Friday, June 29, 2018

A Drag Queen's Take on the Ringling Museum of Art

I'm not sure what I was expecting when I decided to go on a Walk and Talk at the Ringling with Sarasota drag queen Beneva Fruitville. More importantly, what was the Ringling education department expecting? It was certainly a tour unlike any other. 

"Portrait of a Family Group" 
by Giovanni Antonio Fasolo (1561-65)
Admittedly, I missed the intro during which -- perhaps -- it was explained there would be no actual art history during the tour. Instead, Beneva Fruitville gave an off color review of some of the Ringling's prized paintings. 

Take, for instance, "Portrait of a Family Group" by Giovanni Antonio Fasolo.  

"Here are white people!" Beneva proclaimed as we gathered around. She then astutely pointed out that the children are very little compared to the father and that dad seems to be grabbing his daughter's breast. The little boy is rolling his eyes as if to say, "Not again!"  (If this is the take Beneva wanted to go with, a mention of the #MeToo movement might have been in order.) She then highlighted useful details like the fact that the daughter's pearl necklace is really long and posited that the fur on the father's cape might have come from several relations of the family pet. Okey dokey.  

Beneva with "A Bacchanal" by Luca Giordana 
Next up was a painting Beneva named "Really Messed Up Babies." She suggested the babies were drinking blood and noted the musical talents of the babes blowing on a conch and shaking a tambourine. "The one with the tambourine is a young Christian," she declared. 

"Any questions?" she asked. 

"Who painted this work?" I called out. The response was not what I expected. 

"Mabel Ringling," Beneva said with authority. "She painted it shortly after giving birth to her first child."  (Note that John and Mabel Ringling in fact were childless.)  

Another tour participant then spoke up. "I'd like to ask the curator a question."  Everyone laughed -- perhaps with the relief that I felt.  "What's really going on here?" 

The curator stepped up and gave a short description. The work does have a theme Beneva legitimately could have been all over -- a bacchanalian feast. (Bacchanal was the Greek god of wine and fertility.) She mentioned something about the nymphs being saved from the wrath of Jupiter. And while there is in fact a vat of blood off to the side, the babies are drinking wine. What a relief! (For a detailed explanation of the painting and its themes, click here.) 

Beneva with "The Actors" 
attributed to Nicolas Bollery (1595-1605)
Then there was "The Actors," a painting attributed to Nicolas Bollery. Beneva called it the first painting of prostitutes. (That might not have been the actual word she used.)  

She pointed out how one of the "sun hat" wearing women is grabbing for the "sword" of the nearby gentleman. She commented that he clearly would have to pay for the sex since he was so darn ugly. (In her view, the leering guy in the corner might have been able to score without money changing hands.) 

And what's a bunch of hookers without a pimp?  The baby, of course, plays that role. A helpful attendee suggested he looked a lot like Tony Curtis. 

"Any questions?" Beneva asked.  I had one. What had I been thinking? And with that thought, I quietly rolled off from the group and headed home.  

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