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The Museum of Fine Arts’ retrospective of Hyman Bloom—which focuses mainly on his large oil paintings of autopsies—offers visitors the chance to engage with work that exemplifies how art, and an exhibition, can encourage and foster justice-minded, inclusive, and ethical looking. So doing, it ironically comes closer to succeeding at a task other recent MFA shows have more overtly attempted and failed.
In many of the MFA’s recent shows, blackness, women, and queers are made visible, inspected, and contained, even as whiteness and maleness remain unmarked and unconsidered.
The show opened amidst a bad season for the museum, which had made national headlines in May 2019 for an incident in which children on a school trip were racially menaced by both other patrons and museum security. The incident was detailed in a Facebook post that went viral and resulted in the MFA issuing several apologies, initiating an investigation, staging several public events aimed at reconciliation, banning the offending members, and revising its employee bias training. All this quick action was aimed not only at repairing the museum’s reputation, but also at heading off a civil rights investigation opened by Massachusetts attorney general Maura Healey.
To be fair, the MFA is far from being the first museum accused of racial bias, nor sadly will it be the last. Indeed, over the past decade, museums have come under intensifying scrutiny for how everything from the subjects of their shows to their admission fees often exclude large swaths of their host communities. #Decolonizethismuseum and #Decolonizethisplace have mobilized activists online and in person to push museums to rethink how they use their spaces, approach questions of race and gender, engage in “outreach,” make themselves “accessibile” to different kinds of bodies—in short, to challenge the narrow, white, male, patrician vision of art that museums have been peddling for over a century. It is not simply that museums have been symptomatic of the problem, but rather that they have been active sites of mythmaking for white supremacy, misogyny, ableism, homophobia, empire, and nativism. It is in this sense that sociologists David Embrick, Simón Weffer, and Silvia Dómínguez speak of museums as “white sanctuaries.”
To his credit, the MFA’s director, Matthew Teitelbaum—who in 2015 replaced Malcolm Rogers, the museum’s director for twenty-one years—seems to understand that his job is to reverse the museum’s long reputation as precisely this sort of white sanctuary. When, in 2016, the museum hosted a “Kimono Wednesday” event widely accused of being orientalist, Teitelbaum admitted, “Museums should be safe places, and they’re not safe places for everybody.” And so, the MFA, along with museums across the United States and Europe, has been trying desperately to reposition, re-hang, and reprogram—in effect, to shift its column in the “culture wars” from culprit to advocate.
Most visibly, the MFA has attempted to rebrand with 2020 shows such as Ancient Nubia Now, Women Take the Floor, and Black Histories, Black Futures. But the diversity represented by these shows is isolated—one might say segregated—from the museum’s as-yet unreformed permanent exhibitions, and perhaps even worse, these shows are largely drained of complexity: gender means women; race means black; sexuality means gay people. In this way, the museum unintentionally props up a hegemonic insistence that every body must be an either/or, a this or a that. Blackness, women, and queers are made visible, inspected, and contained, even as whiteness and maleness remain unmarked and unconsidered. In short, even with these new shows, the white sanctuary is intact.
The theme of universality that the MFA so insists upon misses exactly what is most poignant about Bloom’s art: we each matter and we change but remain, even in death, ourselves, not universal at all.
The radical potential of the MFA’s Bloom exhibition seems largely lost on the museum itself. Opening directly on the heels of the May incident, the MFA’s strategy has been to pitch the show by framing Bloom and his art as universal, or, as the press release phrases it, to see in his work “essential truths.” Such language risks reprising the central theme of the museum as white sanctuary, namely, the universality of white experience. Yet things happen in the exhibition—in the works, how they’re hung, the choices made, the curators’ visions—that all twist that story. In short, the Bloom show slyly defies the museum’s space and its missions, and asks for something more.
How does it do this? By showing us specific bodies. This is an exhibition that overflows with exposed, raw flesh and bones, muscles and tendons, strangely crocheted into coherent bodies. These bodies are, for the most part, flayed, decaying, old, nude, wrinkled, rainbow-hued in their puss and filth. They are twisted, chopped up, and tossed about. It is a gruesome show, but also a deeply gorgeous one. Viewing each work takes time—to absorb, to be disoriented, to feel gross, and then to see through to another side. Just when the bodies seem like too much, Bloom draws trees that look like massive planetary landscapes, or abstractions, or strands of DNA, or really anything but a tree. He gives us enormous squash that, honestly, might be some of the most luminous, fulgent, vibrant things I have ever seen.
A key contributor to the power of seeing Bloom’s so-called cadaver paints hung together is how they force the viewer to see that we are not all the same. We rot and decay in spectacular individuality and evocative, singular ways. Even in death, humans stay in our corporeal casings and continue our journeys as gloriously unique corpses. The theme of universality that the MFA so insists upon diminishes in the face (or piles of arms and legs) of exactly what is most poignant about Bloom’s art: we each matter and we change but remain, even in death, ourselves, not universal at all.
This all comes together as a show about death, and how to see death. Not with fear, but with wonder; because it is really amazing to look at a dead body and really think on it, to see beauty, peace, and sadness, but mostly to see the flesh of someone in particular. It’s a show, at base, about how no one can escape the mortal coil, and that there is a sweet grace, and definitely beauty, to that reality. And if Bloom doesn’t let us look away, neither do the curators: the galleries are smartly paced, unrelenting, and totally unexpected.
But who was Hyman Bloom, and what motivated him to paint autopsies? Here, the show falters around its own presumptions about Bloom’s whiteness. In fact, Bloom was a Jewish immigrant who left Latvia in 1920 to come to the United States. In the early 1940s, amidst the spread of Nazism and reports of Jews being murdered across Europe, his art turned most decidedly to the subject of bodies, and the artist began visiting morgues. In downplaying context, the show’s signage and catalog suggest that we should not associate Bloom’s turn to death too much with war and the Holocaust, we shouldn’t ponder for long his departure from Latvia, or hover on his Judaism (his many gorgeous images of rabbis are banished from this show). We are assured that many artists confronted death and the body—look at Rembrandt, for example. In other words, we are told to shake off the specificity of Bloom, his Judaism, his status as an immigrant in a country that did not see him as white, his choice to paint death against the backdrop of the murder of his people—his choice to paint decomposition specifically, an end to life celebrated in Judaism and denied by the Reich to its cremated victims.
Museums can be spaces where people encounter the terrible, beautiful messiness of mattering.
In the same way that the specificity of the bodies Bloom painted matter, so too do the details of the painter’s body matter. Likewise does his unsettled whiteness. In this way the MFA misses a valuable opportunity to consider how not all whiteness is the same; whiteness and Judaism have cyclically held together and fallen apart in the United States. This is not to say that Jewish whiteness is not powerful, but likewise it has yet to become a fait accompli. We could add to this that it matters that Bloom only painted white bodies, at a time when depictions of lynching were widely circulated. Visual culture is about absence and silence too. Bloom deserves the same treatment of grace, disappointment, individuality, and repulsion that he gives his painted bodies. His bodies don’t speak of the universal, and the show shouldn’t encourage the viewer to, either.
Bloom is an important artist, not because he was universal, or always right or righteous. He is important because his work can remind viewers of their marked specificity, their limitations of sight, their inevitable decay, and the ways that they are contained within time, in vulnerable bodies, and indivisible from the intersections of race, gender, status, and desire, in ways that are both coruscating and miserably regulating. Bloom is important not because he is like Rembrandt (enough with that) but because his work is like his work. Museums could and should take on this visual and ethical messiness, take on this diversity that does not look to match like with like, whatever that might mean. The mess of visualizing who and what matters, and who hasn’t or doesn’t is worth the trouble. Museums can be spaces where people encounter the terrible, beautiful messiness of mattering. To universalize an artist such as Bloom is as misguided as segregating the ones deemed too specific and particular (as the museum does with Women Take the Floor).
The Bloom show was clearly a gamble for the MFA; where it fumbles, it is not because the museum risked too much, but rather that it risked too little. The Bloom show is a mess. Go see it and tell the MFA to make more messes.
Alexis L. Boylan is Associate Professor of Art and Art History and Africana Studies at the University of Connecticut, and is Director of Academic Affairs for University of Connecticut’s Humanities Institute. She is author of Ashcan Art, Whiteness, and the Unspectacular Man and editor of Thomas Kinkade: The Artist in the Mall.
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