On the Mario Testino exhibit in Buenos Aires

Mario Testino panorama, In Your Face at MALBA, Buenos Aires, photo by Sean Rocha

A year or two ago, when I heard the Museum of  Fine Arts in Boston was showing an exhibit called “In Your Face” by the Peruvian fashion photographer Mario Testino it inspired a certain weary cynicism about the likely commercial calculus behind mounting it.  Fashion sells, of course, quite literally; it also produces creative brand names more widely recognizable than those of most fine art photographers, which brings in a ‘new audience’ as museums usually call it.  Museums almost always understand that a Testino exhibit — or a Giorgio Armani or BMW exhibit, as at the Guggenheim in the late-1990s — is somewhat outside their core mission but they used to justify it (to themselves and to others) with some high/low Warholian argument and now they just point to the tremendous success of the Alexander McQueen exhibit at the Met in 2011.

The Testino show is still traveling, however, and though I missed it in Boston I caught it in Argentina a couple weeks ago at Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (MALBA), which has an exceptional collection of Latin-American art.  The Latin identity of Buenos Aires itself is a little complicated, as the joke has always been that porteños tried to disassociate their city from Latin America and claim that Buenos Aires is a distant fragment of Europe, indeed practically an arrondissement of Paris.  Outside of a couple neighborhoods (like Retiro and parts of Recoleta) there is not much to support that claim on the ground — if anything, Buenos Aires reminded me most of New York in the early-1990s when it was still scruffy and creative and many of its finest buildings were derelict — and the very existence of a museum of Latin-American art would suggest Buenos Aires today is making a different claim.  In this context, much is made of Testino being Peruvian and, in fact, his career when seen in aggregate at this exhibit does seem like an almost caricatured and fevered Latin rebuke to the cool, controlled Germanic aesthetic of Helmut Newton, who was immensely influential when Testino began establishing himself in the fashion world in the 1980s.  Both Testino and Newton are famed for the eroticism of their photographs — sex sells even better than fashion — but in Testino’s work everyone looks like they’re having fun and in Newton’s like they are submitting to some particularly exacting regime.

The other secret to Testino’s longevity in the fashion world is that he always makes his subjects look good — sometimes ludicrously so, as in a Brad Pitt portrait from 2007 in which his flawless skin makes him appear to be about twenty — and when they look bad it feels like a kind of deliberate playacting that lets the glamorous go against type, albeit with meticulously done make up.  The exhibit reflects that: the printing and mounting are exquisite, the saturated colors and staged lighting almost overwhelming.  I took the photo above in panorama because, eventually, the sheer accumulation of beauty glowing in the darkened halls wore down my cynicism.

Brad Pitt by Mario Testino, 2007

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