Monday, May 20, 2013

Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics and Painting

I drove to Atlanta last weekend to visit the High Museum of Art for the last day of Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics and Painting.  The exhibition was a blend of painting, artifacts and photographs of the two famous Mexican artists, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.

Like many truly well know artists, I knew their work from books, magazines and having written a term paper on Rivera during my college years.  Prior to the show however, I don't recall seeing any actual work and that often makes for a surprise, sometimes good and sometimes disappointing.

For me this show was a mix.  I don't have photographs to share as photography was not allowed and in doing a quick search for images online I was surprised how much of the work is being offered for licensing.  This was especially true of Kahlo's work.  With that in mind I was hesitant to use the images....but you can go out and perhaps buy a shopping bag or calendar featuring some of their work.  I actually have a jigsaw puzzle made from Kahlo's famous Self Portrait with Monkeys.

So what did I like.  I like very much that Kahlo worked from her own life experiences.  Perhaps she lived her life in a more "romantic" environment, more exotic may be a better description, but whatever it was she was sensitive to that and she was very smart and creative in how she worked with that in her paintings.  She put her life on her canvases with a purity that primitive artists often seem to have and those with more training can't copy.  My understanding is that she was not classically trained but learned mostly from books and perhaps from her husband Diego Rivera. 

The subject matter of her work is a mixture of the everyday, the sights and symbols of her homeland and her own image.  The paintings are for the most part very small.  In order to see many of them you really do need to be right in front of them to study the details.  Perhaps this had something to do with my vague feeling of disappointment.  When work is photographed well and beautifully printed it is transformed into a glossy facsimile of the original but as a viewer I often form an attachment to that facsimile.  These painting had a painful quality as to how they were painted not just painful as to subject matter.  The surface of the work appeared very dry and some of the work felt amateur rather than primitive.  

The work I responded to most strongly was a small piece (don't recall the title) which depicted Kahlo in her bed being force fed a slurry of pink liquid made from all sorts of animal parts.  This story referred to a time when she was ill and not eating and was encouraged to eat this type of food.   This swirling mass of pink funneled out of the sky and into her mouth as she lays in her iron bed.  

There were three works by Rivera that attracted my attention.  The first was a lovely self portrait done as a lithograph.  The line quality was light and flowing and he did not shy away from representing himself with bulging eyes and fleshy face.  The other two works I enjoyed were some of his paintings of peasant women and children and huge white lilies.  The figures were greatly distorted, short, wide and rounded and filled the canvases.

The show presented a large number of works from his Cubist period and these were rather dull.  He was a great admirer of Picasso and Picasso's influence is very obvious in this paintings.  There were also images of his murals which in my opinion became nothing but political propaganda.  For me the most successful element of the murals was the tour-de-force composition.

The last room of the exhibit was dedicated to photographs of the couple weighted toward portraits of Kahlo.  A few images would have been interesting but I would have preferred to see more painting.  

Obviously this show did not make my Top Ten list of exhibitions but I do applaud the museum for planning what appeared to be a well received exhibition with many additional activities scheduled to attract people to the museum.  A great example of that was the Mexican wrestling demonstrations which was planned for later that evening. I would have really enjoyed that.

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Adios Frida and Diego
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8 comments:

  1. Kahlo, Terry, not Kahol. You do know Frida was bedridden for much of her life, right? Most of her paintings were done while she was in bed. That might account for the small size and some of the primitiveness. That she painted her pain at all and as voluminously as she did is a wonder. Thanks for the review. Wish I could have seen the show. xo

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  2. Opps on the name.

    I am aware of her life story. What I was attempting to express was the difference in how her work looks in all the printed matter and how her work looks in person. I agree that she was using her pain as a source for her work. I just did not connect with the physical properties of the paintings as much as I did the inventiveness of her thought process. Thanks Connie for commenting.

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  3. I remember my first experience of repro vs real. I never liked Renoir's painting of girls at a piano. Then I saw it at the Met and was astonished -- mostly by technical things that I didn't have language for at the time (and barely have language for now), but also by how spontaneous and alive it seemed. Much later, I was doing some research on Whistler and ran across a source that said he wanted his work to have the freshness of a sketch and the formal properties of a studio painting and that he was frequently frustrated trying to compass this. The Renoir painting has that quality, at least it does to me.

    It's funny how scale has such an important impact on how work is perceived/received.

    -Melanie

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    1. Hi Melanie. I responded earlier but it disappeared into the great whirl of cyberspace.

      I first became aware of the conflict between viewing work in books and viewing the actual work when I had an opportunity to visit the Louve. I was stunned by the massive scale of many of the works and disappointed in the size of the Mona Lisa. In the case of the Kahlo paintings, they just did not hold up for me in person.

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    2. I was disappointed by seeing some of Georgia O'Keeffe's work at the Whitney show (2009) and felt that my calendar reproductions outshone the originals. That made me sad but also I can't help wondering if I'd have liked the actual work better if it hadn't been so overexposed in reproduction. Another eternal, unanswerable question.

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    3. Thank you Melanie. This is a perfect example of what I was speaking about.

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  4. I read a biography on Kahlo and then Rivera. I found them both to be tragic subjects. The way they lived and worked with passion, integrity and singular focus on work. They're relationship was strained and she was a real spectacle making appearances in her bed, her prison, how earnest her heart must have been. Painting the sorrow and pain.

    Glad you went and wrote, it brings back memories.

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    1. I agree with your description of the lives of these artists. The issue of "singular focus" is something that has a message for all of us. xo, T

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