adaptation Mrs. Dalloway (1997). Linger over the rugged garments that Colin Farrell breathed life into as Capt. John Smith in The New World (2005), an overlooked movie of the past decade.
And then move on to the nearly 60 paintings, mostly oils, that make up "California Impressionism." For many of us, the very idea of California impressionism may be a relatively new cultural construct, and so this fine exhibition is a welcome excursion into uncharted territory.
Much of the thinking behind 19th-century French impressionism readily made the transition to the United States. Impressionism, of course, is one of the most famous and significant developments in art history. Daring, even heretical in its time, its ideas about light and color and landscape quickly took hold and continue to influence artists to this day. The impressionist fondness for painting en plein air, or outdoors, was especially well received in places with so much natural landscape.
California in particular proved irresistible to artists. An essay by Jean Stern, executive director of the Irvine Museum, serves as a companion volume that expands on and complements the exhibition."In time, a large group of artists settled in Southern California, and by 1915, the plein air painters had become the 'entrenched establishment,' " Stern writes. This large, handsome paperback also includes commentary from Janet Blake, curator at the Laguna Art Museum, who hones in on the even greater significance of Southern California for the state's impressionists.
"Southern California's rich topography, year-round temperate climate, and perennial sunshine made it a haven for landscape painters; figure and portrait painters soon succumbed to the lure of the landscape as well," writes Blake.
All of which is a roundabout way of ascribing minimal context to the dozens of glorious landscapes at the heart of "California Impressionism" — a show with such an abundance of excellent paintings that it would be unfair to single any out. There are times when there's nothing like a perfectly executed landscape painting, and for me, one of those times came after picking my way through the Hollywood haberdashery and high couture of "CUT!"
Donner Lake, by Raymond D. Yelland.Raymond D. Yelland