Montreal's Museum Of Fine Arts Has A Powerful New Photo Exhibit Of People Deemed Freaks & Rejects

One portrait inspired 'The Shining' twins. 👭

MTL Blog, Staff Writer
View of the exhibition 'Diane Arbus: Photographs, 1956-1971' at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Right, A black and white photo by Diane Arbus, titled 'Three female impersonators' (1962).​

View of the exhibition 'Diane Arbus: Photographs, 1956-1971' at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Right, A black and white photo by Diane Arbus, titled 'Three female impersonators' (1962).

Copyright © Estate of Diane Arbus.

Sex workers, circus performers, drag queens and disabled children peer out from the walls of a new exhibit at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA). Some of their faces may seem familiar, like the ghostly pair of identical sisters holding hands who inspired the iconic twins in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, or the peculiar child gripping a toy grenade in a park who became the basis for Matt Groening's Bart Simpson.

Diane Arbus: Photographs, 1956-1971 not only brings into focus the artist's decades-long impact on pop culture, but also her humanization of marginalized people.

The exhibit opens on September 15 with 90 portraits of people who lived on the fringes of American society. In one series, Arbus captured snapshots of eccentrics whom she encountered on the streets of New York. A teenage couple poses in one shot, seeming far older than their years, while an elderly woman wearing an ornate lace outfit eats dinner alone at a restaurant.

A different series showcases carnival performers, like a heavily tattooed strongman, a knife eater and a bearded lady, focussing less on their profession and more on their personalities.

Another still, depicts celebrities like funk musician James Brown and feminist writer Germaine Greer, stripping away their glamourous identities and leaving a vulnerable glimpse into their lives.

"You can spend a lot of time with these photos because they are so rich with details," said exhibition and MMFA curator Anne Grace.

 'A teenage couple on Hudson Street, N.Y.C.' (1963). 'A teenage couple on Hudson Street, N.Y.C.' (1963).Copyright © Estate of Diane Arbus.

Some of Arbus' shots will have you asking, "how did she gain access to this moment?" One portrait shows a dominatrix embracing her much older client, while another shows a topless burlesque performer perched confidently in her changing room.

One portrait features lesbian icon Stormé DeLarverie, who is often credited for sparking the 1969 Stonewall Riots that led to the modern fight for queer and trans rights.

In a nearby frame, a disabled couple who Arbus met at a dance embraces in their living room. The caption quotes the photographer: "he is [mentally handicapped] and terribly tall and thin and she is radiant, maybe three and a half feet tall with curly red hair like Maureen O'Hara (and tiny limbs and crutches)… Never saw anything like that." Arbus' affection for her subjects comes across not just through her words but in their portraits, letting the depth of their personalities shine through.

'Puerto Rican woman with a beauty mark, N.Y.C.' (1965).'Puerto Rican woman with a beauty mark, N.Y.C.' (1965).Copyright © Estate of Diane Arbus.

Each photo offers an intriguing narrative that's up to viewers to decipher. When the collection is viewed all together, it reveals more about Arbus: her ability to connect with others and her fascination with unique identities.

"I work from awkwardness. By that, I mean I don't like to arrange things. If I stand in front of something, instead of arranging it, I arrange myself," Arbus is quoted in one caption.

A snapshot of one of her notebooks grants insight into her radical vision of various photo series. She treated her photography practice like an exercise in anthropology, documenting all walks of life.

A photo of children from an institution for disabled youth taken by Diane Arbus, as part of her 'Untitled' series (1970\u20131971).A photo of children from an institution for disabled youth taken by Diane Arbus, as part of her 'Untitled' series (1970–1971).Copyright © Estate of Diane Arbus.

Moving from the start of her practice in 1956, the exhibit traces the artist's evolution over a decade and a half. The legendary photographer died by suicide in 1971 at the age of 48, leaving a body of work that was already critically acclaimed by that time and left a lasting impact on other artists and mainstream society.

"We are so excited to introduce Arbus, through this exhibition, to a new generation of museum goers. In fifteen short years, she produced perhaps the most compelling body of portraits the 20th century had seen to that point," said Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) photography curator Sophie Hackett, who also assembled the exhibition.

Hackett and Grace selected the images from the over 500 original prints of Arbus' housed at the AGO, including one from the MMFA's permanent collection. Beyond the captivating collection of her original work, the MMFA will also host a lecture by the co-curators (in French) about Arbus' oeuvre on September 14 at 5:30 p.m.

Diane Arbus: Photographs, 1956-1971

Where: Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 1380, rue Sherbrooke Ouest

When: September 15, 2022 -toJanuary 29, 2023

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