Friday, February 29, 2008

Wrestling With the Angel

In placid hours well-pleased we dream
Of many a brave unbodied scheme.
But form to lend, pulsed life create,
What unlike things must meet and mate:
A flame to melt--a wind to freeze;
Sad patience--joyous energies;
Humility--yet pride and scorn;
Instinct and study; love and hate;
Audacity--reverence. These must mate,
And fuse with Jacob's mystic heart,
To wrestle with the angel—Art.

“Art” by Herman Melville

Herman Melville (in an 1870 portrait above) wrestled “with the angel—Art” throughout his life, in all its forms. In Melville: The Making of the Poet, Hershel Parker, perhaps the finest Melville scholar alive, first tackles the misconception that Melville was almost exclusively a novelist and then documents the amazing depth of Melville’s aesthetic voyage into the heart of poetics as well as the heart of visual artistry.

The popular idea of Melville as primarily a novelist owes much to the cultural power of Moby-Dick, so that misconception is understandable. What’s hard to fathom is the staying power of that misconception amongst some Melville scholars, many of whom have attacked Parker in reviews for his stance on the importance of poetry in Melville oeuvre. Early scholars could claim ignorance thanks to the fact that many of the poetry books from Melville’s library containing his marginalia didn’t come to light until the last several decades. But even that mountain of evidence, which Parker aptly and insightfully presents, fails to convince many. I personally find it befuddling having read most of Melville’s poetry and a great deal of the scholarship on it, which is a sadly small body of work. I even made my own small contribution to that field in my MA thesis, inspired by an article by Thomas Heffernan on Melville’s marginalia in his copy of the works of William Wordsworth. (See more on that below.)

What intrigued me now in Parker’s book was his coverage of Melville’s approach to the visual arts in his poetry. Even Melville’s earliest critics recognized the visual component of his novels. In 1850, one critic drew comparisons between Melville’s writing in White-Jacket and the works of J.M.W. Turner: “Mr. Melville stands as far apart from any past or present marine painter in pen and ink as Turner does from the magnificent artist vilipended by Mr. Ruskin for Turner’s sake—Vandevelde. We cannot recall another novelist or sketcher who has given the poetry of the Ship—her voyages and her crew—in a manner at all resembling his.” Melville makes this connection to painting even more obvious in his extended passages of pseudo art criticism in Moby-Dick (i.e., the nebulous painting on the wall that Ishmael encounters in the Inn before shipping off) and in the central role that portraits play in Pierre. In his poetry, however, Melville made that connection even more explicit, referring to works of art by Elihu Vedder and others as the specific source of poetic inspiration.

Parker, however, concentrates on the making of the poet rather than the poetry (optimistically adding that “Melville the Poet and Melville as Poet may not long remain unwritten”; perhaps Parker himself will do the writing). Parker dates Melville’s serious analysis of visual aesthetic theory to his purchase of Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Painters in 1862. Melville “quickly applied to the art of poetry what he read about painting and sculpture,” Parker writes. “Notably, Vasari helped clarify for him the distinction between expression and form, or design,” Parker continues. “Melville was struck by Leonardo da Vinci’s deliberately not manifesting the greatest ‘clearness of forms’ but emphasizing ‘the great foundation of all, design’; clarity of design he saw as more important than coloring (the painterly equivalent of literary ‘expression’).” The Italian Renaissance concept of disegno or design—the idea that can be realized in multiple media yet never exhausted by any single medium—appeals to Melville in his exhaustive approach to ideas. Just as he could circle around the concept of the whiteness of the whale ad infinitum in Moby-Dick, Melville believed he could perform the same act through poetry, perhaps even better than in prose.

The second great art theorist influencing Melville is John Ruskin. Melville purchases Modern Painters no earlier than 1865, but may have borrowed a friend’s copy as early as 1862. Notes on Ruskin’s text appear on the flyleaf of his copy of Vasari’s Lives. One note transcribes Ruskin’s belief in the primacy of expression, a main point of his defense of Turner: “Expression—Get in as much as you can.—/ Finish is completeness, fullness, not polish.—“ Following this dictum as well as Ruskin’s advice to pursue “noble subjects,” Melville reinforced and gave definition to his personal aesthetic and found the strength to attempt new projects in verse rather than prose. In following Ruskin (and, by extension, Wordsworth, the most Turneresque of poets), Melville swims against the popular literary tide. “Melville’s decision in many of his poems not to aim for what was then being called Dutch realism or Pre-Raphaelite realism was not designed to win him the widest audience,” Parker writes, “but it was a conscious literary choice made under the influence of” Wordsworth, who stressed “treating things as they appeared to him, as they seemed to exist to his senses and passions.” Ruth Bernard Yeazell’s Art of the Everyday: Dutch Painting and the Realist Novel (my review of that book here) traces the trajectory of “Dutch realism” throughout the nineteenth century, from George Eliot’s battle with Ruskin to Marcel Proust’s unique embracing of that aesthetic. Melville adopts in his poetry Ruskin’s resistance to “Dutch realism” as defined by the popular idea of Golden Age Dutch painting at the cost of falling out of step with contemporary novelists and the taste of the public at large. It would be interesting to read someone take Yeazell’s thesis and apply it to the poetry of Melville and other late Victorians such as Robert Browning and Tennyson.

Parker remains the dean of Melville studies in America, yet amazingly fights an uphill battle against those who downplay the role of poetry in Melville’s life as an artist. Perhaps even more importantly than that corrective, Parker’s analysis of the role of visual art theory in Melville’s poetry opens up a whole new door on the artist as more than just a novelist. In Parker’s exposition, Melville becomes a da Vinci-esque creator of disegno, in which fullness is all and ideas ripen into endless varieties of strange and wonderful fruit. Like Melville with the “angel—Art,” Parker has a great deal of wrestling left, but in Melville: The Making of the Poet, he’s won the first round.

[Many thanks to Northwestern University Press for providing me with a review copy of Hershel Parker’s Melville: The Making of the Poet.]

[BONUS BOB: In my previous life as a literary pseudo-scholar, I published a piece in Romanticism on the Net (now known as Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net) discussing the influence of Wordsworth’s poetry about the French Revolution on Melville’s poetry about the American Civil War. If you have an interest in Melville, Wordsworth, and/or poetical treatments of sociopolitical events, enjoy! If you just can’t get to sleep, it’ll do the trick in a jiffy.]

Thursday, February 28, 2008

In Black and White

Few artists suffer from the “I can do that” syndrome more than Kazimir Malevich. Born February 26, 1878, Malevich toured the many styles en vogue in the early twentieth century, from Post-Impressionism to Cubism before arriving at the style of Suprematism in his famous/infamous first work in that style Black Square (above, from 1915). Suprematism sprung from Malevich’s head almost fully formed, an aesthetic of pure color on color, devoid of the busy designs of the earlier styles he had toyed with. Such icons of modern art as Black Square represent an iconoclasm of sorts—a dismissal of design in a search for pure spirituality as expressed in painting. Looking through a gallery of Malevich’s pre-Suprematist works, you realize that Black Square is not the work of a man who couldn’t paint, but rather the work of a man who could no longer paint the same way and remain honest to himself.

Noah Charney’s novel, The Art Thief, imagines Malevich’s White on White (above, from 1918) stolen. (My review of The Art Thief is here.) Charney uses Malevich’s work to examine the nature of representation in art versus the long history of realism. Malevich’s goals are revolutionary—the Russian Revolution, to be precise. Living in that same utopian dreamworld inhabited by other Russian avant-garde artists, Malevich saw other artists such as Alexander Rodchenko celebrate the materialist renovation of their country through photography and ran the other way, seeking a spiritual language to reflect the tenor of the times itself rather than its embodiment in architecture and technology.

Like so many other artists of the Soviet period, however, Malevich’s work was first misunderstood and then severely punished. In his Self-Portrait (above, from 1933), Malevich paints himself like a prophet, speaking a new gospel to the Russian people. Like most prophets, unfortunately, he was honored in his own country with both ridicule and imprisonment. Just three years before this self-portrait, Malevich’s incendiary writings on art and society earned him months in a Soviet jail. Friends burned many of his works to avoid further punishment. Just two years after this self-portrait, Malevich dies from illness borne of the toll that prison had taken on him. Malevich’s rejection of the standard subject matter of art made him seem dangerous to the Soviet regime, which saw all modern art as bourgeois and elitist. In reality, works such as Black Square and White on White deny all elitism in their simplicity, reaching out to even the most unstudied viewer and asking them to look, to think, and, perhaps, to believe.

Questions and Answers

The sufferance of her race is shown,
And retrospect of life,
Which now too late deliverance dawns upon;
Yet is she not at strife.

Her children's children they shall know
The good withheld from her;
And so her reverie takes prophetic cheer--
In spirit she sees the stir.

Far down the depth of thousand years,
And marks the revel shine;
Her dusky face is lit with sober light,
Sibylline, yet benign.

“Formerly a Slave. An Idealized Portrait, by E. Vedder, in the SpringExhibition of the National Academy, 1865” by Herman Melville

When Herman Melville saw a portrait of a former slave named Jane Jackson painted by Elihu Vedder, he felt inspired to write the poem “Formerly a Slave” copied above. Born February 26, 1836, Vedder normally painted in a symbolist style, taking mythological material such as the sphinx and creating dreamlike scenes such as The Questioner of the Sphinx (above, from 1863). Melville, however, sensed the “sibylline” quality of Vedder’s painting of Jackson in the “depth of thousand years” in her face. (Vedder later painted Jackson as the Cumaean Sibyl.) Melville’s admiration for Vedder continued, leading him to dedicate his 1891 collection of poems titled Timoleon to “My countryman/ Elihu Vedder.” Although some (including Wikipedia) allege that Melville and Vedder knew one another, they never met. Vedder’s thank you note to Melville for the dedication to him arrived after Melville’s death. Few American artists worked in a Symbolist style, so Melville quite easily saw a kindred spirit in Vedder, a true visionary of the late nineteenth century once forgotten like Melville yet still awaiting a rediscovery.

Vedder gravitated to fellow visionaries throughout his career, both living and dead. A poet himself, he knew Walt Whitman and later became friends with William Butler Yeats. The Pre-Raphaelites greatly influenced his work and, by extension, introduced him to the work of William Blake. In The Pleiades (above, from 1885) we see both the visionary style of Blake as well as the idealized female form (the “stunner”) of Pre-Raphaelitism. The Pleiades were seven nymphs of Greek mythology who were the daughters of Atlas and gave birth to children by Zeus, Poseidon, and Ares. In Vedder’s eyes, they are the epitome of female beauty and grace, idealized figures swirling about in luxurient drapery and shining as brilliantly as the stars named after them.

I’ve always found the Symbolist style to be fascinating. When the narrative elements verge on the obscure, it veers into proto-Surrealism. When the narrative strays into the obvious, it derails into the facile. Vedder always seems to steer the proper course, as in works such as The Sorrowing Soul Between Doubt and Faith (above, from 1887). The poor soul in the center finds herself torn between following the secular wisdom of the ages (symbolized by the greybeard on the left) and the spiritual uplift of religion (symbolized by the angel on the right). By defining secular knowledge as “Doubt,” Vedder answers the question almost immediately, but in that triumvirate he neatly encapsulates the central dilemma of the Victorian age–hold on to the faith of their fathers or accept the new tenets of Darwinism and science. Although he labels one side as “Doubt,” the tension remains in that the old man and the knowledge he offers remain attractive to at least part of the questioner’s mind. In such images, Vedder speaks to the same dilemma America faces today as debates over evolution and the separation of church and state continue to bring sorrow to the national soul.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Keeping It Real

Jan Steen: Drunken Couple. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. © Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

When Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote that Honore de Balzac had “a Dutch hand and an Italian soul,” she neatly encapsulated the conflict of those two aesthetics—the supposedly “low brow,” narrative-less detail of the Dutch paintings done in the days of Rembrandt and Vermeer versus the “high brow,” intellectual, narrative-laden works of the Italian Renaissance. In Art of the Everyday: Dutch Painting and the Realist Novel, Ruth Bernard Yeazell revisits this divide between the allegedly sacred and profane and its influence on the realist novel of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Balzac, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and Marcel Proust all consciously drew connections between their novels and the paintings of the Golden Age of Dutch painting—even “vulgar” episodes such as Jan Steen’s Drunken Couple (above). As Yeazell shows, each of these writers dealt with that connection in their own way—embracing, rejecting, and sometimes both.

Yeazell ties the realist novel and Golden Age Dutch painting together from the start. Calling Dutch painting “as much a nineteenth-century idea as a seventeenth-century phenomenon,” Yeazell believes that “the modern idea of genre [painting] as the representation of everyday life and the novel’s affinity with such representation grew up together.” Novelists such as Balzac look to the earlier Dutch painters as a “precedent” to follow in their work. Henry James says of Balzac, “Where another writer makes an allusion, Balzac gives you a Dutch picture,” in just one of the many comparisons of the French author’s works to Dutch painting. The estimated five million paintings made in seventeenth-century Holland, many of which survived and emigrated beyond those borders, become a monolithic entity in the nineteenth-century imagination. Yeazell shows how this entity represents a distorted view (i.e., a “selective” realism emphasizing the female and domestic aspects of life, rarely showing the soldiers of that war-torn era or the dockworkers supporting the powerful shipping trade) but emphasizes that it is this misconception that the public, these novelists, and critics operated under.

Balzac actually invited comparisons to Dutch art. In response to criticisms that his writing, like Dutch art, lacks narrative, Balzac “simultaneously denies the charge and dismisses it as irrelevant,” Yeazell writes, “since inventing new plots, he insists, is no longer possible in any case.” Having it both ways, Balzac promotes even further the monolithic misconceived idea of Dutch painting by alluding to a composite Dutch style rather than specific works. “[Balzac’s] representation of domestic life in nineteenth-century Flanders,” Yeazell writes, “keeps threatening to turn into an idea rather than a picture.” By rising to the realm of ideas, Balzac gains his “Italian soul” in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s estimation while retaining his “Dutch hand.”

Nicolaes Maes: Girl Sewing (Girl at Work). Private collection

In England, George Eliot assumes the task of writing in the “Dutch” style and defends herself in novels such as 1859’s Adam Bede. When tastemakers such as John Ruskin decried Dutch painting as vulgar, “refus[ing] to distinguish between aesthetic concerns on the one hand, and moral and spiritual ones on the other,” Yeazell writes, Eliot reveals the class prejudices behind such attacks. “It is for this rare, precious quality of truthfulness that I delight in many Dutch paintings,” Eliot responded, “which lofty-minded people despise.” Uncovering the elitist bias of Ruskin and others, Eliot transforms her aesthetic choice of realism “into a moral imperative” in Yeazell’s eyes. Eliot elevates Dutch painting in the vein of Nicolaes MaesGirl Sewing (Girl at Work) (above) above accusations of vulgarity and erects, through her novels, “a tribute to labor.” Eliot looks around her native rural England and its hard-working people and connects those scenes with those she sees in paintings of the seventeenth-century Netherlands. Dutch painting allows Eliot “to embody spiritual abstractions in concrete particulars” and thus “naturalize religion rather than abandon it.” Faced with the loss of conventional religion, Eliot builds a new church founded on the simplicity of the rural lifestyle, with the Dutch genre painters as its patron saints.

Pieter de Hooch: Woman Directing a Young Man with a Letter, c. 1670. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. © Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

Perhaps taking his cue from Eliot, Thomas Hardy subtitled his first novel—Under the Greenwood Tree—“A Rural Painting of the Dutch School.” While working as an architect in London during the 1860s, Hardy visited the National Gallery almost every day, drinking in their recent acquisitions of Golden Age Dutch painting. Yeazell performs an almost magical task of archaeology in tracing back which paintings Hardy would have seen on those visits and linking them to passages in his writing. After seeing a painting by David Teniers the Younger, Hardy wrote in his notebook: “David Teniers, humour, drollery, vulgarity—truthful.” From Dutch genre painting, Hardy learns truthful simplification and, like Balzac before him, embraces the tendency to caricature when emphasizing the comic aspects of ruralism. Most importantly, Hardy learns the art of picture making in words from Dutch paintings done in the spirit of Pieter de Hooch’s Woman Directing a Young Man with a Letter (above). Hardy would later distance himself from his “Dutch” period, turning to J.M.W. Turner and the Impressionists for “the deeper reality underlying the scenic,” as he put it.

Nicolaes Maes: Young Woman at a Window, known as The Daydreamer, c. 1655. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. © Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

Yeazell concludes her quartet of realist novelists with Marcel Proust, who knew intimately the works of the three who went before as well as their complex relationship to Dutch painting. Rather than embrace Dutch painting for sociological reasons, Proust sees value in that school because of how it mimics memory itself—his greatest subject. Memory itself becomes a “Dutch painter” in its ability to fuse together “a number of similar scenes or acts in the representative images that constitute ‘the Dutch painting of our memory,’ for Proust, Yeazell argues. We are each like Maes’ Daydreamer (above) in our ability to muse upon everyday reality and create composite snapshots of the past. In In Search of Lost Time, Proust’s narrator Marcel lectures Albertine regarding Vermeer’s paintings, saying “they are fragments of an identical world… it’s always, however great the genius with which they have been re-created, the same table, the same carpet, the same woman, the same novel and unique beauty.” Vermeer becomes the height of Dutch painting for Proust specifically for the dearth of biographical knowledge about him. Vermeer becomes pure Dutch painting, pure memory in action, completely free of personality. The tiny details of works such as Vermeer’s The View of Delft captivate Proust and catapult Vermeer to the top of the Dutch painters along with Rembrandt. In fact, the rebirth of Vermeer’s reputation in the nineteenth century owes much to modern museum hanging practices allowing viewers to appreciate such small details. Yeazell wrestles with the sprawling behemoth that is Proust’s writings and comes away the victor in making the author’s subtle, innovative use of Dutch painting for his own creative needs clear and persuasive.

“Alone among the novelists studied here,” Yeazell writes, “Proust began with an idea of Dutch painting that did not require him to choose between the everyday detail and the aspirations of high art.” Like Proust (who even imagined in an essay that cantankerous old Ruskin reconciled with the Dutch painting on his deathbed), Yeazell looks to bring together both the high and the low, bridging Barrett Browning’s gap between the Dutch and the Italian. The generous number of illustrations throughout the book help the reader visualize the argument going on not only in Yeazell’s text but in the texts of the authors discussed. In many ways, the reader of this book comes away with a clearer vision of the Golden Age of Dutch painting than most critics of the nineteenth century had. Art of the Everyday: Dutch Painting and the Realist Novel sheds new light on both the realist novel and Dutch painting and covers both fields with the clear, warm glow of a fine Vermeer.

[Many thanks to Princeton University Press for providing me with a review copy of Art of the Everyday: Dutch Painting and the Realist Novel by Ruth Bernard Yeazell and for the images from the book.]

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Second Impressions

I will readily confess that Pierre Auguste Renoir was far from my favorite Impressionist until recently. Born February 25, 1841, the Renoir in my head was the Renoir of the rounded female nudes and the quaint scenes of nineteenth century French life, such as his The Artist’s Family (above, from 1896). I’ve seen The Artist’s Family at the Barnes Foundation, just one of the 180 paintings in their collection. When Dr. Barnes began to assemble his collection, anything signed Renoir was an automatic buy, regardless of the relative quality of the work. A walk through the Barnes’ galleries will leave anyone with Renoir fatigue and a distorted picture of the artist himself. Fortunately, the PMA’s 2007 exhibition Renoir Landscapes helped dispel my misconceptions and taught me how to learn to love Renoir.

I’ve often walked through the PMA’s Impressionist section and mentally compared Renoir’s The Large Bathers (above, from 1887) with Paul Cézanne’s The Large Bathers, painted nearly twenty years later. Renoir always seemed to suffer in that comparison. Cezanne always seemed much more interesting and Renoir much too safe, even when you knew that his future wife Aline (the pudgy matron of The Artist’s Family just nine years later) posed for the bather on the right. The softness of Renoir’s brushstrokes spoke of weakness to me. I could forgive Renoir’s close friend Claude Monet for a similar approach, but Renoir’s apparently self-constrained choice of subject matter just left me cold.

It took images of warmer, exotic climates to warm me up to Renoir finally, such as his Algerian Landscape, “The Ravine of the Wild Woman” (above, from 1881), just one of the revelations of the Renoir Landscapes exhibition. (My review of that catalogue is here.) Seeing Renoir’s approach to landscape and even seascapes (especially his two mesmerizingly abstract paintings titled The Wave), I found a new respect for him. The closed world I imagined Renoir inhabiting soon exploded to include Algeria and Italy. Suddenly, thanks to Algerian Landscape and other paintings, I could see traces of Delacroix in Renoir. Looking at the final gallery of works done when arthritis plagued Renoir so much that he needed to have the brushes strapped to his hands, I recognized a soul consumed by painting. In those final years, seeking the warmth of the south of France, the aging Renoir welcomed the young Henri Matisse as a pilgrim and fellow artist. I always wondered why Matisse felt drawn to Renoir. Now I think I finally know why.

[BTW—The PMA’s presentation of Renoir Landscapes included one of my all-time favorite lecture titles: “Why We Love to Hate Renoir.” I had tickets but had to miss it, but would love to know what they said someday.]

Trappings of Power

When Louis XIV, the Sun King, saw the works of Charles Le Brun painted on the occasion of his return to Paris, he almost immediately named him “First Painter to His Majesty,” and later crowned Le Brun with the title of “the greatest French artist of all time.” Born February 24, 1619, Le Brun helped forge what came to be known as Louis XIV style, developing a specific “look” to go along with the power of the throne. Portraits of Louis XIV by Le Brun (above) show the monarch as the ultimate action hero—the energetic superstar upon whose larger than life existence rested the fate of the French nation and people. Few artists painted better public relations for their patron than Le Brun did for Louis XIV.

Like any good propagandist, Le Brun needed to find precedents for his subject’s greatness in history, some link to the glorious past. Taking Alexander the Great as his ideal, Le Brun painted a series of works based on the ancient adventures of the young conquerer, including Alexander in Babylon (above, from 1661). In addition to being great PR, these Alexander paintings are also great painting—not always a given in the world of official art. The rollicking collection of figures against a beautifully painted landscape recalls the works of Nicolas Poussin, with whom Le Brun studied in Rome in the 1640s. Poussin’s dual love of antiquity and nature rubbed off on his pupil, as seen here. I especially like Alexander in Babylon for all the tiny little narrative scenes played out by the clusters of characters, with the golden chariot of Alexander remaining the quiet eye of the storm as he surveys his latest world to conquer.

Le Brun used his talents to decorate the royal palaces of Versailles, either with his own work or by directing the work of other artists. By using the full power at his disposal, Le Brun set the standard for French art for a generation and, perhaps, beyond. The lessons of Le Brun’s classicism in the service of contemporary power were not lost on French neoclassicists such as Jacques-Louis David when the royal power slipped into the hands of Napoleon and the French People during the French Revolution. It is important, however, to always remember that Le Brun’s talent never faltered despite his comfortable position. His Pieta (above), done for one of the royal altarpieces, takes the familiar religious trope and adds a beautiful physicality to the depiction of Christ, whose sprawling dead body convincingly weighs down upon the Virgin Mary. As much as Louis XIV used Le Brun, Le Brun in turn used Louis XIV in the sense that he took that royal patronage and created timeless works of art that served his contemporary master yet also kept an eye on the future.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Coming to the Rescue

When contemporaries looked at the paintings of Winslow Homer, they imagined the artist as a rugged outdoorsman, a man who knew the hunting scenes he captured so beautifully first hand. Born February 24, 1836, Homer often disappointed those who met him with his bank clerk exterior, the complete opposite of the action hero they pictured. Although he painted many works of sharpshooters and soldiers at rest during his time as an artist-correspondent in the American Civil War, Homer’s most famous Civil War image may be The Veteran in a New Field (above, from 1865), in which a soldier freshly returned home immediately throws off his uniform and picks up the scythe in his fervent desire for a return to normalcy. Despite that change of scenery, the taint of death remains in the act of mowing down the grass, which mimics the grim reaper mowing down lives in the war. Homer often suffers under the label of “illustrator,” as if he simply reported the facts and nothing else. In works such as The Veteran in a New Field, Homer presents the facts and much, much more. "I looked through one of [a sharpshooter’s] rifles once,” Homer wrote to a friend years after the war. “The impression struck me as being as near murder as anything I could think of in connection with the army and I always had a horror of that branch of the service." Homer’s images of war, even when at rest, never lose that sense of horror, however faint.

I’ve always found Homer’s work fascinating for its balance of commercialism and artistry. Homer always kept an eye on public tastes, filling it first with his Civil War works and later with more domestic scenes after the war. The image of the small town full of good people and children playing happily embedded in the late nineteenth century American consciousness owes much to Homer’s work. In a way, he filled the need of the country, coming to the emotional rescue of a nation longing for peace. Peace, however, failed to fill Homer’s own artistic need for drama and tension. While living on the rocky coast of Maine, Homer watched the daily drama of men and women battling the sea. The Life Line (above, from 1884) shows a man rescuing a woman from the deadly pull of the ocean. The woman’s wet clothes cling scandalously to her body. A red scarf obscures the face of the rescuer at the same time that it draws the viewer’s eye to the center of the painting. Even the straining ropes securing their lives speak of the tension of this scene. Nature itself seems to conspire against the pair in an image that encapsulates the conflict between humanity and nature.

Homer paints that conflict between humanity and nature even more nakedly in The Gulf Stream (above, from 1899). I’ve seen The Veteran and The Gulf Stream at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and marveled at the impact those individual figures have against their respective backdrops. Whereas The Veteran navigates a sea of grass, the lone sailor of The Gulf Stream pilots his way through the shark-infested waters of the Bahamas, which Homer visited in the late 1890s. Both men find themselves at risk of being devoured by death—the veteran through his memories of war and the sailor through actual physical peril. Homer apparently reworked The Gulf Stream many times, adding the tiny ship in the far distance that appears in the top left corner ever so faintly. After a lifetime of witnessing death and destruction, Homer may easily have fallen prey to a moment of despair, but he ultimately allows a small glimmer of hope of rescue against all the odds.

Sex Symbolist

It’s true in advertising and it’s true in art—sex sells. Franz von Stuck knew that fact quite intimately. Born February 23, 1863, Stuck caused a sensation with his painting The Sin (above, from 1893), in which the pale skin of the nude woman strikes a stunning contrast with the darkness all around her and partially obscuring her face. Stuck’s Symbolist style emphasized the physicality of the woman as sexual object over her individuality as a person, literally keeping her identity in the shadows. With such dark femme fatales, Stuck examined the shadowy corners of human sexuality through mythology and the Bible, always concentrating on the power of the female form as a symbol of energy, birth, and danger.

In Sensuality (above, from 1894), Stuck emphasizes the fatal in the femme fatale even more. A giant snake coils itself around the deathly pale woman’s body. The snake’s head rises next to that of the woman, paralleling her come hither bedroom eyes with its reptilian stare. Stuck goes all the way back to the story of Adam and Eve in resurrecting the snake as a symbol of female sexuality gone amuck. Even more disturbing is the clarity of the snake’s face versus that of the woman, as if Stuck suggests that the snake’s sneer is the “true” face of the woman. Such works predate, the psychological ideas of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, but just barely. Obviously, those ideas were already in the air, providing fertile material for Stuck to exploit. Jung would argue that Stuck simply was tapping into the images of the collective memory of humanity, but I see him striking a different, more specific vein of the same spirit of the age that inspired the erotic works of Gustav Klimt and other German artists.

With The Kiss of the Sphinx (above, from 1895), Stuck finally consummates the relationship between his pale femme fatale and her quite willing victim, using the myth of the ancient sphinx, specifically the ancient Greek version that devoured its victims. The Kiss of the Sphinx literally threatens to consume the male. Stuck enjoyed great fame and fortune during his time, eventually becoming a successful teacher of artists such as Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, and Josef Albers. Unfortunately for Stuck, years after his death, Adolf Hitler, during his “Degenerate Art” rampage through modern art, held Stuck up as an example of acceptable German painting. Despite that endorsement, Stuck’s art remains a fascinating glimpse into the Symbolist style and an unobscured view of the sexual tension at the heart of that movement.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Patriot Games

When Ross King searched for a face and a name to represent the nineteenth-century French art establishment and the Paris Salon for his book The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade That Gave the World Impressionism, he looked no further than Ernest Meissonier. Born February 21, 1815, Meissonier epitomized the Classicist school of painting and sculpture—the perfect foil for Manet and the Impressionists bursting upon the scene. Works such as Messonier’s 1814 Campagne de France (Napoleon campaigning in Northern France) (above, from 1864), one of the many works he painted of Napoleon and his armies in battle, seemed like relics of a past best forgotten next to the new wave in art and society represented by Manet and his followers in all the arts.

Meissonier may have been a difficult man to love. He was meticulous in everything, researching every last detail of sweeping works full of animals and men with their uniforms and equipment. He built small, to-scale sculptures of horseback soldiers and even reproduced the saddles in leather in his quest for realistic perfection. I remember standing in front of his 1814 Campagne de France at the Louvre and finding it hard not to be impressed by his effort and skill. When in 1848 riots erupted in Paris against king Louis Philippe, resulting in his abdication and the Second Republic, Meissonier captured the moment in all its harsh realism in works such as The Barricade, rue de la Mortellerie, June 1848 (above, from 1848). Whereas earlier artists as Delacroix placed a romantic spin on the 1830 revolution in his Liberty Leading the People, Meissonier chose instead to portray the human cost of this political upheaval.

During the Franco-Prussian war and the 1870 siege of Paris, Meissonier got even closer to the action, serving on the staff of Napoleon III. While serving as a colonel of a quickly thrown-together unit, Meissonier took the time to remember and paint such scenes as The Siege of Paris (above, from 1871). The central figure represents the indomitable spirit of the French people (ala Delacroix), but the fallen bodies all around very accurately convey the death and destruction of that war. In The Judgment of Paris, King actually does a pretty good job of presenting Meissonier as a sympathetic character betrayed by time and changing tastes. For all the aggrandizement of war and patriotism in the long history of French art, dating back to the days of Jacques-Louis David, Meissonier offers a refreshingly clear and accurate picture of his country’s struggles.

Belgian Waffler

In most lists of the great Romantic painters, one of the most unfairly left off is Belgian artist Antoine Wiertz. Born February 22, 1806, at the height of Neo-classicism and Romanticism in European art, Wiertz waffled between the two forms in works such as Les Grecs et les Troyens se disputant le corps de Patrocle (above, from 1836), which shows Greeks and Trojans fighting over the body of Patrocles in a scene from Homer's Iliad. Even harking back to such classical themes, which haunted Wiertz’s imagination dating back to his copying of the Old Masters in the Louvre, he cannot resist allowing the Gothicism of his soul to peek out. In the 1890s, J.M.W. Turner was once called “the Wiertz of landscape-painting,” thanks to Turner’s late, wild settings. Such a remark reveals just how well known Wiertz once was and makes us wonder why he’s so little known today.

Like so many other artists of the period, Wiertz read the works of Edgar Allan Poe and Comte de Lautréamont and translated them into images. His painting The Premature Burial (above, from 1854) pays homage to Poe’s tale of the same name, depicting the sense of horror on the face of the not-yet-dead victim finding himself alone in the crypt. Wiertz’s mind often took a decidedly dark turn. He even painted a decapitated head, post-guillotine, sitting on the floor. In such works Wiertz looks forward to Symbolism and even Surrealism, going beyond even the loose boundaries of Gothic Romanticism.

And, yet, there’s always this pull in Wiertz back to the classical. In The Suicide (above, from 1854), the central figure does himself in with a shot to the head, obscuring his face in the blast as he’s blasted into oblivion. The vitality of the dying figure fits in with the standard liveliness of the Romantic body. However, Wiertz bookends this Romantic figure between a devil and an angel, classical representatives of evil and good pulling him in opposite directions as he hesitates pulling the trigger, just as Wiertz himself felt pulled in opposite directions. Wiertz didn’t just paint the Gothic side of Romanticism, he lived and died in the Gothic, as if he himself were a character from a Poe tale. Upon his death, which came while painting in his studio, Wiertz left instructions for his remains to be handled according to Ancient Egyptian burial rites. Looking back at his life and work, Wiertz remains a sphinx-like figure.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Houses of All Sorts

Since 1986, the artist Robert Amos has written a weekly art column for the Times Colonist of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. During that time, he has interviewed many of the leading artists of Western Canada in their homes and studios, taking pictures that he later incorporated into his own works of art. In his new book collecting his memories of those visits, Artists in Their Studios: Where Art Is Born, Amos combines his artistic insights with his fascinating photos, some of which he has turned into photomontages such as that of the attic of Emily Carr’s attic studio (above) in the home she called “The House of All Sorts.” “My style of photomontage involves a mosaic of photographed images, pasted onto cardboard and worked over with paint,” Amos explains. Amos’ book brings you into the houses of all sorts of artists, revealing the uniqueness of each imaginative soul as much as the passion to create that they all share in common.

Carr, who passed away in 1945, is the only case in which Amos never met the artist personally. He retains a sense of intimacy, however, by recounting his feelings while entering that attic with the native North American Indian motifs on the ceiling, which Carr used for inspiration. Many of the other artists Amos profiles have died since he first met them, giving much of the book an elegiac feel. Fortunately, the creative energy of those who remain and populate the photographs as electrically as their artworks more than makes up for those who have passed away.

Amos speaks with great reverence for the major figures of Canadian art, especially Carr and E.J. Hughes (in another collage by Amos above). Writing of the deceased Hughes work, Amos is at his most lyrical: “The paintings are utterly representational and speak of something beyond photography. There is memory and experience encoded in every brush stroke, heart and soul in every carefully considered wave crest and tree limb. There is no haste or shortcut. Without irony or anxiety, he fully conveyed the innocent joy he felt in a perching seagull or a flag blowing in the breeze.” Amos connects with many of these artists on a deep, deep level. When writing of the portraitist Myfanwy Pavelic, Amos captures her very private nature not just in words but also in his pictures of her working in her studio, showing her far in the distance, like a delicate bird not to be disturbed.

Each encounter is as unique as the artist encountered. “To visit [Jerry] Pethick and sit at their picnic table under the apple tree was an unforgettable experience,” Amos writes, “like sharing home-brew and speculative philosophy with Confucius or Socrates.” Pethick’s straw-bale studio, warmed by water-filled propane tanks stacked against the back wall to capture solar heat, becomes a modern-day Thoreau’s cabin in a Canadian Walden. The gallery-store-garden-home-studio of artist couple Grant Leier and Nixie Barton is just one example of these exuberantly living spaces of art. Amos even includes his own studio, which he shares with his artist wife Sarah and calls “the epitome of ordinariness,” which is, of course, the epitome of false modesty.

Canada’s diverse ethnic makeup comes into play in Amos’ selection of artists. Some come to Canada to escape oppression, such as Martin Honisch, who fled Hungary in 1957 under the threat of Russian invasion. Photographs of artist Wayne Ngan’s lily pond outside his ceramic studio seamlessly transplant elements of the Far East to the Canadian West. Zhang Bu (whose Water Village Under the Rosy Color appears above) tells his story of working as an electrician in his native China until one day knocking at the door of a prestigious art school and asking for admission, launching a career that would later see him emigrate to Canada.

Readers should come away with a great sense of place and its role in art from Artists in Their Studios—not only the enclosed space of the studio but also the natural beauty of the western region of Canada. Works such as E.J. Hughes’ Taylor Bay, Gabriola Island (above) hint at the spectacle of nature surrounding these artists and its power to inspire them. “If I lived in New York, I’d be trying to keep away from people and I’d probably paint abstracts,” Ted Harrison tells Amos in his interview. “But I think the world needs more humanism.” Artists in Their Studios gives the art world the humanism it needs, reaching into the places where art is literally born and lifting the shroud of mystery often hanging between the general public and the individual artist. “Meeting these artists has been a gift,” Amos says in his introduction. Through his writing and expressive photomontages, Amos passes that gift on to us.

[Many thanks to TouchWood Editions for providing me with a review copy of Robert Amos’ Artists in Their Studios: Where Art Is Born and for the images above from the book.]

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Tilting at Windmills

When Honore Daumier caricatured King Louis Philippe as Gargantua (above, from 1832) he won a huge audience—and one very angry enemy. Born February 20, 1808, Daumier spent six months in prison for tweaking the king with his art, pointing out how the monarch placed in power by the July Revolution in 1830 wasn’t much better than the person he replaced. Daumier spoke truth to power—loud and clear. In both prints and sculptures, he showed the weaknesses and foibles of the rich and powerful as well as the effects of that class’ actions on the poor and powerless. Prison did little to blunt the sharpness of Daumier’s pen.

By the 1840s, Daumier shifted away from illustration and depictions of the upper class to painting and portrayals of the middle and lower classes. His The Third Class Wagon (above, from 1864) caricatures the faces and figures of the French peasant class huddled together like sheep, but with affection rather than disdain. Despite the cramped quarters, the people in the background seem vitally engaged in conversation, sharing in their common condition. The figures in the foreground—the woman and child, the elderly woman, and the little boy—each tell small little stories with the simplest details. I especially love the hat of the little boy sitting on the suitcase upon which Daumier has signed the painting. The old woman in the center brings to mind Van Gogh’s later paintings of peasants, such as his The Potato Eaters. Such a modern approach placed Daumier far beyond his peers, a man born before his time.

Despite his early success and abundant talent, Daumier’s choice of subject and political stance didn’t make him a rich man. Towards the end of his life, Daumier found himself part of the impoverished class he painted with such tenderness. Fortunately, his friend Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot provided him with a home to live out his final years. “It is not for you that I do this,” Corot said to the protesting, still-proud Daumier. “It is merely to annoy your landlord.” To the end, Daumier could still get under the skin of those in positions of authority. Like the characters in his painting, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza (above, from 1849-1850), Daumier never stopped tilting at windmills, fighting the good fight with his imaginative, romantic spirit against all the odds to the bitter end.

The Protectress

When the Nazis threatened to destroy the works of Der Blaue Reiter group and other modern artists in their quest to eradicate what they deemed “Degenerate Art,” Gabriele Munter, a member of Der Blaue Reiter , spirited many of those works to her countryside home and hid them from certain destruction at great personal risk. Born February 19, 1877, Munter, along with Paula Modersohn-Becker and Marie-Louise von Motesiczky, represents the female contingent of German Expressionism. In 1901, Munter enrolled in the Phalanx School, the art school founded by Wassily Kandinsky, who would become not only her teacher but also her lover. Along with Franz Marc, August Macke, and others, they founded Der Blaue Reiter in 1911. In her painting Boating (above, from 1910), Munter paints Kandinsky standing in the boat, guiding the way as the woman (Munter herself?!) rows the boat. If there’s a great woman behind every great artist, Munter was certainly the one behind Kandinsky at this period of his career.

Munter learned not only from Kandinsky but from all the members of Der Blaue Reiter. She adopted her bold, spiritually charged palette from Marc. From Alexej von Jawlensky, she learned the technique of cloisonnisme, in which the artist darkly outlines all the shapes. Munter used that technique in her portrait of Jawlensky with fellow artist Marianne von Werefkin (above, from 1909). Munter paints her friends with unrecognizable abstraction. If it weren’t for her title, they could be any couple lounging on the grass. With such scenes Munter took common Impressionist subject matter and updated it for the Post-Impressionist world.

When World War I erupted, Kandinsky and Munter fled to Switzerland, escaping the fate of Marc, Macke, and so many other artists killed in the war. Kandinsky later returned to his native Russia and married another woman. Munter and Kandinsky reportedly never saw one another again. Despite that betrayal, Munter always remained true to the art of Kandinsky and her friends, even in the dark days of the Nazi regime. Her Yellow House With Apple Tree (above, from 1910) offers an idyllic scene of the happy home she may have once dreamed of having with Kandinsky. The bright colors and strong outlines that made many of her works seem like stained glass windows often acted as a window into her romantic, faithful soul.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Naked Truth

Julien Levy, Frida Kahlo, New York, 1938. Vicente Wolf Photography Collection. © 2001 Philadelphia Museum of Art

When her friend, photographer, and lover Julien Levy took Frida Kahlo’s photograph of her topless, unbraiding her hair (above), Levy called it “a fantastic liturgy.” In the current exhibition of Kahlo’s art at the PMA, we see a new Kahlo revealed in celebration of the centennial of her birth last year in a liturgy of art and personality just as fantastic. Through Kahlo’s own paintings and photographs of her and those closest to her heart, the layers of (both imposed and self-created) myth obscuring the flesh and blood woman and the significant modernist artist are lifted. Guest curator Hayden Herrera, the queen of Kahlo scholarship dating back to her groundbreaking biography, and co-curator Elizabeth Carpenter unbraid the complicated strands of “Fridamania” to present a new view of this so very visible artist.

Frida Kahlo, Henry Ford Hospital, 1932. Oil on metal, 12-13/16 x 15-13/16 inches. Collection Museo Dolores Olmedo Patiño, Mexico City © 2007 Banco de México Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust. Av. Cinco de Mayo No. 2, Col. Centro, Del. Cuauhtémoc 06059, México, D.F.
In the catalogue to the exhibition, Victor Zamudio-Taylor, in his essay “Frida Kahlo, Mexican Modernist,” deconstructs the two-sided coin that is the cult of Kahlo known as “Fridamania.” “This has been a mixed blessing insofar as the concern with her persona and life story has made it difficult to evaluate the importance of her art within the history of modernism,” Zamudio-Taylor writes. He believes that the mainstream embracing of Kahlo’s work comes “at the cost of recognition of the innovative character of her work.” Amazingly, the uniqueness of Kahlo’s work loses impact through this familiarity. To correct this, Zamudio-Taylor calls for a restoration of Kahlo’s work as “ex-centric, that is to say, outside the center or mainstream.” Secondly, although he recognizes the power of Frida to galvanize special interest groups, he sees that adoption as robbing the works of the power of “paradox,” and asks that the “contradictions” in the paintings be “allowed to remain as such” rather than find resolution in woman’s rights issues, Mexican nationalism, gay civil rights, etc. Lastly, he hopes for a restoration of “the matrix of cultural mestizaje,” i.e., the “’third space’ that is personal and public, individual and creative” when Kahlo collides the different aspects of her culture and self in her work. In embracing Kahlo so closely, the public no longer allows her to stand on her own as a unique, modernist artist.

By restoring Frida’s freedom, works such as Henry Ford Hospital (above) gain new life. “Although secularized,” Zaumudio-Taylor writes of Henry Ford Hospital, “the ex-vovo form, here made new and modern, retains the power of its religious origins while opening a horizon of both formal and narrative possibilities.” In re-evaluating our approach to Kahlo, Henry Ford Hospital and other works retain their status as brilliant works of powerful autobiography (here memorializing a miscarriage in Detroit) yet gain additional significance within the context of modern art practices. The artist Kiki Smith goes so far as to laud Kahlo as the first postmodernist, claiming “that contemporary art began with Kahlo” as “the first to make her body into art and herself the subject and object of her art.” Andre Breton famously said that Kahlo’s art was a “ribbon around a bomb.” In this new approach to her art, that nearly dormant bomb is rearmed for a new generation.
Lola Alvarez Bravo, Frida Kahlo with 1930 Self-Portrait drawing by Diego Rivera, Coyoacan, circa 1945. Vicente Wolf Photography Collection. Lola Alvarez Bravo © 1995 Center for Creative Photography, The University of Arizona Foundation.

In Elizabeth Carpenter’s essay, “Photographic Memory: A Life (and Death) in Pictures,” Carpenter analyzes the dual nature of Kahlo as “both the consummate manufacturer of her own image and a beguiling, willing, and supremely photogenic subject.” Kahlo adopted traditional Mexican dress as part of her relationship with Diego Rivera, but her entire life was a dress-up party in a sense, always playing to cameras both real and imaginary. However, Carpenter sees a limitation in the photographs. “The photographs support and detract from the paintings due to their inherent indexicality, their basis in reality,” she writes. “But, as [Roland] Barthes poignantly argued, they fall short in that they do not convince us of the referent’s existence; we do not know her if all we know are the paintings.” Together, the photographs give us pieces of Frida that never truly add up to a whole. The topless photos of Frida by Julien Levy (including the one at the top of this post) present her as seductress, appealing to both men and women. Photos such as Lola Alvarez Bravo’s picture of Frida with a drawing of Diego (above) show an unguarded Kahlo, apparently less engaged with the photographer than the drawing, which seems to look directly into the lens. Kahlo loved to draw upon photos of herself and to leave lipstick kiss marks on their backs, further inscribing them with her personality in addition to the simple image captured. Nickolas Muray’s color photographs of Frida capture her in all her explosive vibrancy, while his somber black and white pictures of her suffering in traction, the tears of pain visibly welling in her eyes, present yet another facet of this jewel of a soul. (The Delaware Art Museum is currently showing an exhibition of more of Muray’s photographs of Kahlo.)

Frida Kahlo, My Grandparents, My Parents, and I (Family Tree)/Mis abuelos, mis padres, y yo (árbol genealógico), 1936. Oil and tempera on metal, 12-1/8 x 13-5/8 inches. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Allan Roos, M.D., and B. Mathieu Roos digital image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY © 2007 Banco de México Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust. Av. Cinco de Mayo No. 2, Col. Centro, Del. Cuauhtémoc 06059, México, D.F.

The biggest surprise of the Kahlo exhibition catalogue, to me, comes in Hayden Herrera’s contribution, “Frida Kahlo’s Legacy: The Poetics of Self.” The one person associated most with writing on Kahlo defies expectations by writing instead on those influenced by Frida. Just as Kahlo traced her lineage back through My Grandparents, My Parents, and I (Family Tree) (above), Herrera follows it forward to art today. Beginning with the Neo-Mexicanists of the late 1970s and early 1980s, Hayden presents such artists as Nahum Zenil, who honors Kahlo’s memory in his self-portrait titled Frida in My Heart, embracing Kahlo’s example as both a Mexican and a homosexual. Jose Luis Romo, himself the victim of a near-fatal car accident, identifies closely with Kahlo’s injuries in his art as much as with her Mexicanist pride. Japanese photographer Yasumasa Morimura presents an amusing take on Kahlo’s legacy in his “delightfully over-the-top, subversive yet adoring images” in which he restages Kahlo’s self-portraits but replaces her with himself in drag. The Mexican-born San Francisco artist Enrique Chagoya plays off of Kahlo’s What the Water Gave Me in his What Appropriation Has Given Me (Fritas y Dieguitos), which calls for Chicano pride in the face of Americanized faux Mexicanisms as Fritos and Doritos, renamed in his painting for Frida and Diego Rivera, respectively. Kiki Smith credits her debt to Frida to Kahlo’s “very strong precendent of using the physical to show the spiritual… Her work exists in your consciousness whether you are aware of her or not.” Smith also praises Kahlo for surpassing the limitations of figurative art by “interject[ing] a much more whole version of being a person and being a woman,” that is, “she interjected the messy part.” Herrera neatly presents the messy, sprawling nature of Frida’s legacy and influence and shows the breadth and depth of her lasting impact.

Frida Kahlo, The Frame, c. 1937–38, 11-1/4 x 8-1/8 inches. (Centre Pompidou, Paris; Musée national d’art moderne/Centre de création industrielle). © 2007 Banco de México Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust. Av. Cinco de Mayo No. 2, Col. Centro, Del. Cuauhtémoc, 06059, México D.F.

With this catalogue and exhibition featuring so many of Kahlo’s works and images of her life, we come away with a framework in which to see through to a fresher and different Frida. Just as with her brilliantly colored work The Frame (above), Kahlo the artist and person continually sought out new frames of context in which she could explore the nature of art, the nature of self, and the nexus of those two natures. I found the catalogue’s supplementary section listing events in Kahlo’s life with contemporary landmarks in politics, culture, and technology fascinating in that it shows her as a person intimately connected with her world and age. Such connection makes her stunningly modern and appealing to us today, challenging us to be of the world and yet still transcend it, just as she did in her art and personal charisma. For everyone who thinks that they know Frida Kahlo well, this exhibition and catalogue will shake you up and make you look again—something Frida herself never failed at in life.

[Many thanks to the PMA for providing me with a review copy of the catalogue to their exhibition Frida Kahlo and for the images above.]

Face to Face With Frida

Walking through the galleries of the PMA’s Frida Kahlo exhibition at the press preview last Friday, I actually could feel the presence of the artist. Perhaps it was the amazing collection of personal photographs that serve as a powerful prologue to the paintings. Looking at a photo of Diego Rivera and then being able to see the other side, upon which Frida placed a heavily lipsticked kiss, I sensed the more than five decades since her death in 1954 melt away. Of course, looking at the paintings, so many of them self-portraits, such as her masterpiece, The Two Fridas (above, shown in the United States for the very first time), you find it easy to believe that you know the artist like a beloved old friend.

Co-curators Elizabeth Carpenter (above, explaining Kahlo’s Portrait of Luther Burbank) and Hayden Herrera led the tour through the galleries. The PMA’s own modern art curator Michael Taylor introduced the tour by pointing out the choice of wall colors for the exhibition. The early works begin surrounded by blue walls, much like the famous Blue House of Frida’s childhood, featured prominently in several of the paintings. Blue gives way to deep, blood red in the rooms housing the more tortured, intimate works such as The Two Fridas. It’s hard to imagine a more comprehensive collection of Kahlo’s work assembled than this one, which makes it a must-see for anyone interested in her life or the trajectory of modern art, especially the role of women in that history still being written.

The preview provided yet another chance to hear Hayden Herrera (above, with Michael Taylor looking on) speak upon the subject that her biography helped launch into the consciousness of mainstream culture. I found it fascinating that Herrera confessed that she herself had never seen many of the paintings in person until this exhibition. When she mentioned that she had never seen the gouges in the frame of A Few Small Nips, engraved by Frida during a moment of Diego-inspired fury, it heavily impressed on me that even such “well-known” artists as Kahlo remain a never-ending source of revelations even for authorities such as Herrera.

Perhaps the greatest revelation of the exhibition to me was the sheer physicality of the works, or their lack of it. With the exception of The Two Fridas, most of the works are relatively small in size, understandable considering that Kahlo painted many of them while convalescing in bed from injuries or her innumerable surgeries. The tininess of these works draws you in, pulling you into the artist’s embrace. Her choice of materials, such as metal supports to mimic the ex voto of Mexican folk art, becomes clearer through the PMA’s presentation of ex votos in their own collection. An 1803 ex voto of a woman and child surviving a fall from a balcony (above) recreates the context Kahlo worked within wonderfully when hung close by The Suicide of Dorothy Hale, the surreal portrait of the dead actress and perhaps Frida’s most wonderfully bizarre ex voto.

This exhibition showcases the PMA’s special interest in Mexican and Latin American art. All of the signage appears in both English and Spanish in anticipation of a heavy Hispanic audience (such as the text beside The Broken Column above). In support of the exhibition, the PMA created a side show of Frida Kahlo in Context, featuring works by her Mexican contemporaries David Alfaro Siqueiros, Federico Cantu, Dr. Atl, her beloved Diego, and many others. The gift shop offers the obligatory kitsch, but kitsch with a specific flavor. The tiny doll of Frida as seen in The Broken Column and the ready-to-display Frida shrine were personal favorites for their capturing of the baroque nature and black humor of Mexican spirituality. It will be interesting to see just how many people buy into and literally buy the more Frida-esque items versus the safer t-shirts, scarves, and prints.

Another great extra-Frida touch is the Juan Soriano exhibition, Fragile Demon: Juan Soriano in Mexico, 1935 to 1950 (the exhibition title and The Dead Girl [1944] shown above). Soriano knew Kahlo, who was 13 years older. Although they came from slightly different generations, the same Mexican and modernist drives inform their work. The PMA’s exhibition shows Soriano’s work in the United States for the first time, bringing this well-known name in Mexico to an American audience perhaps primed by the Kahlo show for further explorations into Mexican and Latin American art. (I’ll be running a review of the Soriano catalogue soon.)

Although this exhibition previously appeared at the Walker Art Center and will later travel to the SFMoMA, I doubt either can replicate the experience the PMA offers with their own supporting collections (both of the ex votos and pre-Columbian art, which appears often in late works by Kahlo, such as My Nurse and I), the Kahlo in Context gallery, and the Soriano show. Hopefully, people in Philadelphia and even New York and Washington, D.C., will realize the opportunity the PMA is offering and take full advantage of coming face to face with Frida and her world.

[Many thanks to the PMA for inviting me to the Frida Kahlo press preview.]