GONE SOUTH

Quick--name three women artists from Latin America.
Well, there's Frida Kahlo, of course, and then there's, uh...er.... That most of us know so little about the art of our neighbors to the south makes a point about how art appreciation in this country can be xenophobic--that is, when it's not being Eurocentric. That this oversight is a particularly egregious one is made clear by the genuinely spectacular exhibition Latin American Women Artists 1915-1995, currently presented in a display splitting 100 works between two venues--the Denver Art Museum and the Museo de las Americas.

As one could expect, Kahlo is the hook that show organizer Geraldine Biller uses. The famous mid-twentieth-century Mexican surrealist is seen at both the museum and the Museo. Biller, a guest curator for the traveling exhibit's originating institution, the Milwaukee Art Museum, brings an astounding breadth of knowledge and passionate interest to her topic. Among her most interesting observations: Kahlo's worldwide fame is very recent--and first developed, ironically, on this side of the border.

By the 1970s, Kahlo was an artist ripe for rediscovery. First of all, her work was already in some museum collections, owing mostly to the power of her celebrated artist husband, Mexican muralist and Marxist Diego Rivera, but also as the result of early support she received from surrealist proselytizer Andre Breton. And aside from the fact that she was already dead and had led a tragic life filled with struggle--two factors that seem too often to be the prerequisites for famous-artist status--Kahlo was a woman and a Latin American.

Thus, in addition to satisfying the romantic demands of the artist's biography, Kahlo also satisfied the political necessities of the time. Pressure was then being placed on art institutions to present more than just the work of white men. And Kahlo's paintings addressed her physical and psychic suffering, a perfect fit with the autobiographical themes being presented by feminist artists in the United States at the time. This confluence of factors has combined to make Kahlo--alone among Latin American artists--a household name in the world of contemporary art.

Included in this show is a 1936 oil and tempera on metal panel by Kahlo titled "Mis Abuelos, Mis Padres y Yo (Arbol Genealogico)." It's a creepy cartoon of her family tree that she has conceived as a retablo, a kind of traditional sacred Catholic painting prevalent in Mexico for centuries. Kahlo's version of a religious folk painting features the tortured compositions and discontinuity of scale that are her hallmarks. More closely related to the densely composed and richly detailed pictures of her husband, Rivera, is the frequently illustrated 1938 oil on masonite masterpiece "Autorretrato con Mono." The subject of this small yet powerful painting is Kahlo herself, seen in a jungle setting with a monkey on her back.

Curator Biller views Kahlo's work as part of a broad surrealist movement in 1930s-to-1950s Mexico that included other women painters such as Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo. Both of these internationally respected artists were concerned with rendering a dreamy state while utilizing a traditional approach to painterly technique. Also, both Carrington and Varo were immigrants from Europe.

Carrington studied in Italy and France and worked with Modernist painter Amedee Ozenfant in her native England before coming to Mexico in 1942 to escape World War II. And like Kahlo, Carrington enjoyed the early and continued support of Breton. In a 1947 oil on canvas, "The Temptation of Saint Anthony," the influence of Flemish medieval painting, which Carrington had been exposed to when she was a schoolgirl in Florence, is easy to see. But Carrington adds to the tradition by subtly introducing fantastic elements, such as the three faces she's given the saint.

Varo, who was born in Spain, studied at the San Fernando Academy in Madrid in the 1930s, becoming one of that institution's first female students. In the late '30s she went to Paris, where she became involved with the surrealist movement. Fleeing war-torn Europe in 1941, she settled in Mexico City. Later Varo became involved with many other exiled artists, including Carrington, who became her close friend. The exquisite "El Flautista," a 1955 oil on masonite, has a bejeweled quality created by the inclusion of inlaid mother of pearl and the use of metallic paints. And although rocks float through the air and a ruined tower has been "restored" with mechanically drawn lines, Varo's effect is more clearly associated with magic realism than with surrealism.

The social realism associated with the Mexican mural tradition is the chief concern of two other artists active at mid-century in Mexico City: the native-born Mar’a Izquierdo, and Olga Costa, who emigrated from Germany as a child. Both attended the School of the Plastic Arts (Izquierdo in the 1930s, Costa in the 1940s) at a time when the faculty included renowned artists Rivera, Rufino Tamayo and Carlos Merida. Izquierdo's 1943 oil on canvas "Altar de Dolores" is a vibrantly colored view of a home altar set for Good Friday. The still life has a flattened perspective, and the objects depicted have been executed in a conventionalized, cartoon-like way. Costa takes a distinctly different approach. Her colors are toned way down in an oil on canvas from 1950, "Nina Con Sandalias." A little girl, full and fleshy in a pink dress, sits in a luxurious garden and shows off her new gray sandals.

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