Thursday, November 4, 2010

Listening to Judy Chicago

Artist Judy Chicago has published a new book, her twelfth,  Frida Kahlo: Face to Face (Prestel, October 2010), and is celebrating the event with a lecture tour around the United States. 

On her second stop, at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, in Washington, D.C., where Kahlo's Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky (1937) is on view in the museum's permanent collection galleries, I had the privilege of joining a full house to hear Chicago talk of how she came to write the book, the discoveries she made while doing so, and, more personally, the inspiration Kahlo has been throughout Chicago's long career.

Approach to Kahlo as Subject

The book (252 pages and weighing more than five pounds) was not her idea, Chicago noted at the outset of her talk. Prestel Publishers' editor-in-chief, Christopher Lyon, Chicago said, wanted to do a book on  Kahlo and turned to Chicago whom he recalled was responsible for his own introduction to the artist via a more than three-decades-old lecture of Chicago's he'd come upon by chance. (In the 1970s, while researching her largely ignored artistic predecessors and colleagues who were women, Chicago said she learned that Kahlo not only was not so well known; she was, if thought about at all, typically and dismissively viewed as "the wife of Diego Rivera who also paints".) Chicago agreed to do the book on the condition she could work with an art historian, in particular Frances Borzello, and Lyon accommodated. Borzello, who lives in London, is an expert in the history of female self-portraiture; her published work includes Seeing Ourselves: Women's Self-Portraits (Harry N. Abrams, 1998), A World of Our Own: Women as Artists Since the Renaissance (Thames & Hudson, 2000), and, more recently, At Home: The Domestic Interior in Art (Thames & Hudson, 2006).

The approach of artist and historian to Kahlo as subject, Chicago explained, was both to look at Kahlo's career and ouevre as a whole and, in particular, to situate Kahlo's self-portraiture in the history of female self-portraiture. In this way, Chicago told her audience, she and Borzello were able to engage on the page in a "face to face" dialogue about Kahlo's paintings, to go beyond biography to reveal how Kahlo "prefigured" many foci of feminist art and, through her painting, also "broke the silence" about the legitimacy of women's experiences as subjects for art.

Chicago's and Borzello's commentaries about Kahlo's significant work, images of which are reproduced in full color in Face to Face, range across nine themes, each of which Chicago described briefly over the course of her talk: family and friends, mirror images, Mexican identity, Diego Rivera, Kahlo's cosmology, Kahlo's menagerie, fruits and flowers, the divided self, and the inside out.


A few of the take-aways from Chicago's informative and insightful perspective on the largely self-trained Kahlo whom, Chicago said, the feminist art movement "brought into the mainstream":

✦ To evaluate the artist through her biography — Kahlo's path to art was through her father, Guillermo Kahlo, a photographer, and her husband Diego Rivera was one of the great muralists of the time — is to deny Kahlo her "artistic agency", Chicago stressed. To properly accord Kahlo her due, it's necessary to challenge the "dominance of the male narrative" that reduces women's artistic contributions to the sum of their biographical details as daughter, sister, wife, mother, or muse.

(Chicago noted that just as Kahlo had been known primarily as Rivera's wife "who also paints", she herself has been reduced to being described as that woman who made The Dinner Party, when the facts are that Chicago's international career of more than 40 years encompasses roles as artist, author, feminist, educator, and intellectual. Other parallels Chicago said she shares with Kahlo: a father's influence, a painful childhood, and use of color.)

✦ The achievements of artists such as Kahlo and Georgia O'Keeffe are "reduced" in importance when the artists are viewed as somehow "an aberration" or "exceptional". The strategy for evaluating women's artistic creations properly, Chicago made clear, must be to place them, one, in the context of the mainstream and, two, in the context of women's own art history.

✦ Kahlo demonstrated great skill in communicating subtly the pressures on women artists to portray themselves in certain ways: as infantilized and, even more clearly, as subservient to the men in their lives. For example, because of the cultural and social mores of her time, Kahlo could not, Chicago said, have painted herself as an artist; hence, in Kahlo's 1931 double portrait, Frieda and Diego Rivera, it is her hulking husband who holds the palette and brushes and she, outfitted in traditional dress, significantly smaller in stature (note especially the tininess of her feet), who demurely holds Rivera's hand.

Frida Kahlo, Frieda and Diego Rivera, Oil on Canvas
 39-1/2 x 31 inches, 1931
Museum of Modern Art, Albert M. Bender Collection, San Francisco

A delicious if arguable irony is that today it is Kahlo, not Rivera, who is the better known.

✦ Rare for the time, Kahlo revealed through her paintings an intensely personal, vividly visual cosmology in which she betrayed her notions of the interconnectedness of everything. As evidence, Chicago cited Kahlo's masterpiece Moses, painted in 1945; it is, Chicago pointed out, replete with historical and mythical figures, as well as symbols of life and death, yet it is not a painting that comes readily to the mind of the general public as, say, would Kahlo's self-portraits with her companion monkey. Not has it been exhibited widely. Chicago suggested that one reason for the relative obscurity of the work is that although it was fine for a woman to paint self-portraits, it was not acceptable for a woman to paint images of the world.

Frida Kahlo, Moses
 Oil on Masonite, 24 x 30 inches, 1945
Private Collection on Loan to Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas

✦ Much has been made of Kahlo's self-portraits with companion animals, which, Chicago averred, ought not to be read as comments on her relationship with Rivera, thus diminishing that "artistic agency", but as Kahlo's emphasis on emotional and physical connections and her effort to render in painting emotions that she could not otherwise articulate directly, given the times in which she lived.

✦ Kahlo's ouevre includes still lifes of fruits and flowers, a genre typically considered "suitable" for women who painted, and so not to be taken seriously. Chicago pointed out that close examination of Kahlo's fruits and flowers, such as the lush Still Life (Round), painted in 1942, reveals much more than a quick look or two might disclose; in it are symbols of distinct sensuality and sexuality and deep awareness of the cycle of life, death, and rebirth.

Frida Kahlo, Still Life (Round)
 Oil on Copper Plate, 24-3/4 in diameter, 1942
Museo Frida Kahlo, Mexico City

✦ Chicago also spoke of how Kahlo, in such paintings as the graphic My Birth (1932), opened up the subject matter of women's life experiences in a way that gave successive generations of women artists the "psychological freedom" to express themselves fully in and through their art. This "pre-figuring" of feminist art, of giving validity to suppressed emotion, is part of Kahlo's great legacy, Chicago added.


Cynthia Pittmann said...

So true...and even now, Kahlo's art inspires women to be nakedly honest about their psychological experience. She exceptionally revered in Puerto Rico.

M.L. Gallagher said...

Oh how I wish I could have been there with you!

And what a wonderful overview of the talk -- thank you so much. It's quite fascinating.

I don't think I'll order the book online though! the postage would be a killer.

I will put it on my christmas wish list! :)

Kathleen Overby said...

Louise, I think I'll peruse it at Barnes and Noble with a stiff coffee - 20 ounce!

I really would love to see the still life in real life. The colors are sumptuous.

We could get an art degree of some kind from following your blog, Maureen - I'm sure of it. :)

Glynn said...

It's going on the to buy list.

Many years ago, I was wandering around a used book fair in a neighboring suburb and found this book on Mexico that was illustrated by Diego Rivera. I had always connected him to murals, not book illustrations. Turned out it was a first edition, in beautiful condition - with a price tag of $2.

Basque-Land said...

Thank you. I just put it on my wish list for Xmas. I have admired this artist since I was a young woman. Talk about a painful life, both physically and psychologically. She is an inspiration.

Hannah Stephenson said...

This sounds amazing. Not just commentary on Kahlo, but commentary on analysis of female could be applied to all analysis, I think, cautioning viewers and critics not to rely only on biography (but to consider it when appropriate).

n. davis rosback said...

i found her name change to be interesting.

oh, maureen...the word verification is "muddomat"

Deborah Barlow said...

Great post M. So glad to get your first hand account since she is not making a swing through Boston. So many ironic turns in this tale which makes for great storytelling.