Figuring Out Frida

Over a very long brunch this weekend with friends, there was some discussion as to one of the fundamental problems with contemporary art, which is mirrored in contemporary society, as well.  It is increasingly the case over the past several decades that many of our most celebrated contemporary artists do not actually have any talent, or skill.  Instead, there has been an abandonment of the concept of technical study and celebration of the gifted, in favor of promoting the sensational, the emotional, and the juvenile.

While the art world is clearly dominated by the left, this in and of itself is not an answer to the question of why things have reached this point.  It is as if the literary world which, as it happens, is also dominated by the left, suddenly stopped selling novels that held a structure, told a compelling story, and were generally free from grammatical and spelling errors.  Imagine what would happen to the book trade if Simon & Schuster put out nothing but random collections of pages covered in gibberish, or the poorly written, overwrought diaries of teenagers – though I repeat myself.

Why is it that the art world has abandoned sense for nonsense, and the publishing world has not?  I think the answer lies in how the art world has come to look on the creation of art, and the appreciation of talent.  Too often over the past 40 or 50 years the contemporary art world has looked at the expression of modern artists – i.e. loosely speaking, artists of the first half of the 20th century – in works which defied academic tradition, and assumed that the abandonment of form and technique could, without proper training, lead to meaningful and lasting works of art.  Yet this admitted over-simplification often betrays a lack of understanding of where these modern artists came from, and a denial of the fact that these people studied both artistic techniques and the world around them in order to become better artists, even if they chose to depart from the strictly representational and realistic.

For example, I spotted in the news this morning that Artisphere, the mixed-use arts complex in Rosslyn, just across the Potomac River from Georgetown, is the only U.S. venue for a new exhibition of the photographs of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (1907-1954).  The simply-titled, “Frida Kahlo: Her Photos” runs through Sunday, March 25th, and features 250 photographs from Frida Kalho’s archive of thousands in her collection, which was sealed after her death and only opened for scholars to study in 2007.  Kahlo is probably best known to those not familiar with art history through the bio-pic “Frida”, starring Salma Hayek and Alfred Molina, which was nominated for numerous Oscars back in 2002.

During her lifetime Kahlo was often eclipsed in the press by her philandering husband, Diego Rivera (1886-1957), who painted gigantic leftist frescoes not only in his native Mexico, but also across the United States in major cities like New York, Detroit, and San Francisco.  Much of his overrated work looks dated today, characterized by crowds of cartoonish, jostling figures in various shades of beige and puce, looking like something out of a claustrophobic nightmare: it is a kind of Soviet realism without the handsome faces or art deco details.  Kahlo’s work, on the other hand, always seems new and fresh, and indeed often quite literally visceral.

In many of Kahlo’s works there is a joy of color that is emblematic of the vibrant colors of Mexico, which she loved and which she surrounded herself with in the places she lived, the clothes she wore, and in what she painted.  However she also suffered from a number of medical and personal problems during her lifetime, including polio, a horrendous traffic accident in which she not only broke multiple bones but was impaled, and had to undergo dozens of operations for various ailments.  She became pregnant at least three times, with her first pregnancy ending in abortion because it was physically impossible for her to carry the child to term; the second lost through miscarriage; and the third through another abortion as a result of an appendectomy, during which she also had to have three of her toes amputated.  In short, from a physical standpoint, her life was pretty much one endless sea of pain and misery.

Because of this, many of her paintings are visually disturbing explorations of the deeply personal nature of suffering.  Kahlo was able to fuse the various influences on Mexican art, including the often painfully grotesque sculptures and paintings of the Pre-Colombian indians, and the disturbingly detailed scenes of Christian martyrdom and suffering  inherited through colonization by the Spanish, with her own experiences as someone who lived with both pain and the memories of injury and loss every day of her life.  It is a pity that she was an atheist who periodically engaged in blasphemy in her work, for had she turned to God in her pain, rather than making Diego Rivera her god – and one with enormous feet of clay, at that – perhaps she might have found more solace than she enjoyed during her short lifetime.

Regardless of whether one likes her work or not, Kahlo was a painter who knew how to paint.  She may have gone in the direction of abstraction, primitive simplification, and surrealism, but not because she was incapable of producing realistic art: she simply chose not to do so.  Those who doubt this assertion need only look at her “Flower Basket” (1941), to see that this is the case.  It is so not what one thinks of when one thinks of Kahlo’s work, that one would be forgiven for not being able to identify it as being by her hand.

The point here is that Kahlo, as disturbing as some of her pictures may be, was an artist who had studied art – not just history, but also technique.  That she was able to do so in an academic, realist fashion is obvious; that she chose not to follow that path made her art very much her own.  What seems to have happened in the half-century or so since her death is that the values which she and Rivera accepted as artists – study, practice, and observation in order to successfully render emotion – have been thrown out the window in favor of emotion over all. And unfortunately, a great deal of both private and public money since their day has been spent on the promotion and collection of art which comes from the hands of those who have no talent at all, other than for making a spectacle of themselves.

There is no question that Kahlo made a spectacle of herself in her work, and you may choose not to witness that spectacle.  Yet as an artist, she also knew how to pay homage to her culture, to other artists whose work she wished to reference such as Rivera, Gauguin and Rousseau, and to bring about a personal expression of emotion based on her assimilation of all of these factors.   It is a pity that her achievements may appear to many as being diminished, in the face of such an onslaught of mediocrity from the present-day art establishment.


Detail of “Me and My Parrots” by Frida Kahlo (1941)
Private Collection

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Banal Blasphemy in Beijing

A new exhibition opened in China this weekend, showcasing art that mocks Christianity just in time for the birthday of the Church on Pentecost. Entitled “The Road”, the show at the Pace Gallery’s Beijing outpost features recent paintings by Chinese artist Yue Minjun, whose work has become something of a Kelly bag these days, i.e. a “must-have” for the cognoscenti. In the show, Yue explores a number of themes from the life of Christ and the saints, portraying them in his immediately recognizable, one-trick pony style. Yet his work is so repetitive and derivative, than it is a bit like buying a fake Rolex off the street.

Yue’s talent, such as it is, is to paint images of figures wearing reptilian expressions usually described as “smiles”. Personally, his figures always seem to me to be laughing rather than smiling, given that I do not know many people who shut their eyes tightly and open their mouths wide when they smile – but there you are. The heads of these figures are almost always based on Yue’s own head, which is painted onto the body in a disproportionate size.

According to the website for the show, which not only explains the exhibition but also provides much-needed laughter on a Monday morning:

In his newest exhibition, Yue’s work takes on Christian forms. The strength of Western culture has pushed more than a few Chinese people into an existence stripped of its cultural core, making them into nomads, wandering in the space between two cultures. By altering the semantic relationships between the people and space in the original works, the works seem almost to dissolve away, neatly avoiding the contradictions and embarrassment inherent to any collision between two cultures. As the curator Leng Lin stated, “Confronted with something you don’t completely understand, a smile can mean rejection, or confusion. But it can also mean inclusion and acceptance.”

[N.B.: I suspect whoever wrote this description used to work at the undergraduate admissions office at Georgetown.]

The Pace Gallery is based in the United States but, as is always the case in the international art market, they followed the money. As was the case in Japan 20-30 years ago, all the new billionaires in China need works of art to cover the walls of their luxury homes, and as back-up investments in case the stock market sours. Some of these people will, as the Russians have done, use their new wealth to purchase their country’s antiquities, in order to repatriate their cultural patrimony, particularly pieces which made their way out of the country as a result of Communist totalitarianism. Other collectors however, are simply interested in being perceived as trendy hipsters, and it is to this group of customers that galleries like Pace cater with exhibitions such as this.

Scrolling through the images of the show, we first see a “Baptism of Christ” where all of the Yue clones are wearing speedos. Next is a work entitled “Annunciation”, copying the background of Fra Angelico’s famous version in the Priory of San Marco in Florence, but eliminating the figures of the Angel Gabriel and the Blessed Virgin. This is displayed near a tondo entitled “The Crowning of Thorns”, showing a single figure wearing a crown of thorns on a swirly, psychedelic background.

Next comes a rendering of “The Entombment”, which copies the figural arrangement of Caravaggio’s masterpiece in the Vatican but again features all male figures in speedos; this hangs near a “Deposition from the Cross”, where there are no figures and the deposition appears to already be over. The exhibition concludes with a piece entitled “Resurrection”. To me, this last seems to be a mistake in titling by the artist. I cannot immediately identify what painting Yue is copying, but the composition would seem more likely to be the second appearance of Christ to the Apostles after the Resurrection, given the gesture of the figure in the lower left, who would therefore represent St. Thomas.

From a technical standpoint – and I know one of my regular readers in particular is going to say I am being too charitable – Yue has some understanding of composition. Admittedly, in these works he is generally doing little more than copying the well-thought-out compositions of better artists than he. As a sort of contemporary surrealist his would not be an unusual practice, but Yue does not appear to have much fun doing it.  There is no “gusto” in his work.

Not unlike the far more talented surrealist René Magritte, Yue has an eye for graphic impact but little skill in the application of paint. Many people, this writer included, love the work of Magritte for its humor, but his technique as a painter admittedly left much to be desired. In Yue’s case, his style is so clearly dependent upon artists like Magritte that, when combined with Yue’s high school art student understanding of light and shadow, the whole comes off as counterfeit.

With respect to the question of blasphemy, simply put Yue is not really any good at it.  Based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the use of imagery in the Church, contemporary artists like Yue seem to be operating under the collective impression that by mocking Christian iconography they weaken the Christian message.  Catholics know that paintings are pathways to prayer, rather than objects required for the survival of the Faith.  This is why the stark minimalism of the Cistercians, for example, can co-exist alongside the Baroque exuberance of the Theatines: for those who find visual clues helpful, they are provided, and for those who do not need such clues, they can be eschewed, but in neither instance are they necessary. We do not like images that insult our Church any more than we would like images that insult our family and friends or our country, but we also know that God cannot be injured by a work of art.

In sum then, at least in this particular show, Yue is trying to box above his weight as an artist.  He exhibits both a lack of artistic skill and a lack of understanding of the subject matter which is all-too-typical in the post-modern world. The end result is that this reviewer is left both unimpressed and unmoved.