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Gender benders?
‘Cars’ at the MFA, ‘Chairs’ at the Gardner
"Speed, Style, and Beauty: Cars from the Ralph Lauren Collection"
At the Museum of Fine Arts through July 3.
At the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum through May 8.

You wouldn’t have to be Harvard University president Lawrence Summers to detect a gender gap between the current major shows at the Museum of Fine Arts and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. "Speed, Style, and Beauty: Cars from the Ralph Lauren Collection" is big, overflowing the MFA’s Gund Gallery. (Ralph’s 1958 Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa sits downstairs in the West Wing lobby, a teaser for this ticketed exhibition.) "Chairs," a collaboration centered on photographs by Gardner 2002 artist-in-residence Dayanita Singh, is so tiny, its main component seems lost in the museum’s intimate special-exhibition gallery. "Cars" hits you with living, breathing Technicolor: black Bugattis and Mercedes, silver Porsches and McLarens, red (do they come in any other color?) Ferraris. "Chairs" is swathed in muted, tea-tinted black-and-white. "Cars" is about isolation; "Chairs" is about community. "Cars" is all speed; "Chairs" is all stasis. "Cars" is male; "Chairs" is female. Like men and women, however, "Cars" and "Chairs" also have a lot in common. Both shows focus on objects that the art world doesn’t regularly recognize as art. Both shows are about sitting, which is how we spend much of our waking life; yet neither show makes sitting possible: the cars are off-limits, the chairs are only images. Both shows are devoid of human figures, even as they recognize it’s humans who give these objects meaning. Both shows are concise (16 cars, 25 photographs); both give you time to think. So as "Cars" and "Chairs" reach out to each other across the Fenway, perhaps the gender gap is apparent as well as real.

MFA director Malcolm Rogers has had his own gap to consider, the one between a legitimate exhibition and a commercial moneymaker that promotes the Ralph Lauren name and line. It’s bridged by the first car in the show, a 1933 Bugatti Type 59 Grand Prix. The thin spokes of Ettore Bugatti’s signature piano-wire wheels radiate in a sunburst pattern, without the usual overlapping for strength. Already art and speed are in conflict; the sleek, compact Type 59 delights the eye, but as the decade wore on, it couldn’t keep pace with the Grand Prix powerhouses from Germany and England. At 4300 pounds, the 1929 Blower Bentley makes no such compromises; yet it has its own blocky beauty. (This was the car, in "elephant’s-breath grey," that Ian Fleming initially chose for James Bond, and he remains a Bentley Boy throughout the novels.) The 1930 Mercedes Benz "Count Trossi" SSK, on the other hand, is a German version of Italian futurism: its original owner, Count Carlo Felice Trossi (who would go on to race Alfa Romeos), designed the coachwork and had it built in England. There’s a hulking feel about the SSK all the same, with its Batmobile-like tail section.

Germanic-versus-Italian is one of the show’s running themes. There are four cars from Germany (two Mercedes-Benzes, two Porsches), four from England (the Bentley, two Jaguars, and a McLaren), and eight from Italy (three Bugattis, an Alfa Romeo, and four Ferraris). The Germanic cars tend to the masculine, with hints of aviation and even rocketry: the 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing Coupe with its seagull-wing airplane doors: the 1955 Jaguar XKD with its monococque fuselage and aerodynamic sharktail fin, a car that won at Le Mans in ’55, ’56, and ’57. Yet the sexy 1950 Jaguar XK120 Alloy Roadster had Hollywood calling; the first XK120 to arrive in America was claimed by Clark Gable, and Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall also owned one. The Porsche 550 Spyder, simple and speedy (it weighed just 1350 pounds), is the car James Dean was driving on September 30, 1955. For that matter, Sophia Loren and Zsa Zsa Gabor had Gullwing Coupes. Any woman exiting that car, Lauren observes on the show’s audio guide, would flash an eyeful of nylon.

The Italian cars are more sensuous; they suggest men who love women. The 1937 Bugatti 57SC Gangloff Drop Head Coupe is a town car that’s equal parts aristocrat and gangster. The 1938 Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic Coupe, the poster car for this show, is a entirely different animal, one with an exoskeleton. Earlier Bugattis had been made of an alloy that was difficult to weld, so the chassis sported button-head rivets; the Atlantic’s aluminum chassis was weldable, but Jean Bugatti (Ettore’s son) liked the rivets, so he kept them. The Alfa Romeo and the Ferraris (Enzo Ferrari worked at Alfa Romeo before starting his own company) have their own quirky masculine-feminine sensibility, their own distinctive sound and curves that look different on each car yet stem from the same equation. The yellow Scuderia Ferrari shield tells you you’re looking at a creation that’s as much horse as machine.

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Issue Date: March 11 - 17, 2005
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