A Strange Practice: Doctors’ Nude Art At Boston’s M.F.A.

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has lately acquired a curious collection of 20th-century realist paintings-the Blake-Purnell Legacy, it’s called-that raises some interesting questions not only about the place occupied by realism in contemporary art but also, and more perhaps importantly, about the acquisition policies of the museum itself. Some 40 paintings, drawing and sculptures from this collection are now on view at the M.F.A. in an exhibition called A Singular Vision: The Melvin Blake and Frank Purnell Legacy , and will remain in the museum’s permanent collection.

Don’t be dismayed if you’ve never heard of the Blake-Purnell collection. I certainly hadn’t before the M.F.A. announced the acquisition, and I doubt that anyone at the M.F.A. knew much about it, either, until a significant portion of the collection was offered to the museum as a donation. For the record, then, the collection is said to have been put together by two New York physicians over a period of 40 years. Dr. Blake, a maxillofacial surgeon, died in 1999; Dr. Purnell, a radiologist, in 1994. It was through the executors of Dr. Blake’s estate that the collection came to be given to Boston’s M.F.A.

The doctors’ principal contact with the Manhattan art scene seems to have been the late George Staemphli, a distinguished dealer whose gallery represented an interesting mix of European and American artists. (Staemphli himself was Swiss.) The doctors’ taste in art was anything but eclectic, however. They were devoted to frank depictions of the human body, male as well as female, and the more naked the better. Which makes a certain sense, I suppose, since their professional lives were likewise devoted to their patients’ bodies-though not, perhaps, the same areas of the body glimpsed in many of the paintings in this collection.

Pictorial style and aesthetic quality seem to have mattered less than exposed anatomy and well-known names. Thus, the Belgian surrealist Paul Delvaux-a Staemphli favorite-made the grade with three works, one of them a painting of two naked figures in a bizarre landscape: Daytime Proposition (Women with a Mirror) (1937). The American painter Larry Rivers is also represented by three works, one of them a painting of a naked couple, Bedroom (1955), that created something of a sensation in New York in the 1950′s. There is also a male nude, Richard (1979) by R.B. Kitaj. All of which are perfectly acceptable, if not exactly world-shaking masterpieces. But then, even more revealing of the wobbly taste of these collectors are some of the contrasts in quality. It hardly seems possible that the collectors who acquired the two exquisite drawings of nudes by Balthus in this show could also have fallen for the preposterously vulgar bronze Venus (1977-78) by Fernando Botero-one of the many reminders in this show that the doctors were never sticklers when it came to high aesthetic distinctions.

Cheryl Brutvan, the curator of A Singular Vision , makes a number of references to the “erotic” character of some of the paintings and drawings in her text for the show’s catalog. I think they might more accurately be described as “voyeuristic,” which is not quite the same thing. What Ms. Brutvan is dead wrong about, however, is her claim that in the 1970′s, the “human figure was virtually absent from the primary movements in art and critical thinking.” (In that context, you see, Drs. Blake and Purnell could be said to possess “a singular vision.”) The claim is sheer bunkum. There was never a time in the art life of the 20th century when the human figure “was virtually absent from the primary movements in art and critical thinking.” Even in the heyday of the Abstract Expressionist movement in the 1950′s, a realist master like Edward Hopper continued to enjoy high critical esteem and command a more lucrative market than Jackson Pollack or Willem de Kooning or any other abstract painter.

Moreover, I could name a couple of dozen figurative painters and sculptors-among them Philip Pearlstein, William Bailey, Alex Katz, Elaine de Kooning, George Segal, David Hockney and sundry Wyeths-whose careers prospered both critically and financially in the 1970′s. Alas, their work seems never to have caught the attention of Drs. Blake and Purnell, or, for that matter, of Ms. Brutvan-probably because it was nowhere to be seen in the vicinity of the Staemphli Gallery. What finally skewers this collection, however, is something else: The disproportionate attention it lavishes on one of the most tedious, compulsively banal and aesthetically unrewarding developments in contemporary realist painting, the so-called Spanish School of super-duper illusionism and its counterpart in Latin American painting. For Ms. Brutvan, it’s painting of this persuasion that constitutes the Blake-Purnell collection’s “major distinction,” and in this claim she’s no doubt correct. There are 19 works of the Spanish School in this collection, and 20 by contemporary Latin-American artists, more than half by the Chilean painter Claudio Bravo (also a Staemphli Gallery specialty). At best, this fool-the-eye illusionism may be characterized as higher illustration; at worst, as the triumph of technique over expression, sensibility and art itself.

As an account of 20th-century realist art, the Blake-Purnell Collection is, in short, a travesty. It’s certainly not a collection that a museum of the M.F.A.’s distinction should be promoting as a major acquisition.

A Singular Vision: The Melvin Blake and Frank Purnell Legacy remains on view at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston through Aug. 24.