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'Inverted utopias'

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The second exhibit, Vicente do Rego Monteiro, looks at the early stages of the avant-garde through a Brazilian artist's illustrations for the 1923 book, "Legends, Beliefs and Talismans of the Amazon River Indians." In addition to a general Introduction, and Biography of Rego Monteiro, the main component of this exhibition is the book itself, which, like the smaller examples in Ballena, features pages which can be virtually turned by the visitor. (If you prefer the feeling of complete control, pages can actually be grabbed by a corner and manually drawn to the other side of the screen, though for simplicity's sake, a single click will generate an automatic advance to the next spread.)

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Due to size limitations on the computer screen, most of the text content is illegible, and - having been published in Paris - of little benefit to anyone without at least a reasonable grasp of French. That said, specific sections of the book (such as a table that compares common graphic symbols on three continents) are accompanied by commentary, and English translations are provided for chosen stories (including the legend of "How the night was born"). Depending on the speed of your connection and computer, the links to the 'Commentary and Translations' section may take a few seconds to appear after a page has been turned, so try to linger for a moment over any content that you find promising.

While the color scheme for the Monteiro exhibit is darker, the subject matter is decidedly more benign, and even when a legend is recounting the tale of a lustful brother-in-law being turned into a tree toad, it still makes for lighter reading than an open letter to Lyndon Johnson about the Vietnam war. But like the bookmarks that they are, the two exhibits complement if not actually mirror each other as they introduce neophytes to the movement. (While it's possible to open each production into its own popup window from the home page, surfers can also move from one to the other within an existing window by way of an unobtrusive site navigation bar at the bottom left of the frame.)

Finally, while not part of this particular online presentation, the MFAH also created an interactive guide to the interactive qualities in much of the art that was included in the physical museum exhibition. Rediscovering the Senses opens with some very agreeable guitar music and proceeds to educate visitors on how to become 'active participants' while experiencing art. Simple concepts such as changing one's perspective and - when permitted - physically interacting with the artwork are illustrated first with simple line art animations and then through photographs of relevant artifacts from the actual exhibit, and while the specifics from this simple exercise may no longer be on display, the concepts are worth remembering for any trip to an art museum.

So, do I know more about the Latin American avant-garde than I did before? Yes. Was it because of a burning desire to expand my knowledge of art? No. The MFAH's achievement was in creating a presentation that made me want to explore a website - and then populating that website with the information it wanted to share. Sneaky. Effective.

Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America can be found at http://www.mfah.org/microsites/IU/inverted_utopias_website/.

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