Through May 20, the Haggerty Museum of Art will display Tina Barney’s photography series “The Europeans.” Strolling through this exhibition of immense, high-detail prints is a feast for both the eyes and the mind. Each piece is, in a primary sense, a portrait of one of the European individuals or families that Barney encountered during her eight-year project, but the work is as much about physical setting as it is the subjects photographed.
Barney has an abiding interest in color, texture and material heirlooms of all kinds, and this series delivers riches on all counts. In her gallery talk, the artist claimed the strong influence of Dutch Renaissance painting conventions, including the use of furniture and architectural lines to draw the viewer’s eye deeply into the pictorial space, scenes within scenes and other provocative visual elements such as reflective surfaces and small domestic animals.
Continuing in a theme she has pursued in other projects in the United States, Barney’s subjects are members of Europe’s gentry, discovered in their own homes. The portraits convey a tremendous sense of immediacy and individual character: Sometimes we find a room in a state of sociable disarray, as in The Butterfly (2004), which depicts a young German girl’s birthday party with her family. In other cases, the setting is meticulously arranged and richly endowed with personal and cultural lineage, as in The Tapestry (1996), an image of a welldressed woman standing before brocaded couches and an enormous antique wall hanging. The subjects themselves are also fascinating precisely because of their idiosyncrasies and imperfections. Not all figures included are in focus, nor do all look directly at the camera. Rather, we often find ourselves looking in on a scene of spontaneous and deeply ambiguous human interaction.
Each print offers us a tremendous amount of detail to perceive and human expression to interpret, but there is seldom a clear narrative or social commentary. Despite their shared membership in Europe’s enduring upper crust, the subjects could not be more varied. As a whole, the exhibition presents us with a privileged glimpse into the abodes of those Old World families who—at least once—so dominated the world stage of politics and culture.