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’The Postcard Age’ Debuts at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts

by Kilian Melloy
Thursday Nov 15, 2012
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"Postcards like these are tiny slices of time," reads the text at the start of "The Postcard Age: Selections from the Leonard A. Lauder Collection,", an exhibit of 700 postcards drawn from an archive assembled by Estée Lauder chairman emeritus and former CEO Leonard A. Lauder over the course of his lifetime.

"In the decades around 1900, postcards were Twitter, e-mail, Flickr, and Facebook, all wrapped into one," the Museum’s press release on the exhibit notes. "A postcard craze swept the world, as billions of cards were bought and mailed, or just pasted into albums. Many famous artists turned to the new medium, but one of the great pleasures of postcards is how some of the most beautiful and interesting cards were made by artists whose names we barely know.

"This unprecedented exhibition traces how big historical and cultural themes of the modern age -- enthralling, exciting, and sometimes disturbing -- played out on the postcard’s tiny canvas."

Mr. Lauder was present at the recent media event to introduce the exhibit.along with a number of individuals from the MFA staff. Lauder praised the MFA staff for the work they had done to sort through 100,000 postcards, select and group 700 individual examples, and group them in a way that allowed each set to "make one statement" and yet still "talk to each other."


"Once A Collector, Always A Collector."

Lauder was born in 1933 and grew up during the Great Depression. From early in his boyhood, he had a fascination with photojournalism and its power to take the far-distant and make it immediate, which, coupled with a love of art, defined his tastes. (Lauder is also a collector of paintings, especially canvases by cubist masters.)

"The only way to get photographs of what was really happening was through the itinerant postcard photographer, who went around photographing what was going on," Lauder recalled of those years in the early and mid 20th Century.

The postcards Lauder collected also allowed him to feed his loves of architecture and history. To see them now on display in a museum the caliber of Boston’s MFA seems entirely fitting.

"These wonderful images that I’ve spend years trying to collect and put together, gathered in this way, look so beautiful," Lauder exclaimed.

Lauder exhorted the press not to make the story about him, but rather to focus on the postcards the museum’s staff have grouped into sparkling little constellations.

Some of the cards are virgin; others have been written on, stamped, and mailed. Lauder professed an especial fondness for the cards that have been mailed, saying that the messages they convey offer intimate glimpses into the lives of the people who wrote them. Among his favorites is a postcard send by a young soldier fighting in World War I.

Lauder told EDGE that he continues to collect post cards even now. "Even though I am slowing down a bit, I can’t resist. Once you are a collector, you are always a collector."

"By the way, I don’t buy to possess," Lauder added. "I only buy something to add to what I think is already a very complete collection."

But "complete" is a relative term. Lauder went on to say, "The reason I love postcards is it’s an open-ended challenge. If I had another thirty years, I would still keep on going."


Slices of Time and Life

Entering the Lois B. and Michael K. Torf Gallery, the exhibit’s visitor begins a journey into the Postcard Craze, an itinerary that begins with Paris, circa 1900. The postcards here record street scenes, cafe patrons in formal, expectant poses.

One lot, titled "Store Fronts," focuses on the Paris retail scene: A wine shop, a flower shop, a hair salon, a "butter and egg" shop... A "blanchisserie?" (This turns out to be a laundry service, not, as one might have surmised, a negligee shop.)

Proprietors and employees post in front, looking a little stuffy but ready to serve. Clearly, the infancy of the photographic medium -- a record of light as historic document -- is, at this stage, at one with infancy of the postcard format.

The cards are grouped by theme. "Getting Around" collects images of horse drawn (and horseless) conveyances; "Butchers" -- you guessed it -- brings together a number of images (somewhat rarefied, one would imagine) of butchers’ shops.

"The Market: Les Halles" presents vendors posing with their wares -- by the basket, box, and burlap bag full. "Streets and Boulevards" is packed with early views of motorized traffic, horses, pedestrians -- and a subway entrance. Oh, the wonders of this modern age!

"At Work" purports to record the daily labors of street sweepers, brewery workers, bakers... except, no one is really working. Everybody is standing to attention for the camera.



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