Manuel Álvarez Bravo: Photopoetry @ the Photographers’ Gallery

There are three main exhibition spaces at the Photographers Gallery, on the 2nd, 4th and 5th floors. The second and fourth floors are often used to hold two parts of the same show – they are currently hosting the exhibition of Latin American photography, Urban Impulses, which is split into two parts, while the fifth floor is currently hosting the TPG New Talent 19 show – both of which I’ve reviewed.

After taking in the wealth of images on these three floors it’s easy to miss the other, small, exhibition space in the building, down in the basement, next to the bookshop. This is the Print Sales room and here you can examine or order prints from a variety of photographers who licence their works to be sold via the gallery. But it is also where the gallery hosts temporary exhibitions of original prints by classic and contemporary photographers. The distinctive feature of the small displays in the Print Sales room is that all the work is for sale.

The Print Sales room is currently hosting a selection of rare platinum and silver gelatin prints by the great modernist Mexican photographer, Manuel Álvarez Bravo (1902-2002).

Forbidden fruit by Manuel Alvarez Bravo

Forbidden fruit by Manuel Alvarez Bravo © Archivo Manuel Álvarez Bravo SC

According to the curators:

Initially self-taught, Álvarez Bravo first picked up a camera as a teenager while working at a government job. His early style was influenced by studying international photographic journals particularly looking at the work of European artists such as Edward Weston and Tina Modotti both of whom he later met.

Through them, he was introduced to Mexico’s avant-garde scene, including Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. His work increasingly began to reflect the influence of homegrown movements such as the Mexican Muralists as well as an interest in identity politics. By the mid 1930s, Álvarez Bravo was being exhibited alongside contemporaries Henri-Cartier Bresson and Walker Evans and shown in such seminal group exhibitions as Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art (Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1940), and the worldwide tour of Edward Steichen’s Family of Man in 1955.

Note the compulsory reference to ‘identity politics’. That or gender or race had to come into it somewhere. They always do. In Bravo’s case gender and sexuality are most obviously present in several strikingly erotic nude studies (like the one above), which often feature the teasing reveal of a breast or a woman’s loins, while other parts of her body are obscured (by a large parasol, in one case).

But there are at least two other strands in his work. One is his discovery of pattern and significance in the everyday. Lots of the photos capture everyday moments in busy Mexico City, but in a way which isolates the motif and makes it feel full of meaning, creating a kind of latent symbolism.

La hija de los danzantes | The daughter of the dancers (1933) by Manuel Álvarez Bravo © Archivo Manuel Álvarez Bravo SC

This strand of his work is never quite abstract, but often hints at abstraction. The works take a scene from everyday life but capture it in such a way as to reveal a kind of hidden geometry, hinting at the modernist and constructivist sensibility behind his work.

The other pole of Álvarez Bravo’s work is a conscious social realism. The Mexican Revolution (which I’ve read and written about elsewhere) lasted from roughly 1910 to 1930, and brought about some social change to this backward, peasant country, but not nearly enough, and the 1930s was, of course, the decade of the global depression. Bravo didn’t have to look far to see signs of poverty, and the hard lives of the urban poor – street sellers, performers, vagrants.

Los agachados / The crouched ones (1934) © Archivo Manuel Álvarez Bravo SC

I think the curators hit the nail on the head when they describe Álvarez Bravo’s

sublimely lyrical, yet unsentimentalised images of his beloved Mexico and its people, and his exceptional ability to transform the rituals of everyday life into something fantastical and monumental.

It’s that monumentality which comes over in these photos. They feel epic. They feel as if they are saying something really profound about the human condition. There are only 15 prints on display but all of them seem more than just photos, but doorways into some deeper truth about the world.

All fifteen photos are extremely rare platinum and silver gelatin prints, some of them printed by Álvarez Bravo himself and signed by him. It has, apparently, taken years to get his estate to agree to this exhibition and to their sale, and their rarity explains the stunning cost. Prices vary a little, but all the ones I liked cost £6,500 plus VAT. But then – they are original, hand-printed masterpieces.

Muchacha viendo pájaros (1931) by Manuel Álvarez Bravo © Archivo Manuel Álvarez Bravo SC

The book

Also at the exhibition you can buy the comprehensive and huge hardback collection of Álvarez Bravo’s photography, Photopoetry, from which this little display draws its title. In this you can find out more about his role in Mexican and Latin American photography, his membership of Mexico City’s avant-garde, and enjoy his photos of close friends Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo – not least a set taken during the strange period when they hosted the world’s most famous revolutionary, Leon Trotsky, at their Mexico City home, with the godfather of Surrealism, André Beton, tagging along.

Álvarez Bravo took photos not only of street people and street scenes, but of Mexico’s leading artists and writers until well into the 1990s, so the book offers not only the biography of a great photographer, and over 360 of his best photos printed on beautiful quality paper – but insight into the intellectual life of the great giant of Central America.

Contact the Photographers’ Gallery Print Sales


Related links

Reviews of other books and exhibitions about Mexico

Reviews of other photography exhibitions

Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Mexican Modernism: The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection (2001)

This is the large-format, floppy paperback catalogue of an exhibition held at the National Gallery of Australia in 2001. The exhibition featured paintings by 20th century Mexican artists collected (and sometimes commissioned) by the wealthy art collectors, Jacques and Natasha Gelman. The book contains:

  • The Director’s Foreward – by Brian Kennedy
  • The Curator’s preface – by Robert R.Littman, exhibition curator
  • Frida and Diego – by Gregory O’Brien, curator
  • ‘People are vying for shreds of her garments’ – by Anthony White, curator
  • ‘A pact of alliance with the revolution’: art and politics in Modern Mexico – by Barry Carr, Institute of Latin American studies
  • Jacques and Natasha – by Anthony White
  • ‘My mother, myself and the universe…’ – by Anthony White
  • Catalogue of the works
  • Artist biographies

Modernism

For a start, I’m surprised they call it Modernism. I thought that’s exactly what it wasn’t. I thought Modernism was cubism, futurism, suprematism, constructivism, vorticism and so on, mainly from the 1910s. I thought Rivera’s art was part of the international reaction against the abstraction of the 1910s, and back towards various forms of realism – called neo-classical realism in France, or the Neue Sachlichkeit in Germany, or the narrative realism of the Mexican muralists.

That said, once you start flicking through this book and taking in its bewildering range and variety – with Surrealist works next to abstract expressionism, light-hearted caricature next to Frida’s earnest self-portraits – you realise that maybe ‘Modernism’ is the only label which works as a hold-all term.

The Gelmans

Jacques Gelman was born into a rich Russian Jewish family in 1909. His family fled the Russian Revolution to Germany. Twenty years later, Gelman fled Nazi Germany on the eve of the Second World War, making his way to Mexico – which was more open to European refugees than America.

In America Gelman became a successful film producer and, along with his wife Natasha, also a keen collector of contemporary Mexican art, building up an impressive collection and commissioning portraits from leading artists.

Upon Mrs. Gelman’s death in 1998, their collection was donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Highlights were loaned to the National Gallery of Australia for this exhibition in 2001. And hence this book, the catalogue of that exhibition.

Saint Frida

Frida Kahlo dominates the title and the exhibition and this catalogue.

Even in 2001 the curators write about Frida as having achieved cult status. And as the recent exhibition at the V&A showed, it wasn’t just her paintings, but her entire self-presentation – the dresses and costumes and jewellery and hair, the whole look – which make Kahlo so visually attractive, so iconic.

To a historical materialist like me, what would be interesting would be an analysis of Frida Kahlo’s rise and rise which asked why she has become such a superstar cultural icon and attempted to answer in terms of cultural history and political change.

After all, during their lifetime her husband, Diego Rivera, was much the more famous of the two, up there with Picasso as an internationally recognised synonym for modern art. And Rivera pioneered a uniquely public form of art – his educational murals – which were commissioned by the Mexican state and millionaire American patrons. He could hardly have been more high profile and public.

So what has changed in our culture to lead to the fact that this politically committed, socialist visionary is now almost entirely overlooked in favour of his preening, self-obsessed, young wife?

For you can’t deny that Frida’s work is entirely, obsessively, unrelentingly about herself – it consists of literally hundreds of self-portraits, wearing various costumes, in bed, bound in barbaric medical equipment, crying, bleeding, suffering miscarriages.

Henry Ford Hospital (The Flying Bed) by Frida Kahlo (1932)

Henry Ford Hospital (The Flying Bed) by Frida Kahlo (1932)

The decline of radical politics and its replacement by grievance and victimhood

When I was growing up in the 1970s it was axiomatic that there would soon be a socialist revolution which would sweep away American imperialist capitalism. ‘Up the workers’, ‘Come the revolution’, ‘The workers. United. Will never be divided’, ‘One out, all out’ were just some of the radical slogans which people shouted on umpteen marches and picket lines. (I’m not saying I agreed with it, but these were the widespread assumption among lefties at the time, in universities, the media, film, theatre and so on).

Over the last forty years that hope – the hope for the ‘overthrow of capitalism’ – has, it seems to me, been completely abandoned and replaced by the notion of separate and specific ‘liberations’ to be achieved, in different ways, by distinct sections of the population.

Gay liberation. Women’s liberation. Black power. Over the past forty to fifty years each of these sectors or groups has developed its own discourses, narratives, lists of grievances and injustices. Each of them insists on being heard.

Women need to talk about women’s issues and be heard. #believewomen. #me too. Gays need to talk about the gay experience. Lesbians need to find their voice. Transgender people need to be listened to. We need to talk about mental illness. Black lives matter. Refugees must be given a voice. Muslim women must tell their stories. We need to talk about…. you name it.

The idea of a unified, mass working class movement seeking to effect a fundamental transformation of society has disappeared. It has been replaced by a fragmented landscape made up of millions of voices, all clamouring to be heard, all desperate to tell their stories of suffering and victimhood and exclusion.

In this completely different cultural and political climate, Rivera’s big, loud, working-class politics seems bullying, sexist, old-fashioned, toxically masculine, redundant, or disgusting.

(The art scholars in this book don’t miss an opportunity to accuse Rivera of toxic masculinity, pointing out his philandering and unfaithfulness and general feckless masculinity on pages 10, 14, 25, 26 and 27. The fact that Frida had a staggering number of extra-marital affairs is mentioned as only her due. She was an artist, you know, and a suffering woman in a man’s world. Of course she was justified in taking love wherever she could find it.)

By contrast with Diego’s discrediting as an epitome of discredited, male-dominated, socialist, trade union politics, Frida has become an emblem of our modern concerns, dominated by the Eternal Victimhood of Woman Under The Patriarchy – about the pity and the pain and the pathos of being a woman. (The story of the bus accident in which Frida was injured by a handrail is told on page 9, repeated on page 25, and then told again on page 27. The message is rammed home. Poor Frida. Beastly Diego.)

Injured as a girl (by a male bus driver, obviously), subject to endless medical operations (by male surgeons, of course), forced to wear painful corsets and prosthetics (by male specialists, the brutes), betrayed by her philandering husband (cheating, false and unfaithful Diego), ignored by the (male) art establishment during her lifetime, refusing to conform to (male) canons of female beauty – Frida ticks pretty much every box on the feminist checklist.

My point is that the definition of what is ‘progressive’ or ‘radical’ has changed out of all recognition in the past forty or so years.

Once it was someone who tried to unite the working classes, the poor and the dispossessed, in order to seize power and transform the economic basis of society. Now it is someone who has suffered greatly because of their gender or race. Once it was the semi-pagan idea of the active hero and revolutionary. Now it is much more like more Christian idea of the suffering martyr, the victim, the permanently injured, offended or abused.

And Saint Frida – along with Saint Sylvia and Saint Emmeline and Saint Rosa – is one of the patron saints of the new religion.

The cult of Frida

I had written the above simply as a response to the way Frida’s suffering and endurance and saintliness is so obsessively repeated in the preface and the introduction and the text of the book, and was congratulating myself on developing this little critique, when I came across the fourth essay in the book – ‘People are vying for shreds of her garments’ – and was gutted to discover that everything I’d thought through for myself – is common or received opinion.

‘People are vying for shreds of her garments’ by Anthony White does precisely what had occurred to me – tries to account for the rise and rise of the Cult of Frida over a period when traditional class-based politics has declined and special-interest-group, identity politics has taken over.

White is far more scathing than I was prepared to be. He doesn’t hold back and he makes the link – which i was rather proud of – between the Cult of Frida and Christian ideas of sainthood and suffering:

Kahlo has become the exemplary modern cult figure, in the tradition of Christian saints and teenage pop stars…

Her legacy has grown into a multi-million dollar industry that crosses national and cultural boundaries….

One of the recent sources of Kahlo’s recent celebrity has been a narrative of suffering which feeds into a well-established, popular fascination with personal struggles with pain…

Her work connects to a pervasive tradition in western art that depicts the tribulations of saints

The figure of Frida Kahlo appeals especially to women… Kahlo’s rising popularity in the 1970s was paralleled by the growth in feminism… (Anthony White, p.13)

She was a martyr to pain, menstrual cramps, erratic periods, ill-fated pregnancy, tragic miscarriages, painful abortions, unfaithful men, establishment misogyny, the whole panoply of the evil patriarchy. What woman hasn’t experienced one, many or all of these grievances? Her story features them all, whipped up into a frothy intensity of pathos.

The Broken Column by Frida Kahlo (1944) (or a portrait of the artist as a martyr)

The Broken Column by Frida Kahlo (1944) (or a portrait of the artist as a martyred woman in a man’s world)

Mexican Modernism

Having discussed Frida and her many martyrdoms (physical, psychological, artistic, social) at length, Anthony White then moves on to discuss the rest of the artists featured in the show. He distinguishes three branches of Mexican Modernism, as found in the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection:

  • Murals The politically motivated, accessible, murals for the masses made by Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco.
  • Surrealism The Englishwoman Leonora Carrington, one-time lover of Max Ernst, is credited with spurring Mexican Surrealism after her arrival in 1942: André Breton had already visited Diego and Frida and declared Frida’s paintings masterpieces of Surrealism in 1938; another Mexican woman surrealist featured in the collection is María Izquierdo.
  • Abstraction – Carlos Mérida and Gunther Gerzso.

The works

The book includes reproductions of 60 paintings and seven photos. It opens with the wonderful photos by Manuel Álvarez Bravo who was, apparently, ‘Mexico’s first principal artistic photographer and the most important figure in 20th-century Latin American photography’.

Bravo took portraits of Diego and Frida (of course) but also a huge range of subjects, from modernist architecture, street life, and women in various states of undress. Tut tut. Objectifying, misogynist, sexist pig. Great photos, though.

Forbidden fruit by Manuel Álvarez Bravo

Forbidden fruit by Manuel Álvarez Bravo

There is just one photo by his wife, Lola Alvarez Bravo, who was also, apparently, a notable photographer in her own right – an interesting collage of black-and-white photos of ballet dancers stuck over images of the Mexican desert, which my daughter liked.

And then there are paintings by:

  • Leonora Carrington
  • Rafael Cidoncha
  • Miguel Covarrubias
  • Jesús Reyes Ferreira
  • Gunther Gerzso
  • 10 by Frida
  • Agustín Lazo
  • Carlos Mérida
  • Roberto Montenegro
  • José Clemente Orozco
  • Carlos Orozco Romero
  • David Alfaro Siqueiros
  • Juan Soriano
  • Rufino Tamayo
  • Emilio Baz Viaud
  • Angel Zárraga

Apparently, the Gelman collection contained more works by Gunther Gerzso than any other painter, about 40 of them. I can see why. They’re big, bold, colourful abstracts (although Gerzso himself said that they were not purely abstract, but had their source or inspiration in the dry, sun-baked landscape of Mexico). Their existence also shows how the Gelmans continued collecting long after Frida and Diego had passed away (1954 and 1957, respectively), well into the 1960s and 70s, into a completely different cultural and visual world.

This example of Gerzso reminds me a bit of the kind of abstract prints my parents and their friends bought in Habitat and Heals and had on their walls in the 1970s.

Figure in red and blue by Gunther Gerzso (1964)

Figure in red and blue by Gunther Gerzso (1964)

Summary

This is an interesting book because it a) contains a handful of masterpieces by Diego and Frida, but more because b) it introduced me to a dozen Mexican artists I’d never heard of before.

On the one hand, Rivera and Frida emerge as head and shoulders the best and most distinctive of the artists here, with Diego’s painting of a Calla lilly vendor, and any of Frida’s amazing self-portraits, leaping off the page – for example the ones with monkeys, in a red and gold dress or with braids.

But it was good to also learn about Latin America’s premiere photographer, Manuel Álvarez Bravo and about Gerzso and a few others. I took a shine to the crisp abstract works of Carlos Mérida, with their late-1950s, rather Festival of Britain vibe.

Festival of the Birds by Carlos Mérida (1959)

Festival of the Birds by Carlos Mérida (1959)


Related links

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Diego Rivera: The Detroit Murals and the Nightmare of War controversy

This really is a beautifully produced book, giving the reader access to loads of preparatory sketches and cartoons made by Mexican muralist Diego Rivera before he painted the vast murals depicting the Ford motor factory at Detroit onto the walls of the Detroit Institute of Arts, along with photos of the great man in action (and catching sneaky kisses from his wife, Frida Kahlo) and a detailed analysis of each of the 27 murals’ design and meaning.

The Nightmare of War and Dream of Peace

In the epilogue, the book’s author, Linda Bank Downs, describes the fascinating incident of the political controversy which suddenly engulfed the murals almost 20 years after they were painted.

Rivera had been expelled from the Mexican Communist Party in 1929, following a visit to Moscow during which he criticised Stalin’s leadership. For the next twenty years he remained, rather pathetically, desperate to be readmitted to the party.

In 1952 Rivera was commissioned to paint a portable mural for a Mexican art exhibition in Paris. He chose as subject The Nightmare of War and Dream of Peace. Now, the Korean War had broken out in 1950 and was still ongoing. The communist North Koreans were backed by Stalin, were soon lent troops from China, which had only just come under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party led by Mao Tse-Tung. The portable mural Rivera created caused an international scandal.

Rivera’s mural is not only packed with detail but is, in fact, a painting within a painting. It is a mural of a mural. On a wall in some Mexican city is painted the political mural. This mural ends three quarters of the way to the right, ending along with the wall it’s painted on, beyond the end of the building we can see a panoramic view of the modern Mexican city, with its bustling traffic, high rise buildings and billboards.

In front of the mural a load of inhabitants of the city are being moved along the pavement from right to left. They are being handed copies of ‘the Stockholm Appeal’ by a man in a black suit at far right, by Rivera’s wife, Frida Kahlo in her wheelchair, by the central figure of the worker who acts as the dynamic fulcrum of the action, and on to the two chaps standing behind a makeshift table, who are persuading citizens – be they peasants or smart suited urban types – to add their names to the petition.

The Stockholm Appeal was a short, simple text, launched in 1950, which called for an absolute ban on nuclear weapons. The appeal was launched by the French Communist physicist Frédéric Joliot-Curie, and the petition gathered a supposed 273,470,566 signatures. Joliot-Curie is depicted to the left of the central worker, facing us, wearing a black beret.

Behind this bustling scene of street-level politics is the mural itself. This depicts, at left, Uncle Joe Stalin and Chairman Mao offering a peace treaty to the Western powers – France personified as a woman with a liberty cap, pugnacious John Bull standing behind her, resting a hand with knuckle dusters on the globe which stands between them, and a white-top-hatted Uncle Sam behind her.

The two-thirds of the mural to the right depict the horrors of war. Behind a vast atomic mushroom cloud, steel-helmeted soldiers whip, hang, crucify and shoot the victims of war, peasants with Asian faces.

The Nightmare of War and Dream of Peace by Diego Rivera (1952)

The Nightmare of War and Dream of Peace by Diego Rivera (1952)

The Korean War

The point is that Rivera painted this mural at the height of the Cold War and two years into the bitter Korean War (1950-53). The Korean War began when communist North Korean forces invaded South Korea, with no warning or pretext. They pushed the unprepared South Koreans and their handful of peacetime American allies right back to the south-east of the peninsula and very nearly conquered it all.

Until the hero of the war in the Pacific, American General MacArthur, launched a daring amphibious landing half way up the peninsula, not far from the southern capital of Seoul, threatening to cut the North’s supply lines and take them in the rear. The victorious allies forced the North right back up to the original border between the countries, and then pushed them back up towards Korea’s border with China.

It was at this point that Mao Tse-Tung’s Communist China – which had only’fallen’ to the communists as recently as 1950 – sent huge numbers of Chinese Red Army cadres to reinforce the North Koreans, while the Americans, leading a supposedly United Nations force, reinforced its armies – and so the war settled down to a brutal war of attrition.

Rivera wasn’t wrong in depicting a world brought to the brink of nuclear war. When the Chinese joined the war and pushed the allied forces right back to the middle of the peninsula, MacArthur seriously suggested to President Harry Truman that they launch a nuclear attack on Chinese cities. He was promptly sacked, but that’s how close to a nuclear war the world came.

Controversy in Detroit

How does this affect the Detroit murals? For the simple reason that Rivera’s depiction as heroes of peace the two brutal communist dictators, Stalin and Mao, which the USA was at war with, against whose armies American boys were fighting and dying, inflamed public, political and artistic opinion against him. He was vilified in the right-wing and liberal press, artists, and politicians. The McCarthyite hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee were just about to start, with their hounding of anyone suspected of even the slightest left-wing leanings.

In this mood of war fever and patriotic paranoia, it’s no surprise that voices were raised criticising the Detroit murals, the largest example of Rivera’s work outside Mexico: Why was Detroit promoting the work of a war-mongering commie?

The city’s council took up the cry, and one councilor, Eugene Van Antwerp, called for the murals to be whitewashed over. However, the director of the Detroit Institute of Arts, Edgar Richardson, admirably stood his ground. He argued that the murals were great works of art and an obvious tribute to the capitalist inventiveness and industriousness of America, which were in no way affected by the changing political beliefs of their creator.

Richardson had a massive sign painted and hung up outside the institute, which read:

Rivera’s politics and his publicity seeking are detestable.
But let’s get the record straight on what he did here.
He came from Mexico to Detroit, thought our mass production industries and our technology wonderful and very exciting, painted them as one of the great achievements of the twentieth century.
This came just after the debunking twenties when our own artists and writers had found nothing worthwhile in America and worst of all in America was the Middle West.
Rivera saw and painted the significance of Detroit as a world city.
If we are proud of this city’s achievements, we should be proud of these paintings, and not lose our heads over what Rivera is doing in Mexico today.

The politicians insisted that there be a public consultation about the work’s future but, in the event, Richardson only received a handful of letters and the protest, such as it was, fizzled out.

Rivera and the Communist Party

The Mexican organisers of the show in Paris pleaded with Rivera to change his depiction of the dictators. When he refused, they decided not to exhibit the painting. This prompted the Mexican Communist Party to express righteous indignation, propagandise about ‘freedom of expression’ and to hold a public viewing of it, attended by numerous communist officials, writers and fellow travellers.

It didn’t help Rivera in his almost obsessive attempts to rejoin the Party. His fourth application to join was rejected. In 1953 Rivera sent the mural – which was always designed to travel – to China. It subsequently disappeared and has never been seen again. It would be fitting if it was destroyed by radical students in the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. In 1954 Kahlo, now very ill, committed suicide. Rivera made her funeral into a Communist Party demonstration, and his fifth application for readmission to the Mexican Communist Party of Mexico was finally accepted. Three years later Rivera died.

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in front of the unfinished mural, The Nightmare of War and the Dream of Peace (1952) Photo by Juan Guzmán

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in front of the unfinished mural, The Nightmare of War and the Dream of Peace (1952) Photo by Juan Guzmán


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Diego Rivera: The Detroit Industry Murals by Linda Bank Downs

[Rivera] has built up a powerful narrative style of painting, which makes him, it is safe to say, the only man now working, who adequately represents the world we live in – wars, tumult, struggling peoples, hope, discontent, humour and speeding existence.’
(Edgar P. Richardson, one of the directors of the Art Institute of Detroit)

Diego Rivera’s Detroit murals

In April 1932 the Mexican mural painter, Diego Rivera, arrived in Detroit to fulfil a commission from the city’s Art Institute. Rivera had already painted two sets of murals in San Francisco and was coming fresh from being the subject of an immensely successful one-man retrospective at New York’s (new) Museum of Modern Art.

Chief patron of the Art Institute and sponsor of the murals was Edsel Ford, son of Henry Ford, founder of the famous automobile company. In fact Ford, by this stage, was no longer just running a successful car company, he had created the largest and most technically advanced industrial complex in the world. This industrial city within a city not only contained all the manufacturing elements required for the production of cars, it included factories turning out steel, cement, glass and electricity. The site had its own canals and railways, and had developed ship, tractor and airplane manufacture so that it could control the delivery of all the raw materials necessary to car production.

Like many visitors, Rivera was awe-struck at what he saw. He spent three months visiting every part of the works, having the engineering and machines explained to him, and developing his designs. He made hundreds of sketches and studies as well as commissioning photographs by the company photographer.

The murals were to be painted on the two long, tall, facing walls of what was, at that point, the garden courtyard of the Art Institute. There were to be two main murals, giant paintings in which Rivera captured the thrilling complexity of factory production – the construction of the interior of an automobile on the North Wall, the manufacture of the exterior of the car on the South wall.

Detroit, Man and Machine, North Wall in the Detroit Institute of Art by Diego Rivera (1932)

Detroit, Man and Machine, North Wall in the Detroit Institute of Art by Diego Rivera (1932)

Above these giant paintings ran two horizontal bands in which Rivera painted less cluttered, more monumental figures depicting the races of the world and the raw materials lying under Detroit’s soil (on the North Wall [above] you can see the figures representing the Indian and African races; on the South Wall [below] figures representing the white and Chinese races.)

Detroit, Man and Machine, South Wall in the Detroit Institute of Art by Diego Rivera (1932)

Detroit, Man and Machine, South Wall in the Detroit Institute of Art by Diego Rivera (1932)

And running along beneath the main panels were a series of smaller, rectangular spaces into which Rivera painted different aspects of the worker’s day – arriving at work, lunch break, and different perspectives on the works.

The East and West walls contained doors and windows so Rivera had less space to play with and so, again, painted symbolical rather than naturalistic subjects – on the East wall a long thin band with a foetus lying in the soil, on the West wall [below] two depictions of shiny, tubular machines flank the main door while directly above them is a black and white painting designed to look like a relief frieze showing a Ford transporter ship bringing raw materials from abroad, while above that is a set of paintings depicting the latest Ford airplanes.

The West wall murals

The West wall murals

In all there were 27 separate panels.

Rivera began painting on 25 July 1932 and finished work in March 1933. Despite vocal criticism from right-wing journalists, politicians and preachers attacking him for being foreign, an atheist and a communist – and attacks from the other end of the political spectrum, from communist writers and officials accusing him of selling out to the Yankee dollar – the murals were opened to tremendous critical acclaim, and became an instant hit with visitors.

The images were reproduced in papers and magazines and art books around the world and consolidated Rivera’s reputation as Mexico’s greatest artist with one of the most recognisable visual styles in the world. It is telling that when the Rockefeller Foundation was looking for bang up-to-date artists to decorate the lobby of their new skyscraper in New York, they approached Matisse, Picasso and Rivera. He was in that league.

This book

This book is a joy to behold and handle. It’s a large-size and hefty hardback (31.5 cm tall by 20.5 cm wide), the paper is beautiful, the print is lovely and crisp, and the quality of the photo and painting reproductions are first class.

The USP of the book is that it was only during the 1990s that a whole world of cartoons, sketches and photographs which had been involved in the making of the murals first came to light.

Linda Bank Downs helped to direct investigations into the archives of not only the Art Institute but the Ford Company Museum and Detroit’s other archives, so that researchers were able to slowly assemble a massive collection of preparatory works, sketches, cartoons, notebooks, plans, designs, as well as official and private photos which record and document every stage of Rivera’s researches, preparations and painting.

These are now all gathered together and explained in this book. The result is fabulously presented and absolutely fascinating. There are chapters on the origin and development of the commission itself, and then an absolutely riveting description of exactly how the murals were prepared, which includes a precise recipe for each of the five layers of plaster required, and detail on the painstaking preparation of each of the colours to just the right fineness and density.

We learn the biographies of the half dozen assistants who were required for the project (including the unlikely figure of Lord Hastings, an English aristocrat who wanted to help the working classes), and a portrait of life in broader Detroit – in reality, a grimly rundown city with mass unemployment, hunger, riots and endemic racism.

A chapter describes ‘the Cosmology of Technology’ i.e. explains the multitude of manufacturing processes which Rivera depicted, and the next chapter presents the surprising variety of art scholarly interpretations the murals have been subjected to.

The book ends with an entertaining account of the ‘controversy’ surrounding the paintings which Downs, after extensive research, now thinks might actually have been created by the Ford Company’s own press and PR people – and was a spectacular success.

All the way through there are excellent, top quality photos – of Detroit, of the factory, of Diego at work, of his assistants hard at work, of him mingling with his American hosts in embarrassed group shots, even of the great man sneaking a secret snog with his wife, Frida Kahlo, who dutifully brought him a cooked meal of vegetarian Mexican food, just the way he liked it every day at lunchtime.

Diego Rivera having a cheeky snog with Frida Kahlo on the scaffold inside the Detroit Institute of Arts (1933)

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo having a snog on the scaffold inside the Detroit Institute of Arts (1932)

There are extensive reproductions of Diego’s preparatory sketches and drafts and plans – and then the book goes on to present wonderfully panoramic views of each panel alongside extensive close-ups of details, explaining the function of each piece of equipment, the names of many of the men depicted, and also the cameo appearances Rivera painted in to the murals of his patron, the Institute’s director and a cheeky self-portrait, among many more.

This is a wonderfully intelligent and beautifully produced book about a major twentieth century work of art.


Related links

Related reviews – Diego and Frida

Related reviews – Mexico

The Murals of Diego Rivera by Desmond Rochfort (1987)

Diego Rivera:

  • painted murals from 1921 to 1957
  • painted literally hundreds of mural panels
  • covered more wall space with murals than anyone else in history

Whether you like the murals comes down to a couple of questions:

  1. do you like the rejection of almost all 20th century artistic sophistication in favour of a deliberately figurative, almost cartoon-like style?
  2. do you respond to the composition and layout and design of specific murals?
  3. do you like the political or ideological message of the murals?

The message

As to point 3 – the message – I take it that Rivera’s repeated themes that the Aztecs had a fine civilization until the killer Cortes massacred them all, that Mexican peasants are noble and pure but are tyrannised and brutalised by their Hispanic masters, and that unemployed striking workers are being beaten up by the police while the spoilt rich bourgeoisie swigs cocktails in evening dress – so that the workers must take up arms and stage a revolution to overthrow the regime – I take it none of these ideas come as news to anyone any more, or that anyone gets very excited about murals with titles like ‘This is how the proletarian revolution will be’.

The Arsenal by Diego Rivera (1928)

The Arsenal by Diego Rivera (1928)

Given the thousands of paintings, murals and statues of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin which festooned every space across the Soviet Union and eastern Europe for 70 years until its collapse in 1990… I take it no-one is excited by the image of Marx et al in a mural any more.

The opposite: all of Diego’s murals evoke a deep nostalgia for the long-lost period of the 1920s and 1930s when artists and poets and playwrights were all solidly left-wing, joined the Communist Party, made plays and poems and paintings and posters extolling the noble proletariat, confident that history was about to topple in their direction. How wonderfully certain they must have been.

Thinking about it, Rivera is very like Otto Dix, George Grosz and the other Weimar artists who used cartoons and caricature to express their seething anger at social injustice in the style which became known as The New Sobriety.

The only difference from them is in Rivera’s additional twin themes of colonisation and race. George Grosz didn’t have to go back to the era of the Reformation (1517) to explain 1920s Germany, but Rivera did have to go back to the Spanish conquistadors (1519) to explain 1920s Mexico.

The history of Mexico

Grosz didn’t feel compelled to draw a history of Germany; there were already countless histories of Germany; he was only interested in the corrupt and unfair present.

But Rivera did feel compelled to draw a history of Mexico, in fact he drew it again and again, because the meaning of Mexican history was still very fiercely contested in his age. After you get beyond the same kind of nostalgia for a simpler, more polarised and more politically charged artistic world that you get when you read Brecht or listen to Kurt Weill – after the purely proletarian concerns fade away – it is the multiracial and ethnographic aspects of Rivera’s imagery which sticks out.

The Ancient World by Diego Rivera (1935)

The Aztec World on the west wall of the National Palace of Mexico by Diego Rivera (1929)

After the initial burst of invention in the 1920s, what this book rather brings home is the repetitiveness of the imagery. Or, if a scholar argued that the actual images and compositions are amazingly diverse – maybe what I mean is the repetitiveness of the problem.

And the problem is – the meaning of Mexico. Where did it come from? Who are the Mexicans? What does it mean to be the joint heir of both the cruel Aztecs and the bloody conquistadors? When both sides very obviously had their shortcomings, which ones do you choose as your ancestors? Where is Justice? What – as Lenin said – is to be done?

The Ministry of Education murals 1922-28

Rivera’s first project was the biggest of his career, painting the walls of the galleries surrounding the two big courtyards of the Ministry of Education, which he renamed the Court of Labour and the Court of Fiesta. It took from 1923 to 1928 and by the end he’d created 235 panels or 1,585 square metres of murals.

At the same time he began a commission to paint a converted chapel at the new Universidad Autonoma de Chapingo. The earliest Education Ministry ones, like the entire Chapingo set, ones have a really primitive didactic feel. There are relatively few figures, carrying out archetypal actions set against a brown background. The influence of the early Renaissance is really visible: the bent figures of the mourning women entirely wrapped in their cloaks reminds me of Giotto.

'The Blood of the Martyrs' from the Chapel at Chapingo by Diego Rivera (1926)

‘The Blood of the Martyrs’ from the Chapel at Chapingo by Diego Rivera (1926)

In both sets of murals you immediately see that his central achievement was to heave the entire concept of mural painting from its religious origins – and even from the heavily ‘symbolic’ imagery used by some secular, monumental muralists at the end of the 19th century –  and to consciously, deliberately and powerfully, turn it into the depiction of an entire nation, of Mexico – through portrayals of its geographic regions, of its favourite fiestas and festivals, of its industry and agriculture, using compositions packed with people, characters, caricatures, satire and sentiment.

To me many of them have a medieval interest in crowds. They remind me of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in their enjoyment of the variety and quirkiness of life – not forgetting that Chaucer’s variety also included bitter social satire, sentimental religiosity, and unquestioning praise of the medieval knightly code.

In just the same way Rivera features:

  • crowd scenes, whose pleasure derives from the sheer profusion of humanity, as in the village scenes of Brueghel
  • crudely bitter but still amusing social satire
  • revolutionary sentimentality – for example where a poor whipped peon is wrapped in a shroud or a fallen comrade is buried and the viewer is meant to choke back a sob of emotion
  • and throughout many of the murals runs unfettered praise for men draped in bandoliers and holding guns – revolutionaries, freedom fighters, guarantors of the Revolution etc.

The joy of crowds

The Day of The Dead - The Minitry of Education (Court of the Fiestas) by Diego Rivera (1924)

‘The Day of The Dead’ from The Ministry of Education (Court of the Fiestas) by Diego Rivera (1924)

The mass, the throng, the diversity of life – like Breughel.

Political satire

The Wall Street Banquet form the Ministry of Education (Court of the Fiestas) by Diego Rivera (1926)

‘The Wall Street Banquet’ from the Ministry of Education (Court of the Fiestas) by Diego Rivera (1926)

The rich are sat at table not to eat, but to read off a tickertape telling them the value of their stocks and shares. The bluntness of the idea and the grotesqueness of the faces remind me of George Grosz and other Weimar satirists who had been doing the same thing for eight years or more, just not on walls.

The noble poor

We are meant to compare and contrast the filthy rich with the noble poor, the liberated peasants, who live with simplicity and dignity. Eating what they grow themselves. For, as Zapata repeatedly said: the land belongs to he who tills it… and the fruits thereof.

Children. The elderly. All under the governance of the wise man, who is himself beholden to the female principle of the fruit of the soil, as worked by peasants (to the left) under the watchful gaze of a Party commissar (to the right).

'Our Bread from the Ministry of Education (Court of the Fiestas) by Diego Rivera (1928)

‘Our Bread’ from the Ministry of Education (Court of the Fiestas) by Diego Rivera (1928)

War is wrong

War is always wrong unless, of course, it’s your war, fighting for your cause.

Fighting in the imperialist war was, according to the Bolsheviks, foolishness. Not because there should be peace. But because workers of all lands should unite together to exterminate the bourgeoisie and other class enemies right across Europe, right around the world. A creed which certainly did lead to guerrilla and civil wars across Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas, for much of the 20th century.

'In the Trenches' at the Ministry of Education by Diego Rivera (1924-28)

‘In the Trenches’ at the Ministry of Education by Diego Rivera (1924-28)

Off to America

It is ironic that, as soon as Rivera had become famous as a bitingly anti-capitalist, communist artist, he was taken up by … super-capitalist, mega-rich Americans.

The Yankees invited him to do murals at the San Francisco Stock Exchange (1930-31) and Art Institute (1931), at the Ford motor works in Detroit (1932), and then at the Rockefeller Centre in New York (1933). At the same time as Diego was the subject of the Museum of Modern Art’s second ever one-artist retrospective.

God, how simply fabulous the super-rich New Yorkers and their wives in their diamonds and furs look as they arrived for the opening night party! How simply adorable the fire-breathing Communist Mexican turned out to be! And so witty! And did you talk to his simply delightful wife!

Just to make this point quite clear, the mural Rivera painted in San Francisco adorns the stairs leading up from the Stock Exchange itself to the Stock Exchange’s private luncheon club. The word ‘elitist’ is thrown around a lot by left-wing critics, but could a location be more restricted and elite?

But it was the murals he made in Detroit which Rivera himself considered the best he ever made. He was intensely professional about preparing the space, researching the engineering and technology of car manufacture, and then creating compositions which are awesome in scale, packed with detail, but so cunningly composed as to create a beautiful sense of rhythm and flow.

Crucially for the patron Edsel Ford, and the Art Institute which hosts them, and for admiring visitors generally, there is next to no political content in them whatsoever. They simply show men at work in modern factories, hymns to the marvel of modern technology.

North Wall at the Detroit Institute for Arts by Diego Rivera (1933)

North Wall at the Detroit Institute for Arts by Diego Rivera (1933)

The Detroit murals were followed by a falling-out with the owners of the Rockefeller Building who had commissioned a big mural in the lobby of their swanky new Manhattan skyscraper but cancelled it when Rivera insisted on painting in the face of Lenin.

With no other commissions in view, Diego reluctantly returned to Mexico in 1934 where he fell out with the government and devoted the rest of the decade to easel painting and political activism.

He only returned to mural painting in 1940 with the immense panorama of ‘Pan-American unity’ painted in America again, for the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco.

I think what this book shows is that far from showing ‘Mexico’ any clear political way ahead (there wasn’t, after all, anything like a Communist revolution in Mexico. In fact precisely the opposite, the bourgeois class consolidated its permanent grip on power by inventing a ‘big tent’ political party during the 1930s – the Institutional Revolutionary Party – designed to incorporate all political factions and classes and thus make elections and political parties unnecessary, and the PRI went on to rule Mexico without interruption until the year 2000) Rivera’s work really brings out and dramatises

  1. its history to date (along with the more garish aspects of the contemporary situation – rich versus poor – town versus country – peasant versus landowner – Marx versus Henry Ford)
  2. puts ordinary Mexicans, the peasants and farmers and soldiers and workers and priests and landowners and urban passersby – all of them – up on the wall to be seen and recognised as Mexican

I think this explains why modern, post-political, post-communist scholarly commentary prefers to dwell on what it calls issues of ‘identity’ rather than the more blatantly communist elements in Diego’s work. It’s safer.

Mexico as a maze

Looking at Rivera’s densely packed and colourful later works, from the 1940s and 1950s, makes you realise that Rivera certainly created a strong visual identity for his country and countrymen in the 1920s and 1930s – but then remained trapped in the maze of that Mexican history and, above all, snagged on the horns of that Mexican dilemma: are we European or Indian? Aztec primitivists or scientific rationalists? Workers or bosses? Mestizos or criollos?

To some extent you could argue that the very packed-out nature of his great interlocking mural of Mexican history which decorates the stairwells of the National Palace in Mexico City – the way Aztecs and conquistadors, knights and peasants, the contemporary Mexican government and the heroes of the 1910 revolution, are all combined in the same image – captures the overwhelming, confusing and directionless nature of Mexican history.

As this book admits, Rivera’s history pictures present ‘a history shorn of many of the qualifications and complexities associated with the historical transformation of Mexico’ (p.59). In other words, a historical fantasy.

History of Mexico mural in the main stairwell of the National Palace by Diego Rivera (1929-35)

History of Mexico mural in the main stairwell of the National Palace, by Diego Rivera (1929-35)

There’s a great deal of ‘Where’s Wally’-type pleasure to be had from identifying different groups of characters in these vast paintings – and figuring out who they are and how they fit into the national story.

Rivera and his contemporaries, supported by some critics, often explained his socially conscious murals as the modern equivalent of Christian iconography. Just as the frescos of the Renaissance depicted key moments in the story of Christ and illuminated key ideas in Christian theology for an illiterate audience so, they argued, Rivera’s murals were designed as visual guides to the illiterate Mexican peasant and prole, explaining key moments of Mexican history, showing Karl Marx with his arm stretched out pointing towards a better future.

But to the casual observer, his vast panoramas of Mexican history (like the one shown above) just look like a mess. A confusing and perplexing gallimaufrey of historical events and figures all thrown together into an almost indecipherable crowd.

They become, if you like, charming illustrations for an already-educated bourgeoisie. you have to be already very well educated to understand what is going on in his murals.

Hence his wild success with – not just Americans – but the very richest of the richest Americans. He wasn’t feted by John Steinbeck and Dorothea Lange – the socially conscious artists – in New York. He was adulated by the Rockefellers and the Guggenheims and the Astors.

Maybe it’s a simplistic thought, but it seems to me that the more sophisticated and complex Riviera’s murals became, the more they became popcorn, bubblegum cartoons, full of fascinating detail, but lacking the anger and energy of his earliest works.

Pan American Unity by Diego Rivera (1940)

Pan American Unity by Diego Rivera (1940)

Pure against impure

To dig a little deeper, comparing the background and enactment of the Mexico City murals against the American ones, and reading up about Rivera’s wild enthusiasm for America, the conclusion I draw is that – he liked America because it was so psychologically untroubled.

I know there had been forty years of rocky industrial relations since the 1890s, and a march of unemployed workers ended in shooting only weeks before Rivera arrived in Detroit to paint his mural there. But the Americans Rivera met were all full of national self-confidence, self-belief, untroubled by doubts. This was the exact opposite of the deeply troubled intellectual class in Mexico.

And, in my opinion, the reason for this is that the white Americans he met had essentially exterminated the native peoples in order to own the land and country. Nothing held them back. They were creating the American Dream free and untrammelled by negative thoughts or anxieties. As far as they were concerned it was a big empty space, ripe for the taking.

Whereas Mexico had been, and was still, held back by massive guilt for its colonial oppression, for the extermination of an obviously highly cultured civilisation. And Mexican intellectuals could never forget this fact because the majority of the Mexican population was mestizo or mixed race, in your face wherever you went, and almost all condemned to grotesque rural poverty.

The central problem of Mexican society – the land question – was an ongoing problem inherited from the Spanish, the systematic semi-slavery of the vast majority of the population of illiterate forced labourers, mostly descended from the original tribal peoples.

America didn’t have that problem, having very effectively exterminated its native peoples and not intermarried with them. Instead, Rivera met nothing but rich, confident, exuberant representatives of a boundlessly confident Master Race, carried along by the knowledge that they led the world in science and technology.

In other words, Rivera was a pioneering example of the Post-Colonial Predicament which trapped and challenged thousands of writers and artists, and tens of millions of subject peoples around the world, for much of the 20th century.

I think it’s this which makes Rivera truly revolutionary: not the slogans and pictures of Marx, but the fact that he struggled all his life to make sense of the mixed heritage of coloniser and colonised, struggling to reconcile two completely different histories, traditions, languages and ethnic identities. And if he didn’t really, in the end, succeed, it was an honourable failure and nonetheless produced a lifetime of wonderful, inspiring and fascinating public art.

The book

This is a large-format art book, containing just 104 pages, of which:

  • seven present a thorough chronology of Mexican history from Independence (1811) to the end of the reforming Cárdenas presidency in 1940, with many evocative b&w photos
  • one page carries a poem by Pablo Neruda
  • two pages of Bibliography
  • four of notes

Which leaves 81 pages of text, illustrated with about 30 contemporary black-and-white photos and 120 plates of the murals, of which 37 are in colour.

I found the text heavy going. It was written in 1987, which is a long time ago and people back then, especially academics in the humanities, still put a lot of faith in international communism. The text completely lacks the dry style, lively humour and interesting psycho-sexual speculation which makes Patrick Marnham’s biography of Rivera so enjoyable and thought-provoking.

A lot of the photos aren’t that great, and the black and white plates are quite small.

The book gives generous quotes from contemporaries, especially the other muralists of the day such as David Alfaro Siqueiros, and a highlight is the vitriolic attack which Siqueiros launched on Rivera in the mid-1930s, accusing Diego of selling out and becoming a bourgeois painter.

There is a lot of small detail, about minor murals missed by Marnham’s biography, and a number of sidebars pleasantly go off on a tangent from the main narrative with what are in effect little articles explaining all aspects of Mexican culture, which are diverting and often very interesting.


Related links

Related reviews

Dreaming With His Eyes Open: A Life of Diego Rivera by Patrick Marnham (1998)

My father was a storyteller and he invented new episodes of his past every day.
(Diego Rivera’s daughter, Guadalupe)

This is a hugely enjoyable romp through the life of Mexico’s most famous artist, the massive, myth-making Marxist muralist Diego Rivera. In his own autobiography My Art, My Life, Rivera made up all sorts of tall stories and whopping fibs about his ancestors, childhood and young manhood. He then collaborated with his first biographer, friend and fan Bertram David Wolfe, to produce an ‘official’ biography (published in 1963) in which he continued to perpetrate all sorts of fantastical stories.

Instead of boringly trying to tell fact from fiction, Marnham enters into the spirit of Rivera’s imagination and, maybe, of Mexico more generally. The opening chapter is a wonderful description of Marnham’s own visit to Rivera’s home town during the famous Day of the Dead festival, in which he really brings out the garish, fantastical and improbable nature of Mexican culture – a far far better introduction to Rivera’s world than a simple recital of the biographical facts.

Mexico appears throughout the book in three aspects:

  • via its turbulent and violent politics
  • in its exotic landscape, brilliant sky, sharp cacti and brilliantly-coloured parrots
  • and its troubled racial heritage

As to the whoppers – where Rivera insisted that by age 11 he had devised a war machine so impressive that the Mexican Army wanted to make him a general, or that he spent the years 1910 and 1911 fighting with Zapata’s rebels, or that he began to study medicine, and after anatomy lessons he and fellow students used to cook and eat the body parts – Marnham gently points out that, aged 11, Rivera appears to have been a precocious but altogether dutiful schoolboy, while in 1910/11 he spent the winter organising a successful exhibition of his work and the spring in a small town south of Mexico City worrying about his career and longing for his Russian girlfriend back in Paris.

First half – Apprenticeships 1886-1921

The most interesting aspect of the first half of his career is the long time it took Rivera to find his voice. Born in 1886 to a minor official in the provincial city of Guanajuato, young Diego’s proficiency at drawing was noticed at school. The family moved to Mexico City and his parents got him into the prestigious San Carlos Academy of Fine Arts, when he was just 11 years old. In 1906 i.e. aged 19, he won a scholarship to study abroad and took a ship to Spain, settling in Madrid, where he met the city’s bohemian artists and studied the classics, Velasquez and El Greco, who he particularly revered.

But the real intellectual and artistic action in Spain was taking place in Barcelona (where young Picasso had only recently been studying), the only Spanish city in touch with the fast-moving art trends in northern Europe.

So it was only when Rivera went to Paris in 1909 that he was first exposed to Cézanne and the Impressionists and even then, they didn’t at first have much impact. After a trip to London where he saw Turner, his painting becomes more misty and dreamy, but it was only in 1913 that he began to ‘catch up’, for the first time grasping the importance of the Cubism, which had already been around for a few years. For the next four years Diego painted in nothing but the Cubist idiom, becoming a well-known face in the artistic quarter of Montparnasse, a friend of Picasso, and a fully paid-up member of the avant-garde – all mistresses, models and drinking late into the night.

Marnham’s account of these years is interesting for a number of reasons. It sheds light on how a gifted provincial could happily plough a traditional academic furrow right up until 1910, blithely ignorant of what we now take to be all the important trends of Modern Art. And it is a compellingly gossipy account of the artistic world of the time.

I liked the fact that, in this world of bohemian artists, whenever a ‘friend’ visited, all the artists turned their works to the wall before opening the door. The artistic community – which included not only Picasso, but Gris, Mondrian, Chagall, Derain, Vlaminck, Duchamp – was intensely competitive and also intensely plagiaristic. Picasso, in particular, was notorious for copying everything he saw, and doing it better.

Food was so cheap in the little cafés which sprang up to cater to the bohemians that the Fauvists Derain and Vlaminck invented a game which was to eat everything on the cafe menu – in one sitting! Whoever gave up, to full to carry on, had to pay the bill. On one occasion Vlaminck ate his way through every dish on a café menu, twice!

Rivera’s transition from traditional academic style to cubism can be seen in the ‘Paintings’ section of the Wikipedia gallery of his art. First half is all homely realism and landscapes, then Boom! a dozen or so hard-core cubist works.

Rivera returned to Mexico in October 1910 and stayed for 6 months, though he did not, as he later claimed, help the Mexican revolutionary bandit leader Zapata hold up trains. He simply wanted to see his family and friends again.

But upon arrival, he discovered that he was relatively famous. His study in Madrid and Paris had all been paid for by a state scholarship awarded by the government of the corrupt old dictator, Porfirio Diaz and, to justify it, Diego had had to send back regular samples of his work. These confirmed his talent and the Ministry of Culture had organised an exhibition devoted to Rivera’s work which opened on 20 November 1910, soon after his return, to quite a lot of fanfare, with positive press coverage.

As it happens, this was exactly the same day that the Liberal politician Francisco Madero crossed the Rio Grande from America into northern Mexico and called for an uprising to overthrow the Diaz government, thus beginning the ‘Mexican Revolution’.

In his autobiography Rivera would later claim that he was a rebel against the government and came back to Mexico to help Emiliano Zapata’s uprising. The truth was pretty much the opposite. His ongoing stay in Madrid and then Paris was sponsored by Diaz’s reactionary government. He never met or went anywhere near Zapata, instead supervising his art exhibition in Mexico City and spending time with his family, before going to a quiet city south of the capital to paint. He was, in Marnham’s cutting phrase, ‘a pampered favourite’ of the regime (p.77)

In the spring of 1911 Rivera returned to Paris with its cubism, its artistic squabbles, and where he had established himself with his Russian mistress. Not being a European, Rivera was able to sit out the First World War (rather like his fellow Hispanic, Picasso) while almost all their European friends were dragged into the mincing machine, many of them getting killed.

Of minor interest to most Europeans, the so-called Mexican Revolution staggered on, a combination of complicated political machinations at the centre, with a seemingly endless series of raids, skirmishes, battles and massacres in scattered areas round the country.

Earlier in the book, Marnham gives a very good description of Mexico in the last days of Diaz’ rule, ‘a system of social injustice and tyranny’. He gives a particularly harrowing summary of the out-and-out slavery practiced in the southern states, and the scale of the rural poverty, as exposed by the journalist John Kenneth Turner in his 1913 book Barbarous Mexico (pp. 36-40).

Now, as the Revolution turned into a bloody civil war between rival factions, in 1915 and 1916, Rivera began to develop an interest in it, even as his sophisticated European friends dismissed it. Marnham himself gives a jokey summary of the apparently endless sequence of coups and putsches:

Diaz was exiled by Modera who was murdered by Huerta who was exiled by Carranza who murdered Zapata before being himself murdered by Obregón. (p.122)

Obregón himself being murdered a few years later…

Rivera’s Russian communist friend, Ilya Ehrenburg, dismissed the whole thing as ‘the childish anarchism of Mexican shepherds’ – but to the Mexicans it mattered immensely and resonates to this day.

Rivera spent a long time in Europe, 1907 to 1921, 14 years, during which he progressed from being a talented traditionalist and established himself at the heart of the modern movement with his distinctive and powerful brand of cubism. Some of the cubist works showcased in the Wikipedia gallery are really brilliant.

But all good things come to an end. Partly because of personal fallings-out, partly because it was ceasing to sell so well, Rivera dropped cubism abruptly in 1918, reverting to a smudgy realist style derived from Cézanne.

Then he met the intellectual art critic and historian Elie Faure who insisted that the era of the individual artist was over, and that a new era of public art was beginning. Faure’s arguments seemed to be backed up by history. Both the First World War and the Russian Revolution had brought the whole meaning and purpose of art into question and the latter, especially, had given a huge boost to the notion of Art for the People.

It was with these radical new thoughts in mind that Diego finally got round to completing the Grand Tour of Europe which his grant from the Mexican government had been intended to fund. off he went to Italy, slowly crawling from one hilltop town to the next, painstakingly copying and studying the frescos of the Quattrocento masters. Here was art for the people, public art in chapels and churches, art which any peasant could relate to, clear, forceful depictions of the lives of Jesus and the apostles and the saints. Messages on walls.

Second half – Murals 1921-33

The Mexican Revolution was declared over in 1920, with the flight and murder of President Carranza and the inauguration of his successor President Obregón. A new Minister of Culture, José Vasconcelos, was convinced that Mexico needed to be rebuilt and modernised, starting with new schools, colleges and universities. These buildings needed to be decorated with inspiring and uplifting murals. As Mexico’s most famous living artist, Diego had been contacted by Vasconcelos in 1919, and his talk of murals came at just the same time that Elie Faure was talking to Diego about public art and just as Diego concluded his painstaking studies of Renaissance frescos in Italy.

In 1921 Rivera returned to Mexico and was straightaway given two of the most important mural commissions he was ever to receive, at the National Preparatory School (la Escuela Prepatorio), and then a huge series at the new Ministry of Education.

At the same time Diego evinced a new-found political consciousness. He not only joined the Mexican Communist Party but set up a Union of Technical Workers, Painters and Sculptors. From now on there are three main strands in his life:

  1. the murals
  2. the Communist Party
  3. his many women

Diego’s women

Rivera was a Mexican man. The patriarchal spirit of machismo was as natural as the air he breathed. Frank McLynn, in his book about the Mexican Revolution, gives lengthy descriptions of Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata’s complex love lives (basically, they both kept extraordinary strings of women, lovers, mistresses and multiple wives). Diego was a man in the same mould, albeit without the horses and guns. More or less every model that came near him seems to have been propositioned, with the result that he left a trail of mistresses, ‘wives’ and children in his turbulent wake.

EUROPE
1911 ‘married’ to Angelina Beloff, mother of a son, also named Diego (1916–1918)
1918 affair with Maria Vorobieff-Stebelska, aka ‘Marevna’, mother of a daughter named Marika in 1919, whom he never saw or supported

MEXICO
1922-26 Diego married Guadalupe Marin, who was to be the mother of his two daughters, Ruth and Guadalupe; she modelled for some of the nudes in his early murals
– affair with a Cuban woman
– possible affair with Guadalupe’s sister
– affair with Tina Modotti, who modelled for five nudes in the Chapingo murals including ‘Earth enslaved’, ‘Germination’, ‘Virgin earth’ 1926-7
1928 – seduced ‘a stream of young women’
1929 marries Frida Kahlo, who goes on to have a string of miscarriages and abortions
– three-year affair with Frida’s sister, Cristina, 1934-7
1940 divorces Frida – starts affair with Charlie Chaplin’s wife, Paulette Goddard
– affair with painter Irene Bohus
December 1940 remarries Frida in San Francisco
1954 marries Emma Hurtado
– affair with Dolores Olmedo

Diego’s murals

Making frescos is a tricky business, as Marnham explains in some detail – and Rivera’s early work was marred by technical and compositional shortcomings. But he had always worked hard and dedicatedly and now he set out to practice, study and learn.

Vasconcelos was convinced that post-revolutionary Mexico required ‘modernisation’, which meant big new infrastructure projects – railways with big stations, factories, schools, universities – and that all these needed to be filled with inspiring, uplifting, patriotic ‘art for the people’.

The National Preparatory School, and then a huge series at the new Ministry of Education, took several years to complete from 1922 to 1926 and beyond. He was convinced – as Marnham reductively puts it – that he could change the world by painting walls.

There was a hiatus while he went to Moscow 1927-8.

There is an unavoidable paradox, much commented on at the time and ever since, that some of Diego’s greatest socialist murals were painted in America, land of the capitalists.

In 1929 he received a commission to decorate the walls of a hacienda at Cuernevaca (in Mexico) from the U.S. Ambassador, Dwight Morrow. Following this, Diego went to San Francisco to paint murals at the San Francisco Stock Exchange (!) and the San Francisco School of Arts.

His argument in his own defence was always that he was bringing the Communist message to the capitalist masses – but there’s no doubt that these commissions also meant money money money. Fame and money.

In 1931 Diego helped organise a one-man retrospective at New York’s new Museum of Modern Art (founded in 1929) which was a great popular success. Marnham is amusingly sarcastic about this event, listing the names of the umpteen super-rich, American multi-millionaires who flocked to the show and wanted to be photographed with the ‘notorious Mexican Communist’. ‘Twas ever thus. Radical chic. Champagne socialism.

As a result of all this publicity, Diego was then invited by Edsel Ford, son of the famous Henry, to do some murals at the company’s massive car factory in Michigan. Diego put in a vast amount of time studying the plant and all its processes with the result that the two massive murals painted on opposite sides of a big, skylit hall are arguably among the greatest murals ever painted, anywhere. Stunningly dynamic and exciting and beautifully composed.

North wall of Diego Rivera's Detroit Murals (1933)

North wall of Diego Rivera’s Detroit Murals (1933)

Everything was going swimmingly until the next commission – to do a mural in the foyer of the enormous new Rockefeller Building in New York – went badly wrong.

Diego changed the design several times, to the annoyance of the strict and demanding architects, but when he painted the face of Lenin, not in the original sketches, into the mural the architects reacted promptly and ejected him from the building.

A great furore was stirred up by the press with pro and anti Rivera factions interviewed at length, but it marked the abrupt end of commissions (and money) in America. What was to have been his next commission, to paint murals for General Motors at the Chicago World Fair, was cancelled.

Diego was forced, very reluctantly, to go back to Mexico in 1934, back to ‘the landscape of nightmares’ as he called it. Marnham makes clear that he loved America, its size, inventiveness, openness, freedom and wealth – and was angry at having to go back to the land of peasants and murderous politicians.

Diego was ill for much of 1934, and started an affair with Frida Kahlo’s sister. Towards the end of the year he felt well enough to do a mural for the Palacio de Bellas Artes. In 1935 he resumed work on new rooms of the National Palace, a project he had abandoned when he set off for America. He made the decision to depict current Mexican politicians and portray the current mood of corruption. That was a bad idea. They caused so much offence to the powers that be that, once the murals were finished, the Mexican government didn’t give him another commission for six years and he was replaced as official government muralist by José Clemente Orosco.

He did a set of four panels for the Hotel Reforma in Mexico City, but the owner was offended by their blatant anti-Americanism (given that most of his guests were rich Americans) so he took them down and they were never again displayed in Diego’s lifetime.

Thus he found himself being more or less forced out of mural painting – and forced back into painting the kind of oil canvases which, paradoxically, were always far more profitable than his murals. They were relatively quick and easy to do (compared to the back-breaking effort of the murals) and so for the next five years Diego concentrated on politics.

Diego’s politics

Diego’s politics seem to be strangely intangible and were certainly changeable. He lived in a fantasy world, was a great storyteller, and Lenin and Marx seem to have entered his huge imaginarium as yet another set of characters alongside Montezuma, Cortes and Zapata.

Having joined the Mexican Communist Party in 1922 but left it in 1925. He went on an ill-fated trip to Moscow in 1927-8, arriving just as Stalin was beginning to exert his power and the campaign against Trotsky was getting into full swing. During his visit he made some tactless criticisms of the Party and so was asked by the Soviet authorities to leave.

Enter Trotsky

A decade later, stymied in his artistic career, Diego joined the International Communist League, a separate organisation from the Communist Party, which was affiliated to Trotsky’s Fourth International. He wanted to be a Communist, but not a Stalinist.

Trotsky had been exiled from the Soviet Union in 1929. For the next 8 years he wandered as an exile, with spells in Turkey, France and Norway. As this last refuge became increasingly difficult, Diego gave his support to a suggestion by Mexican intellectuals that Trotsky be given refuge in Mexico. They persuaded the reluctant Mexican government to give him safe haven at Diego’s home in Mexico City.

Trotsky lived with Diego and Frida for two years, Diego providing him with every help and resource, taking him on long tours of the country (at one point in the company of the godfather of Surrealism, André Breton, who also stayed at the Casa Azula).

Diego wasn’t a political thinker. In Russia in 1927 he had begun to realise the dictatorial turn which Soviet communism was taking, and the point was rammed home for even the most simple-minded by the simultaneous collapse of the Communist Left in the Spanish Civil War (where Stalin’s commissars, secret police and assassins spent more time torturing and killing the other left-wing forces than combating the common enemy, Franco) and then by the outrageous Moscow Show Trials of 1936-38.

Marnham’s account of all this is very interesting; he writes in a wonderfully clear, sensible, entertaining style, with a persistent dry humour.

Anyway, the idyll with Trotsky came to a grinding halt when Diego discovered that Frida had been having an affair with him. She was 30, Trotsky was 58. (One of the revelations of this book is the number of affairs Frida Kahlo had, with both men and women. She had affairs with at least 11 men between summer 1935 and autumn 1940.)

In fact Diego had put himself in some danger by hosting Trotsky. We now know that Stalin commissioned no fewer than three NKVD hit squads to track Trotsky down and kill him. After Diego kicked Trotsky out of the Blue House (the home he shared with Kahlo), the ailing Communist, along with wife and bodyguards, were fixed up in a house only a few hundred yards away.

It was here that Trotsky was subject to a horrifying attack by an armed gang led by – bizarrely – one of Mexico’s other leading mural painters – David Alfaro Siqueiros – who burst into the villa and fired 173 shots into the bedroom. Amazingly, the gunmen managed to miss Trotsky who took shelter under the bed with his wife. Siqueiros went on the run.

Having read 400 pages of Frank McLynn’s biography of the endlessly violent Mexican Revolution, I was not at all surprised: McLynn shows that this was the routine method for handling political disagreements in Mexico.

A second assassination attempt was made in August, when Ramón Mercader, also hired by the NKVD, inveigled his way past Trotsky’s security men and, as the great man leaned down to read a letter Mercader had handed him, attacked Trotsky with a small ice-pick he had smuggled into the house. Amazingly, this failed to kill Trotsky who fought back, and his guards burst in to find the two men rolling round on the floor. The guards nearly killed Mercader but Trotsky told them to spare him. Then the great man was taken off to hospital where he died a day later.

After Trotsky

Deeply wounded by Frida’s affair with the old Bolshevik, Trotsky’s murder led Diego a) to forgive her b) to flee to America, specifically  toSan Francisco where he’d received a commission to do a big mural on the theme of Pan America.

Also, a new president had taken office in Mexico with the result that the unofficial ban on Rivera was lifted. He returned to his home country and, in 1940, began a series of murals at the National Palace. There were eleven panels in all, running around the first floor gallery of the central courtyard. They took Rivera, off and on, nine years to complete and weren’t finished till 1951. They bring to the fore his lifelong engagement with a central issue of Mexican identity? Are Mexicans Aztec Indians? Or Spanish? Or half-breeds? Who are the Mexicans? What is the nation and its true heritage?

Diego and Frida

Surprisingly, Marnham deals with the last 15 or so years of Diego’s life (he died in 1957) very scantily. Rivera painted numerous more murals but Marnham barely mentions them.  Instead Marnham devotes his final pages to developing a theory about the psycho-sexual relationship between Frida and Diego, trying to tease sense out of their complicated mutual mythomania.

He starts from the fact that Frida’s illness limited her mobility and made her a world-class invalid. This she dramatised in a wide range of paintings depicting her various miscarriages, abortions, corsets, operations, prosthetic legs and other physical ailments.

But overlaid on almost all of Frida’s paintings was her unhappiness about Diego’s infidelity, especially with her own sister… In reality she seems to have had scads of affairs with lots of men and quite a few women but this doesn’t come over from her art, which presents her as a a pure victim.

And yet she was a powerful victim. Biographical accounts and some of the paintings strongly suggest that, although he boasted and bragged of his own countless affairs and ‘conquests’, in the privacy of their relationship, Diego could become the reverse of the macho Mexican male – he became Frida’s ‘baby’, the baby she was never able to have. Apparently, Frida often gave Diego baths, and maybe powdered and diapered him. Many women dismiss men as big babies: it can be a consolation for their (women’s) powerlessness. But it can also be true. Men can be big babies.

Then again Marnham quotes a startling occasion when Diego said he loved women so much that sometimes he thought he was a lesbian. And Frida apparently poked fun at his massive, woman-sized breasts.

Marnham shows how their early childhoods had much in common: both had close siblings who died young and haunted their imaginations; both fantasised about belonging to peasant Indian parents, not to their boring white European ones. And so both egged each other on to mythologise their very mixed feelings for their vexing country.

I was particularly struck to discover that, during their various separations, Frida completely abandoned her ornate ‘look’, the carefully constructed colourful dresses, and earrings and head-dresses which she largely copied from the native women of the Tehuana peninsula. According to Marnham, when the couple divorced in 1940, Frida promptly cut her hair, wore Western clothes and flew to New York to stay with friends, looking like a crop-haired, European lesbian.

The conclusion seems to be that her self-fashioning into a kind of mythological creature incorporating native dress and symbolism – and his murals, which obsess about the native inheritance of Mexico – were both ingredients in a psychological-sexual-artistic nexus/vortex/chamber of wonders which they jointly created.

Their mutual infidelities upset the other, but they also found that they just couldn’t live apart. Sex between them may have stopped but the intensity of the psychological and artistic world they had created together couldn’t be even faintly recreated with other partners.

It was obviously very complicated but in its complexity prompted the core of the artworks, in particular the endless reworking of her own image which have made Frida more and more famous, probably better known these days than her obese husband.

Looking for one narrative through all this – especially a white, western, feminist narrative – strikes me as striving for a spurious clarity, where the whole point was the hazy, messy, creativity of very non-academic, non-Western, non-judgmental, very Mexican myth-making.

Same with the politics. In her last years Frida became a zealous Stalinist. This despite the Moscow Show Trials, Stalin’s alliance with Hitler and everything Trotsky had told them from his unparalleled first-hand experience of the corrupt dictatorship Stalin was creating. None of that mattered.

Because Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin were part of her personal and artistic mythology. Just as Diego – more objective, more interested in the external world than Frida – experimented endlessly with the theme of the Spanish conquest, fascinated by his Aztec forbears, and endlessly tormented by the meaning of being Mexican. Is being Mexican to value the European heritage, or despise it? Should you side with the defeated Indians, or leap forwards to a future of factories and communist state ownership? Even when – as Diego knew only too well – most of the Indian peasants he claimed to be speaking for, and ‘liberating’ in his murals, in fact clung to village traditions and above all to their Roman Catholic faith, were, in other words, among the most reactionary elements in Mexican society.

Neither of them wrote clear, logical works of politics and philosophy. They both created fantasias into which their devotees and critics can read what they will. That, in my opinion, is how art works. It opens up spaces and possibilities for the imagination.

Two deaths

On 13 July 1954 Frida died, probably from an overdose of painkillers. A few months later, one of Diego’s repeated attempts to rejoin the Mexican Communist Party was successful.

He embarked on his last set of murals. In 1954 he married his art dealer, Emma Hurtado. Everyone says that after Frida’s death, he aged suddenly and dramatically. Before the year was out he was having an affair with Dolores Olmedo who had been friends with Frida, was her executrix, and was also the principal collector of Diego’s easel paintings.

So, as Marnham summarises the situation in his customarily intelligent, amused and dry style – Diego was married his deceased wife’s art dealer while simultaneously having an affair with her principal customer.

In September 1957 Diego had a stroke and in December of the same year died of heart failure. He left an autobiography, My Life, My Art, full of scandalous lies and tall tales, and a world of wonder in his intoxicating, myth-making, strange and inspiring murals.

Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park by Diego Rivera (1947)

Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park by Diego Rivera (1947)


Related links

Related reviews – Diego and Frida

Related reviews – Mexico

Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-Garde @ the Barbican

This is an extraordinarily packed, dense and demanding exhibition.

The basic idea is deceptively simple. The show looks at over 40 artistic couples who were pioneers of early 20th century avant-garde art, photography, design and literature, and explores the stories of their sexual, emotional and artistic relationships, liberally illustrating the narratives with photos and art works, books and pamphlets, fabrics and ceramics, chairs and bookshelves, which one or other or both of them produced.

Women first

One central aim of the exhibition is to show that, more often than not, the women in these artistic relationships were as, if not more, important and influential (and creative in their own right) than the male artists and male critics of their time – and ever since – have acknowledged.

So, in a small but telling detail, in all the displays of couples, it is the woman who is presented first, the woman’s name which appears first and the woman’s work and contribution which is most explored.

Thus in the opening room we are told that the model Camille Claudel played a larger role in the career of sculptor Auguste Rodin than is usually credited, as well as being an interesting sculptor in her own right, with samples of her work to prove it.

The same goes for Maria Martens, who enjoyed a long and passionate working relationship with the more-famous Marcel Duchamp, but was a notable artist in her own right.

Later on we learn that Gustav Klimt’s lifelong soul-mate, and the model for some of his most famous paintings – Emilie Flöge – was more than just a muse and model, but a talented fashion designer who ran her own very successful couture house, the Schwestern Flöge (1904–1938), in Vienna.

Emilie Flöge and dress designs c.1900

Emilie Flöge and some of her dress designs c.1900

The exhibition works through scores of other examples, in each case showing that the women in each famous couple were often notable artists, sculptors, designers and business people in their own right, as well as contributing ideas, designs and artworks to what would nowadays be seen more as collaborative relationships than the old-fashioned story of an active Male Artist and a passive Female Muse.

Natalia Goncharova, the Russian Futurist artist, painter, costume designer, writer, illustrator, and set designer was every bit as innovative as her lifelong partner and founder of Rayonism, Mikhail Larionov.

Frida Kahlo, during the 1930s overshadowed by her husband, the famous mural painter Diego Rivera, has subsequently emerged as a powerful artistic figure in her own right.

Leonora Carrington has traditionally been seen as a ‘muse’ for the Surrealist artist, Max Ernst, during the three intense years of their relationship, 1937-40, but she was a sculptor and painter in her own right, as well as the author of a harrowing account of her experience of mental illness, Into the Abyss.

Early in their relationship Georgia O’Keeffe was the junior partner to her husband, the famous New York photographer Alfred Stieglitz, but her career as a painter would go on to eclipse his reputation.

And so on.

In fact, the show at moments suggests that it was sometimes the men who were the muse figures for a woman artist, for example in the section on Picasso and how his image was crafted and shaped by his lover Dora Maar, in her own photographs and sculptures.

Picasso en Minotaure, Mougins, 1937 by Dora Maar © ADAGP, Paris. Photo © Centre Pompidou

Picasso en Minotaure, Mougins, 1937 by Dora Maar © ADAGP, Paris. Photo © Centre Pompidou

So, on one level, this exhibition is a massive, encyclopedic review of twentieth century avant-garde art as retold from the women artists’ perspectives. Redressing a balance. Restoring, or creating, a new feminist interpretation of many artistic relationships, from the super-famous to the sometimes relatively obscure.

Collaborations

But this theme – rediscovering and rethinking the importance of the women collaborators vis-avis often more famous male artists – is not the only one. It is complemented by explorations of the diverse meanings of the very ideas of ‘working relationships’ and ‘collaborations’.

Take homosexual partnerships. Alongside the long sequence of heterosexual couples, there are rooms devoted to gay, lesbian or bisexual couples, for example the passionate same-sex relationship between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West which inspired Woolf’s novel, Orlando. Or the room devoted to the long-lasting artistic relationship between transgender couple Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore.

Other rooms expand the notion of ‘relationship’ beyond the idea of a simple binary couple, for example the relationship of the three Magic Realist painters – Paul Cadmus, Jared French and Margaret Hoening French – who worked together so closely that they attributed their works to a joint pseudonym made up from the first two letters of their first names – the PaJaMa collective.

Other rooms move beyond threesomes to explore larger groups of artists who collaborated and worked together during this exuberant period. Thus one room focuses on the community of lesbian writers and artists in 1920s Paris, while another explores the Surrealist idea of the ‘Chance Encounter’ in a room which brings together some ten or so artists, male and female, who collaborated together in loose and shifting networks of co-operation.

Paul Cadmus and Jared French (1937) photographed by George Platt Lynes © 2018 Estate of George Platt Lynes

Paul Cadmus and Jared French (1937) photographed by George Platt Lynes © 2018 Estate of George Platt Lynes

In other words, the exhibition starts off by exploring the notion of modernist artistic couples but quite quickly deconstructs, reconfigures, explores and rethinks what working artistic relationships actually meant in practice for a wide variety of artists.

It may begin with women who challenged conventional notions of female behaviour and the role of ‘the wife’ or ‘the mistress’ or ‘the muse’, but soon becomes an investigation of a number of types of artistic working relationships, between not only heterosexual and same-sex couples, but among larger and more fluid groupings.

Is Modernism about Love or the Machine Age?

But alongside the notion of the couple, the collaboration and the group, the curators make a bold assertion which I find hard to agree with, namely that artistic modernism was coterminous with ‘modern love’. To quote the introductory wall label at the start of the exhibition:

Modern art. Modern love. From the 1890s through to just after the Second World War, these two phenomena were interwoven and indelibly linked. Side-by-side, artist couples forged new ways of making art and of living and loving.

And in the scores and scores of wall labels which follow, there is much, much more along the same lines. All of the artists are given thumbnail biographies and these tend to focus as much on their love lives, on their bohemian rejection of bourgeois conventions around love, marriage, sexuality and so on, as on their actual artistic achievements.

Central to the exhibition is the claim that Modernism, or the 20th century avant-garde, was about love and sex and desire. Or, as the curators put it:

‘Modern Couples’ roots Modernism in the field of desire.

This claim, or assertion, allows the curators to present a coherent and persuasive narrative. Modern Art is about love and desire. 20th century women artists and authors invariably depicted love and desire. Therefore women artists are central to Modern Art.

Or: If love and desire are the core subject of Modernism, then women artists, who focused on love and desire, must be central to Modernism.

It is a circular, self-fulfilling and self-reinforcing argument.

Having established this axiom, the show can then settle down to ticking off a familiar checklist of feminist art concerns, demonstrating how these radical women artists ‘subverted’ traditional ‘patriarchal’ ideas of ‘gender stereotyping’ and explored ‘transgressive’ sexuality i.e. by having numerous lovers or by being lesbians.

By selecting love and ‘desire’ as the central theme of Modernism, the curators are able to pull together:

  • the heterosexual and homosexual relationships of women artists
  • women artists’ ambivalent roles as sexual objects and muses to men
  • women artists’ own sexual feelings and needs, expressed in infidelities, affairs and multiple partners
  • the fact that women artists sometimes got pregnant and gave birth
  • the way women artists explored and mythologised the condition of femininity and fertility
  • alongside the legion of lesbian artists, seen as social and political pioneers in the way they explored man-free notions of same-sex desire

All of these multifarious activities and interests can be pulled together as if they make up a single coherent movement, all saying the same thing, all addressing the same handful of ‘issues’, all united in the same aim.

And the way the same theme and subject – love, sex and the (generally female) body – is repeated on all the wall labels and is exemplified again and again in the artworks also contributes to this sense of a huge transcontinental network of artists, sculptors and writers all inspired by the same theme. Reinforcing the curators’ premise that ‘modern art’ is coterminous with ‘modern love’.

This strikes me as being very neat, very convenient and not completely true, for one very big reason.

At university I was taught that the huge array of new artistic and literary strategies which we call ‘Modernism’ was, at least in part, a reaction to the ongoing dominance of the Machine in modern life, and a response to the hectic pace of technological change which accelerated from the 1890s onwards.

Electric lights, bicycles, skyscrapers with electric elevators, motor cars and airplanes, the cinema and portable cameras, were just a few of the technologies which didn’t exist in 1890, were only just being developed in 1900, and which had become almost commonplace by 1910, in a few decades of dizzying technical and engineering change.

I was taught that T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land and James Joyce in Ulysses and Alfred Döblin in Berlin Alexanderplatz and John Dos Passos in U.S.A. use techniques of collage, parody and fragmentation to convey the disorientating experience of life in modern, fast-moving cities and the way it had uprooted sensitive people from their cultural and communal identities, producing a blizzard of fragmented experiences.

The City of Ambitions (1910) by Alfred Stieglitz. Courtesy of the George Eastman Museum

The City of Ambitions (1910) by Alfred Stieglitz. Courtesy of the George Eastman Museum

Same with the photomontages of Alexander Rodchenko and the Russian Constructivists, or the zealous machine-worship of the Futurists, or the angularities of the Vorticists, or the geometric forms of Fernand Léger, or the Suprematism of Kazimir Malevich, or the shock close-ups and split screens and montages of Sergei Eisenstein, or the grid pictures of Piet Mondrian which began life as attempts to capture the energy of fast-moving traffic around modern city blocks.

I was taught that all of these undeniably ‘modernist’ books and artworks were first and foremost responses to what many artists felt was the disruptive impact of a host of new technologies on modern life. They have nothing – visually or intellectually – to do with love and desire.

So it’s a surprise to realise that this indisputably key element of Modernism – the hectic, alienating, urban, machine-riddled aspect of the Modernist movement – is largely absent from this exhibition. If it’s mentioned at all it is only to be quickly downplayed.

Thus when the exhibition describes the Futurist poet and provocateur, Marinetti it does so mainly in order to prove that his partner, Benedetta, was a pioneering artist in her own right, who feistily stood up to Marinetti’s misogynist rhetoric and co-wrote a lot of his most famous works.

Fair enough, but this perspective downplays Marinetti’s importance as (half-crazed) apostle of The Machine – of the new age of fast cars, planes and trains, a mania which influenced the Surrealists in Paris and the Vorticists in London.

Room 20, devoted to Russian Modernism, describes the artistic output of Alexander Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova, Lilya Brk and Osip Brik, and Vladimir Mayakovsky mainly in terms of their fluid relationships and collaborations i.e. in order to justify the curators’ central premise.

What is underplayed is the crucial importance of The Machine Age to their development of new styles of photography and photomontage, design, experimental film and so on – radical responses to the impact of new technologies on human life which were so acute and perceptive that many of them still influence us to this day.

A. Rodchenko and V. Stepanova descending from an airplane in a still for the film The General Line by Sergei Eisenstein (1926) a very rare appearance of a machine in an exhibition overwhelmingly devoted to bodies and desire. Courtesy Rodchenko and Stepanova Archives, Moscow

A. Rodchenko and V. Stepanova descending from an airplane in a still for the film The General Line by Sergei Eisenstein (1926). A very rare appearance of a machine in an exhibition overwhelmingly devoted to bodies and desire. Courtesy Rodchenko and Stepanova Archives, Moscow

Some of the exhibition wall labels do refer to the new experience of the modern city, a bit, where absolutely necessary, reluctantly – but overall the exhibition systematically downplays or ignores it in order to focus on its core concern – with relationships, love, ‘desire’ and the female body.

For me, this is simply to ignore, underplay and obscure a vital element in early 20th century avant-garde modernist art and literature.

Moreover, if you think about it, the curators’ unrelenting focus on love, sex and (generally) women’s bodies leads to a deep irony.

By choosing to equate Modernism exclusively with love and desire, an exhibition which sets out to reject sexist stereotypes of women in a subtle way ends up limiting women to – the realm of the emotions, of love and desire.

An exhibition which ostensibly sets out to tell us that women were interested in more than just the stereotypical concerns of love and sex (they were also successful businesswomen and designers), paradoxically goes to great lengths to tell us in sometimes embarrassing detail about the love lives, partners and sensuality and eroticism of these same women.

Which tends to have the cumulative affect of confirming the stereotypical prejudice that women, at the end of the day, aren’t interested in wider ideas, social change, technology, science and engineering, in designing better engines, cars, planes and trains.

No, with a handful of exceptions, most of the women in this exhibition are described as being predominantly interested – in their lives and art and writing – in love and sex. The lesbians, gays and transgender people, too, are defined, categorised and interpreted in the light of their sexual preferences, not in any wider social or intellectual concerns.

[At a more remote level, for people who don’t give a damn about art or artists (90+% of the population), this exhibition confirms every philistine prejudice they’ve ever held about the art world, namely that it’s a Sodom and Gomorrah of sexual perversion, infidelity, adultery and pornography. (There is quite a lot of nudity on display, as you’d expect in an exhibition about desire and the body, lots of bare boobs and one or two naked penises. Visitors are warned that the room about the Surrealists’ ‘Chance Encounter’ has so much explicit content that it might not be suitable for under-16s. Oooh er.)]

Meanwhile, beyond the artists’ studios and bedrooms in the 1910s and 20s, there was an immense and exciting world – the world of motorbikes and racing cars and fast trains and ocean liners and skyscrapers and high speed elevators and escalators and department stores and cinemas and world wars and machine guns and tanks and airplanes, the world where people tested themselves against machines, climbed mountains, did solo flights across the Atlantic.

But all this is ignored, left out, omitted, elided and glossed over, in the curators’ keenness to assert that the essence of Modernism was… love and desire, marriages and mistresses, ‘transgressive sexuality’, ‘the queer citizen’, ‘women’s liberation’, ‘same-sex acceptance’ and so on.

It is difficult to read every word of all the wall labels, not only because there are so many of them, but also because so many of them end up saying the same thing. The circumstantial details of each artist and their relationships maybe be distinct and individual but so many of the labels take us to the same destination – explaining that so and so made ‘the body’ the centre of their practice or ‘the site of transgressive desire’ or an epitome of ‘queer citizenship’, and so on.

The explosively diverse and often fascinating works of many of these artists are time after time reduced, interpreted via the same handful of ideas which rotate obsessively around sex, ‘desire’, the body, and transgressing gender stereotypes.

It is, in my opinion, both a narrow view of Modern Art, and a very narrow view of the female, lesbian and gay achievement of the time, both in the art world and beyond.

A tsunami of information

So much for the core ideas of the exhibition, and my issue with some of them.

The actual experience of visiting Modern Couples is to be completely overwhelmed by a tsunami of names and stories. The two floors of the Barbican Gallery have been divided up into some 23 small rooms, into most of which have been crammed displays about at least two sets of couples, with each couple introduced and explained by sometimes lengthy texts on the wall, as well as scores and scores of key quotes from the respective artists and authors.

It’s a lot to take in – to read the explanation of each couple, and then try and match the quotes to what you’ve just read about their lives – and then to find the energy to look at the actual art works.

To give you a sense of the scale and the deluge of information, here’s the list of the Artist Couples:

  • Aino and Alvar Aalto
  • Vanessa Bell and Roger Fry
  • Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant
  • Lilya Brik and Vladimir Mayakovsky
  • Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore
  • Benedetta and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti
  • Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst
  • Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin
  • Nancy Cunard and Henry Crowder
  • Sonia Delaunay and Robert Delaunay
  • Lili Elbe And Gerda Wegener
  • Emilie Flöge and Gustav Klimt
  • Federico García Lorca and Salvador Dalí
  • Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov
  • Eileen Gray and Jean Badovici
  • Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson
  • Hannah Höch and Til Brugman
  • Hannah Höch and Raoul Hausmann
  • Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera
  • Dora Maar and Pablo Picasso
  • Alma Mahler and Oskar Kokoschka
  • Alma Mahler and Gustav Mahler
  • Maria Martins and Marcel Duchamp
  • Margrethe Mather and Edward Weston
  • Lee Miller and Man Ray
  • Lee Miller and Roland Penrose
  • Tina Modotti and Edward Weston
  • Lucia Moholy and László Moholy-Nagy
  • Gabriele Münter and Wassily Kandinsky
  • Winifred Nicholson and Ben Nicholson
  • Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz
  • PaJaMa: Paul Cadmus, Jared French, and Margaret French
  • George Platt Lynes, Monroe Wheeler and Glenway Wescott
  • Lavinia Schultz and Walter Holdt
  • Varvara Stepanova and Alexander Rodchenko
  • Sophie Taeuber-Arp and Jean Arp
  • Toyen and Jindrich Štyrský
  • Marianne von Werefkin and Alexej von Jawlensky
  • Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West
  • Virginia Woolf and Leonard Woolf
  • Unica Zürn and Hans Bellmer

That’s a lot of biographies to read and digest, that’s a lot of names to remember.

Nude with Poppies (1916) by Vanessa Bell. Swindon Art Gallery

Nude with Poppies (1916) by Vanessa Bell. Swindon Art Gallery

Here are the names, careers, art and writing of the ‘Sapphists’ featured in just one room, the one dedicated to ‘The Temple of Friendship’ i.e. the lesbian writers and artists of 1920s Paris:

  • Djuna Barnes and Thelma Wood
  • Natalie Clifford-Barney and Romaine Brooks
  • Natalie Clifford Barney and Rémy de Gourmont
  • Natalie Clifford-Barney and Liane de Pougy
  • Natalie Clifford Barney and Renée Vivien
  • Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier
  • Luisa Casati
  • Radclyffe Hall and Una Troubridge
  • Tamara de Lempicka
  • Ida Rubinstein
  • Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas

And that’s before you get to the artists featured in the Surrealist ‘Chance Encounter’ room, namely:

  • Eileen Agar and Joseph Bard
  • Eileen Agar and Paul Nash
  • Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy
  • Leonor Fini and André Pieyre de Mandiargues
  • Gala and Salvador Dalí
  • Gala, Paul Éluard and Max Ernst
  • Valentine Hugo and André Breton
  • Jacqueline Lamba and André Breton
  • Kiki de Montparnasse and Man Ray
  • Nadja and André Breton
  • Nusch and Paul Éluard
  • Grace Pailthorpe and Reuben Mednikoff
  • Valentine Penrose and Alice Rahon
  • Valentine Penrose and Roland Penrose
  • Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst
Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst with his sculpture, Capricorn, 1947 © John Kasnetsis

Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst with his sculpture, Capricorn, 1947 © John Kasnetsis

Not only must the visitor assimilate this tsunami of names, relationships and diversity of artistic and literary practices, but every visitor to the exhibition is given a free handout, a ‘glossary’, which includes even more themes to think about.

For when the curators had collated this much information about this many people and assembled this many works all in one place – it turns to be an interesting exercise to detect all kinds of further links and connections between the huge diversity of artists, activities or artworks on show.

Thus the free handout suggests that, as you walk round the exhibition, you look out for the following themes:

  • Activism
  • Agency – ‘Feminism, agency and the desire for independence underpins much of the work by women artists in the avant-garde period.’
  • Breaking up
  • Businesswomen – Emilie Flöge, Sonia Delaunay, Aino Aalto
  • Chance encounter
  • Chloe liked Olivia – quote from Virginia Woolf epitomising ‘the new queer citizen of the 20th century’
  • Clandestine
  • Co-authored – or collaboration, one of the show’s central themes.
  • Communicating vessels – ‘Two different bodies, rubbed against one another, attain, through the spark, their supreme unity in fire’ – André Breton, 1932.
  • Collage
  • Daring – ‘What have I dared embark upon by entering your life?’ Dora Maar to Picasso, 1936.
  • Desire
  • Elegy – ‘Butterflies represent a scene of your life in which the dawn awakens on your lips. A star takes shape according to your design.’ Jean Arp remembering Sophie Taeuber-Arp after her death.
  • Escape to the country
  • Feminism – ‘We will be better than the wife, the mother or the sister of a man, we will be the female brother of the man’ – Natalie Clifford Barney
  • Gift
  • Homoeroticism – ‘The work that came out of Monroe Wheeler, Glenway Wescott and George Platt Lynes’s at times uneasy polyamorous relationship opened up a queer utopian space, away from 1930s American conservatism, in which the male subject could be liberated.’
  • Intimacy
  • Liberation – sexual liberation, liberation from Victorian clothing and Victorian morality, liberation from constricting fabrics and dull designs, liberation from boring interiors, liberation from artistic naturalism and even from language
  • Love
  • Mad love
  • Mirroring – ‘I am one, you are the other. Or the opposite. Our desires meet one another.’ Claude Cohun, 1930.
  • Muse – Dora Maar took photos of her lover Picasso in ‘a turnaround of gender expectations‘.
  • Mythology
  • Nest
  • Non-binary – ‘Gender fluidity, sexual empowerment, awakening, and the fight for safe spaces of becoming, were part of the avant-garde currency.’
  • Play
  • Printed word – ‘It could be a political text, a perfect branding platform, a token of love, a site of artistic collaboration or a platform for transgressive or erotic content.’
  • Procreation
  • Publishing – Many modernists experimented with setting up their own publishing company, most notably the Hogarth Press of Leonard and Virginia Woolf.
  • Pygmalion
  • Radical abstraction
  • Reinvention – The importance of the portrait, in art and literature. Claude Cohun and Marcel Moore, life partners for 45 years, and produced a huge body of work playing with ‘gender politics‘.
  • Revolution – Alexander Rodchenko and partner Varvara Stepanova’s revulsion for the West’s cult of ‘Woman as object’ and determination to embrace ‘gender equality‘.
  • Selfie
  • Sidelined – women sidelined by men, obviously
  • Total work of art
  • Triadic
  • Two-people movements – Rayism invented by Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov, the Mask Dancer movement of Lavinia Schultz and Walter Holdt, the Tactilism of Benedetta and Filippo Marinetti, the Orphism of Sonia and Robert Delaunay.
  • Utopia
  • War
  • X-rated – ‘Many artists in this exhibition used eroticism in their art as a way of fighting bourgeois conformity, propaganda and artistic censorship.’

Is that enough to think about yet?

A self-portrait by Claude Cahun, subverting gender stereotypes. Courtesy of Jersey Heritage Collections

A self-portrait by Claude Cahun, subverting gender stereotypes. Courtesy of Jersey Heritage Collections

This is what the exhibition is like. Overflowing with texts, quotes, references, biographical data, artistic theory and, underpinning it all, emerging sooner or later in every wall label for every artist – the axioms of modern identity politics and feminism – gender politics, the body, gender fluidity, transgressive art, gender equality, and so on.

Numbers

I counted a total of 103 paragraphs of wall text – sometimes very long, densely factual paragraphs. It would take at least an hour just to read them, and that’s before the 50 or so quotes from artists’ letters, diaries and so on.

There are over 40 couples, but many more ‘couples-plus’ – groups and movements of artists and writers to get a handle on – with the result that the exhibition features more than 80 writers and artists in total.

And there are a staggering 600 objects on display, including paintings, sculptures, models, furniture, personal photographs, love letters, gifts, books – 35 first editions from Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press – magazines, rare archival material and much, much more!

Les deux amies (1923) by Tamara de Lempicka. Association des Amis du Petit Palais, Geneve

Les deux amies (1923) by Tamara de Lempicka. Association des Amis du Petit Palais, Geneve. A portrait of two naked women painted by a woman!

In the event, this was simply too much for me to take in. I started off dutifully reading every wall text but quickly got tired, saturated, full up – I started skimming some and then just ignored others. I went round about five times, each time reading at new bits of text, toying with quotes here and there – above all, trying to let the actual art fight its way through the jungle of biography and interpretation and bitty quotations and make its impact.

I came to roughly two conclusions.

1. One is that, if you’re a student or have an educational motivation, this is a spectacular opportunity to see works great and small, by artists famous and obscure, by men, women, gays, lesbians and trans people, from what feels like all the most important art movements of the early 20th century.

(In fact it’s far from being a complete overview of early 20th century art – that would fill ten Barbican galleries – but it is an impressive stab at conveying a really comprehensive overview of important modern art as retold with women, gays and lesbians to the fore.)

2. The second point is that among the 600 paintings, books, photos and furniture on display there are some real masterpieces, many on loan from abroad, and so a rare opportunity to see many beautiful things in the flesh.

Small is not necessarily beautiful

In this respect – my response to the art – I found the smaller, more cramped rooms to be unconducive to aesthetic enjoyment.

For example, the small first room which is shared by the story of Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin, and the story of Maria Martins and Marcel Duchamp, included some plaster busts and faces by the former pair, and some bronze casts of Maria’s body parts (her buttocks and vagina) made by Duchamp. But it was so small, cramped and crowded that it felt more like a reading and learning space, than an art space.

The reduction ad absurdum of this shoehorn approach was the way that the no doubt complex and interesting working relationship between modernist designer Lilly Reich and her long-term partner and collaborator, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, was explained via one chrome and black leather chair and three paragraphs of text plonked at the bottom of the stairs to the first floor.

He claimed to be the sole designer of this classic and hugely influential chair. Only decades later did it emerge that she had as least as much input as he did into the design. What a beast!

Barcelona chair by Mies van der Rohe (1929)

Barcelona chair by Mies van der Rohe (1929)

Interesting story, but blink and you might miss it altogether.

The show is co-curated by Emma Lavigne, Director of the Centre Pompidou in Metz. The French connection made me think of some of the smaller displays as types of ‘bonnes bouches’ or ‘tasty bites’ – fleeting treats designed to add to the overall argument, but whose main function would be to inspire you to go away and find out more.

Big rooms where art can breathe

By contrast, I only really felt comfortable – and that I was really getting an aesthetic kick (as opposed to processing large amounts of biographical and art information) – in some of the larger rooms. There were plenty of other highlights, but I would single out rooms 14, 15 and 17.

Room 17 displayed the work of two and a half couples: of the English artist Ben Nicholson, who 1. enjoyed a close working relationship with Winifred Nicholson (whom he married) in the early 1930s before 2. then partnering with the sculptor Barbara Hepworth. The wall labels quote letters they exchanged in which they spoke of becoming, literally, one person, with one taste and one artistic motivation.

In this same room, on the opposite wall, was a suite of work by Jean Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp. I found the juxtaposition of the sculptural abstractions of Nicholson and Hepworth with the playful abstracts of Arp really interesting.

But I was transfixed by the four or five 18-inch-high marionettes made by Sophie Taeuber-Arp for a puppet production of a folk tale about King Stagg. These possessed something almost nothing else in the exhibition did – which was charm and humour.

Marionettes by Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1918)

Marionettes by Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1918)

Room 15 is a rare example of a room devoted to just one couple, in this case the wife-and-husband partnership between Sonia and Robert Delaunay (who were married from 1910 to Robert’s death in 1941). This married couple developed a movement variously titled Simultanism and then Orphism, in which different patterns of colours are set against each other to create disruptive effects.

The Delaunay room benefited immensely from being just about them, with no other couple squeezed in. It had more than twenty works hung around the walls, most of them – from what I could see – the calm, restful abstract designs by Sonia, mostly for fabrics and dresses. This made for a really absorbing and beautiful space.

Design B53 (1924) by Sonia Delaunay

Design B53 (1924) by Sonia Delaunay

But the room I found it literally hard to leave and, even when I’d left it, found myself walking round the entire ground floor in order to visit again with a renewed frisson of delight, was room 14 devoted to the overlapping artistic partnerships of Gabriele Münter and Wassily Kandinsky, and Marianne von Werefkin and Alexej von Jawlensky.

This foursome produced German Expressionist paintings of wonderful colour and vivid design at their self-styled artist colony at Murnau in Bavaria, in the years just before the Great War. Wow.

I liked lots of other things in the exhibition (the enormous painting of naked lesbians by Tamara de Lempicka, the thrilling Constructivist photos of Varvara Stepanova and Alexander Rodchenko, the dazzling photos of Lee Miller done by Man Ray, the couple of small but wonderful paintings by Gustav Klimt, some of the abstract paintings produced by Roger Grant and Vanessa Bell’s Omega Workshop, the wonderfully aloof portraits painted by Romaine Brooks), but for sheer visual pleasure, nothing beat this room of hyper-bright, vivid brushstrokes, bold childlike designs, and colour-drenched splashes and flourishes by this German foursome.

Improvisation III by Wassily Kandinsky (1909)

Improvisation III by Wassily Kandinsky (1909)

Probably I should have been reading up on how their work ‘subverted’ this or that tradition, and ‘challenged gender stereotypes’, or how the two women definitely contributed as much or more to their commune as the men.

But I switched off all that curatorial chatter, and just stood in awe of these wonderful, beautiful, transcendent works of art. No reproductions can do justice to the shiny vibrancy of the real thing in the flesh. Go and see them for yourself.

Conclusion

It must have taken an immense amount of effort by the four co-curators to bring together such an epic collection of objects and art works and to bring order, coherence and meaning to the multiple stories behind them.

If you are a feminist I can see how this exhibition of feminist artists lovingly assembled by feminist curators with scores of texts by feminist scholars would thunderingly confirm all your feminist beliefs. That’s what it’s designed to do.

And I wondered, as I left, whether this exhibition now and in the future, might be seen as a landmark show, a really massive rethinking of early 20th century modern art which reinstates women’s stories in all these important relationships, and often rehabilitates them as being as, if not more, creative than their male partners.

And also for the way it explores the idea that modern art was characterised, more than any previous type of art, by its collaborative nature, by the way it was produced by partnerships, by trios or quartets, by small groups working, thinking and making together.

It is a strong, well-argued, illuminating and very thought-provoking show.

But, that said, it’s hard to imagine that a lot of these artists and their stories won’t already be well known to the average gallery goer – the stories of Picasso and Dora, Frida and Diego, Virginia and Vita and the names of Dali, Ernst, Man Ray, Klimt, Marinetti, Nicholson and Hepworth are hardly unknown, and the notion that, ‘behind every great man there’s a great woman’, is hardly a radical thought – as indicated by the fact that there’s a centuries-old proverb on the subject.

Similarly, it’s hard to imagine that the fact that there were lesbian writers in the 1920s or gay photographers in the 1930s, will come as a great surprise to the average gallery goer. Homosexuality is not really news to most people. Most of the people the exhibition is targeted at will, I suspect, have heard of Virginia Woolf before, and will know she had a lesbian affair with Vita Sackville-West.

My position, after forty years of studying twentieth century art, literature and history, is that the Century of Catastrophes is too diverse and complex to be reduced to any one narrative or interpretation. From about the 1890s onwards there was (and still is) too much going on in an interconnected world of billions of human beings for any one narrative or story to hope to tell any kind of definitive ‘truth’.

For example, this is an exhibition, at bottom, about European and American white women, often very wealthy women (Nancy Cunard, Natalie Barney). You can immediately see that focusing on these often very privileged people tends to omit the stories of working class people of both genders in those continents. You could be forgiven for not realising there were things called the First World War and the Russian Revolution during the period the exhibition covers. Not enough ‘same sex desire’ to merit inclusion.

Similarly, there is precious little (surprisingly) about the black experience of modernity (there is one black person in the exhibition, the jazz musician Henry Crowder, who is included because of his influence over the immensely wealthy patron of the arts and writer, Nancy Cunard).

In fact, now I think about it, jazz is a crashingly obvious and central element of Modernism, from Stravinsky to Eliot, and is depicted in countless modernist art works. But it doesn’t fit with the curators’ insistence that Modernism be defined by couples, love and relationships, sex and partners and gender and desire and so… it isn’t here.

My view is that the ‘Modern’ experience of humanity, the bewildering catalogue of technological, scientific and cultural change which overwhelmed Homo sapiens in the early twentieth century – is too vast and multiform for any one narrative to encompass.

The curators make a powerful and persuasive case that Modernism was characterised above all by new thinking about love, eroticism, desire and relationships, much of which promoted the liberation of women (and trans people and gays).

Lee Miller with a cast of her torso, Downshire Hill, London, England 1940 by Roland Penrose © Roland Penrose

Lee Miller with a cast of her torso, Downshire Hill, London, England 1940 by Roland Penrose
© Roland Penrose

I accept all their points as valid, and the body of evidence they’ve assembled is pulverisingly persuasive. And yet I still think that an equal if not more important element of Modernism was artists’ reaction to the revolution in everyday life caused by new technologies. And everyone’s world was turned upside down by the Great War. And the entire intellectual world was galvanised by the radicalism of the Russian Revolution. And I haven’t mentioned the famously disruptive discoveries of Einstein and others, undermining the static view of the forces of nature held since Newton. Too much was happening. No wonder the art from this period is so excited and effervescent.

Alternative interpretations

But I’m well aware that my own interpretation can itself be trumped by other competing narratives. That there are numerous ways of looking at this period of cultural history.

For example, arguably the most important aspect of the era was the collapse of the old European empires – the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman Empires. The entire art of the period could be interpreted in terms of the breakdown of the ideologies, laws and customs which supported them, of which conventions about relations between the sexes are just a small sub-set.

Or there’s a Marxist interpretation which suggests that the era was characterised by unprecedented wealth derived from the West’s imperialist domination of the rest of the world – wealth which gave rise to a new class of super-rich collectors and connoisseurs who patronised ‘modern’ art and literature and experimented with new ‘decadent’ lifestyles. (Vide Nancy Cunard, Natalie Barney and the numerous other rich American women who populate the 1920s lesbian room).

Or there’s a strong post-colonial interpretation which says that the decisive impetus for Modernism and its revolutionary overthrow of 400 years of realistic art came from the cultural appropriation of the African masks and Oceanic art looted by imperial collectors, which were enthusiastically copied by Picasso and Matisse, and which had a transformative effect on everyone who followed them.

To give just a few of the most obvious interpretations of the art of the period.

This exhibition is an impressive and stimulating attempt to write one particular story about early twentieth century art. But it is only one interpretation among a sea of alternative stories.

The promotional video

P.S. What does ‘modern’ mean?

When I told my wife I was off to see an exhibition titled ‘Modern Couples’ she thought it would be a V&A-style celebration of contemporary celebrity pairs like Elton John and David Furnish, the Beckhams, Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, and so on.

No, I explained. When art and literary critics say ‘modern’ what they mean is art from the 1900s, 1910s and 20s. They mean art and literature which is over a hundred years old. That’s what they mean by ‘modern’.

And even as I explained it, I realised how odd this use of the word ‘modern’ is. Eventually this stuff is going to be 150 years old. Will we still be describing it as ‘modern’ in 2050? At what point will someone have to come up with a better name? Or will Modernist art remain ‘modern’ forever?


Related links

Women in art

Reviews of artists featured in this exhibition

Reviews of previous exhibitions & concerts at the Barbican

Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up @ the Victoria and Albert Museum

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) has a unique international appeal, as both an artist and a personality. Her image in oil paintings and photographs is instantly recognizable.

This is a beautifully curated and designed exhibition which left me with a much deeper understanding of Kahlo’s life, her work, her toughness in the face of terrible adversity, and the Mexican roots of her distinctive and powerful self-image.

Frida Kahlo in blue satin blouse, 1939, photograph by Nickolas Muray © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

Frida Kahlo in blue satin blouse, 1939, photograph by Nickolas Muray © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

The treasure trove

The pretext or premise or prompt for the exhibition was the discovery of a treasure trove. After Frida died at the horribly early age of 47, her mourning husband, the famous Mexican mural painter, Diego Rivera, ordered all her belongings in the famous ‘Blue House’ they shared together, to be locked up and sealed away.

Rather incredibly, it was only in 2004 that this room was re-opened, to reveal a treasure trove of Kahlo-iana – including her jewellery, clothes, prosthetics and corsets, along with self-portraits, diary entries, photos and letters. Together they shed a wealth of new light on her life, personality, illness and endurance, on her art and on her extraordinary achievement in fashioning herself into an iconic image and brand.

And this is what the exhibition is based on.

Self-portrait by Frida Kahlo (1941) © The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and The Vergel Collection

Self-portrait by Frida Kahlo (1941) © The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and The Vergel Collection

Biography

The show is smaller than some recent ones at the V&A. Not so much a blockbuster, as an intimate portrait. It starts with a corridor-like room divided into small recesses, each of which take us briskly through a chapter in her early life, using black and white photos, a few early paintings and some home movies.

The key elements for me were that:

  • Her father was German, emigrated to Mexico in the 1890s and set up a photographic studio. She helped him and learned photographic technique, how to compose and frame a subject. No accident, maybe, that she is best known for her painted and photographic self portraits.
  • Her full name was Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón. She always preferred Frida because it her father’s name for her. I was mulling this over when I came to the section describing her marriage to the, by then, already famous Mexican mural painter, Diego Rivera, in 1928, who was a lot older than her, 43 to her 22. I.e. a big, reassuring father figure. Daddy.
  • When Frida was 6 she contracted polio and was seriously ill. She was left with one leg shorter than the other.
  • When she was 18 she was on a bus which was in a collision with a tram, resulting in her being both crushed against the window and having a piece of metal penetrate her abdomen. This accident and her long recovery put paid to the idea of studying to become a doctor. Confined to bed for months, she began to expand the sketching, drawing and painting she’d already been toying with.

In the late 1920s she developed a kind of naive, symbolic style, drawing inspiration from Mexican folk culture. After marrying Rivera, she accompanied him on a number of trips to the United States, where he had been commissioned to paint murals, socially conscious murals being a big part of 1930s American artistic activity.

Here’s a good example, from 1932. I don’t know if I like it. I understand the fairly simple ideas: on the left are images of Mexico, Aztec ruins and figurines, flowers and agricultural produce, with their roots in the good earth: on the right is Detroit, highly industrialised ‘Motor City’ (the name FORD is spelled out on the smoking chimneys), the American flag, skyscrapers, and growing out of the soil are not beautiful flowers but lamps and fans.

And in between is a self portrait of Frieda in a formal pink dress holding the Mexican flag. Between two worlds, eh? I get it.

Self-portrait on the Border between Mexico and the United States of America by Frida Kahlo (1932) © Modern Art International Foundation

Self-portrait on the Border between Mexico and the United States of America by Frida Kahlo (1932) © Modern Art International Foundation

Her naive symbolism matches the simple-minded ‘political’ attitude of Rivera’s murals. They both thought of themselves as communists and went on marches supporting strikers etc, but, nonetheless, liked visiting the heart of capitalism, America – or ‘Gringolandia’, as Frida called it. The money was good and there were lots of opportunities for Rivera to get commissions. And it was in New York, in 1939, that Frida held her first successful one-woman show. Capitalism is an awful thing – unless you can get money, commissions, promotions and sales out of it: the attitude of many 20th century artists.

One of the most interesting biographical facts is that Lev Davidovich Bronstein, known to the world as Leon Trotsky, having been exiled from the Soviet Union, was offered refuge by the revolutionary government of Mexico and came to stay with the Riveras, not for a few weeks, but for two years.

The exhibition includes a b&w film of Comrade Trotsky explaining, in English, how badly he has been treated by comrade Stalin. He insists he is really a man of honour – as anyone whose family was murdered by the Red Army he set up, would surely have testified.

Mexican roots

These early biographical roots are interesting but they are eclipsed by the power of the later rooms.

These start with the room on Kahlo’s Mexican roots. It explains that during the 1920s and even more so the 1930s, Mexico underwent a cultural renaissance. Part of this was the exploration and promotion of the country’s pre-Colombian culture, but it also included the first real appreciation of the folk customs and costumes of peasants and the poor around the country.

Interest in the country spread abroad, with American artists, photographers and film makers attracted to its sunny, bright and passionate culture. John Huston made films here. Even the young British writer Graham Greene made a tour of the country (he hated it) and then set his most powerful early novel here, The Power and the Glory. I’ve reviewed them both.

Frida and Diego were part of this revival of interest in Mexico’s culture and history. They both sought inspiration in the folk and workers culture of their country. In particular they were attracted to the area called Tehuantepec in the Oaxaca region. People here followed traditional ways, and the exhibition includes a whole wall of traditional icons of the Virgin Mary, establishing a link between these images of saintly femininity and Kahlo’s self portraits and explorations of her identity.

The dress room

The final room in the show is the biggest and I involuntarily exclaimed ‘wow’ as I walked into it.

Centre stage is a huge central glass case displaying some 20 of Frida’s dresses. Full length, made of colourful fabrics and bright designs, each one has been carefully displayed and annotated, giving a powerful sense of Frida’s sense of colour and dress.

Cotton huipil with machine-embroidered chain stitch; printed cotton skirt with embroidery and holaün (ruffle) Museo Frida Kahlo

Cotton huipil with machine-embroidered chain stitch; printed cotton skirt with embroidery and holaün (ruffle) Museo Frida Kahlo

There are only 10 or so paintings in the whole exhibition and six of them are in this room. They’re later works, when she had realised that she was her own best subject and that self portrait was her best medium.

Looking out at the viewer, flat and unemotional, her iconic features by now well established – the monobrow, the faint moustache on her top lip, her strong brown eyes, the sideways pose – she is flatly, unashamedly, blankly herself.

In the painting below even the tears don’t really affect the expressionless face. Or they appear as surreally detached embellishments of the fundamental design. Much weirder is the ‘ruff’ dominating the image. The exhibition explains that this is a huipil de tapar, a traditional Mexican item popular in Tehuantepec, designed to frame the face and extend over the neck and shoulders. There is another larger painting of her wearing the same outfit and a full scale example of a huipil de tapar on a display mannequin for us to compare and contrast reality with painted depiction.

Self-Portrait by Frida Kahlo (1948) © Private Collection

Self-Portrait by Frida Kahlo (1948) © Private Collection

Kahlo is, you realise, a perfect subject for the V&A because she was not only an artist, but someone with a fascination for clothes and costumes – in her case, of her native Mexico. The exhibition is less about the ar per se and more about how she drew heavily on these costume traditions and elaborated them into a highly colourful style of her own.

Hence there are more than twice as many dresses as there are Kahlo artworks. Hence, also, the display cases devoted to the heavy and ornate jewelry she wore, the elaborate ear-rings and thick heavy necklaces, set off against the bright and colourful hair ribbons.

In this respect it is fascinating to watch the 9-minute tourist film from the Tehuantepec region which is on view just next to the dresses and necklaces. Look at the colours and designs of the dresses, the heavy gold jewellery, and the brightly coloured ribbons in the women’s hair. In a flash you understand. Kahlo was a conduit for these traditional dresses, colours, fabrics and jewellery, into the international art world.

She gave it her own style. She combined it in her own way and, above all, gave it the imprimatur of her own face, of her very distinctive features (eyes, monobrow, moustache) and her unsmiling, detached, dream-like appearance.

But a great deal of her ‘look’ quite obviously stems directly from the traditions of the women of Tehuantepec.

Frida Kahlo on a bench, carbon print (1938) Photo by Nickolas Muray © The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and The Verge, Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

Frida Kahlo on a bench (1938) Photo by Nickolas Muray © The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and The Verge, Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

The sick room

The big dress room is the climax of the exhibition, in terms of dresses, design, jewellery, paintings and photos.

But arguably the biographical core of the exhibition is the room before it, entitled ‘Endurance’. In an imaginative but spooky display, the curators have commissioned the creation of six small four-poster beds and made each into a display case which, along with photos and text along the walls, give a quite harrowing account of Kahlo’s many illnesses, ailments, treatments, and lifelong suffering.

The polio left her with a limp. The bus accident left her with serious internal injuries. In the 1930s she began to experience back problems and underwent a series of treatments and operations to fix them. At the end of her life one foot became infected and then gangrenous, requiring the whole leg to be amputated. It’s gruesome stuff.

This room includes examples of the medical equipment she was forced to wear or endure. There are platform shoes for the shorter leg, a prosthetic leg made for her to wear after the amputation but, most evocative of all, a series of corsets, plaster casts and back braces to help support her failing spine.

Kahlo decorated, painted and embellished as many of these as she could. The plaster casts, in particular, are painted with abstract patterns. The most elaborate one carries a painted hammer and sickle of the Soviet Union and, underneath, an image of the foetus she was carrying before she had a miscarriage in 1932.

Frida Kahlo wearing a plaster cast, which she decorated with the hammer and sickle (c.1950) photo by Florence Arquin

Frida Kahlo wearing a plaster cast, which she decorated with the hammer and sickle (c.1950) photo by Florence Arquin

The record of her illnesses and, in her later years, the almost constant pain she endured, make for harrowing reading, but there are also two really powerful insights in this room.

1. Painting in bed

One is that she was, at various periods, confined to her bed, it being too painful for her to walk or even stand. (Imagine!) So she had a mirror rigged up in the canopy above her and an easel on the side of the bed. From here she could paint, but paint what?

The answer is dreams – surreal images based on dreamlike symbolism, repeated images of her or a body in a bed – and her face. Over and over again the face of someone in discomfort or pain, staring, blankly, inscrutably, down from the ceiling.

Photos show the actual set-up, with Frida lying in bed, beneath a big mirror, the easel right next to her, on which she is painting.

This sheds quite a lot of light on her subject matter, and lends a depth and dignity to the pictures. Modern critics, obsessed with feminism and identity, may well write about the paintings ‘transgressing’ this or that convention and ‘subverting’ ‘gender stereotypes’.

But they are also the image of someone in tremendous pain. Knowing this, getting the really deep feel for her physical suffering which the ‘Endurance’ room gives you – lends tremendous depth of character and meaning to the detached, slightly dream-like expression you encounter again and again in her paintings.

The Broken Column by Frida Kahlo (1944)

The Broken Column by Frida Kahlo (1944)

2. The construction of the self

The other insight is easy to miss. Off to one side is a set of three black and white photos taken of Frida topless. They were taken by Julien Levy, the owner of the New York art gallery where she had her first solo show in 1939 and with whom she had an affair.

The insight comes in the text underneath, where Levy is quoted describing Frida doing and undoing her braids. First she undid the braids, carefully removing all the objects which were in them and held them in place, arranging them all carefully and in order on the dressing table. Later, she remade the braids, carefully and meticulously taking the ribbons and clips and other elements from their place on the dressing table, and putting them back in just the right places to create just the right effect.

In the context of the ‘Endurance’ room, next to so much physical pain and discomfort and demoralising bad luck – this ritual takes on a whole new significance.

You realise it was a way of controlling and ordering her life, a life of illness and pain which might so easily slip into indiscipline, depression or addiction. Instead she maintained control by paying minute attention to every element of her self-presentation. There are several cases showing the lipstick, and makeup, and nail polishes and eye liner and other accoutrements she used to create her image. To make herself up. To control, create and bolster herself.

Might sound stupid, but this knowledge makes the dazzling inventiveness of her self-creation seem genuinely heroic.

3. Long dresses

That’s why she liked to wear long dresses – because they hid her polio limp. This explains why all twenty dresses in the dress room are full length, reaching right down to and covering the feet. It’s a very Victorian effect, in some of the photos every inch of her body is covered save for her hands and face. But a Victorian outfit on acid, blitzed with brilliantly coloured fabrics and designs.

Conclusion

If you like Frida Kahlo this exhibition is a dream come true. There was a long queue to get in and the rooms were quickly packed out.

That said, there is remarkably little about her art, as art. A few mentions of the influence of Rivera’s socialist murals, a bit about Mexican symbolism, mention that the Godfather of Surrealism, André Breton, heavily promoted her, writing at length about the more surreal and dreamlike of her fantasy paintings (none of which are on display here).

But all in all, surprisingly little commentary or analysis of the paintings as paintings, except for comments about the dresses she’s wearing in them, the hair, the jewellery, the way she presents herself in them.

Self Portrait with Braid ( 1941) by Frida Kahlo

Self Portrait with Braid ( 1941) by Frida Kahlo

A moment’s googling shows that Frida Kahlo painted hundreds of paintings. Only ten are on show here. This exhibition is much more about the creation of her image, all the exhibits inhabit concentric circles spreading out from that premise.

I found it hard to get very worked up about 70 or 80 year-old makeup sets (in the outer circle). Her dresses and fabrics are colourful and interesting but, at the end of the day, not really my thing – though I could see plenty of women visitors being riveted by their designs and fabrics. Kahlo’s mural-style, political or symbolic art is sort-of interesting – although murals aren’t a format I warm to – and I found them less compelling than comparable murals by Stanley Spencer or Thomas Hart Benton.

No, it’s only when I came to her paintings of herself that I felt a real power and forcefulness in the image, the way they bring out her stern, unsmiling expression.

But even more central than her self portraits, and – in my opinion – at the absolute heart of the exhibition are the contemporary photos of Frida. It is the photos which bring together all the elements mentioned above, her great taste for colourful fabrics, bright designs, adventurous headgear, stunning jewelry and vivid lipstick to match, her deep sense of Mexican folk art and culture – all this funneled, channeled and focused in a series of stunning and powerful photos.

Frida Kahlo with Olmec figurine (1939) by Nickolas Muray © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

Frida Kahlo with Olmec figurine (1939) by Nickolas Muray © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

Nickolas Muray

Thus it was often the photos which impressed me most in any given room. And looking closely, it quickly became clear that the photos we know, the ones we’re familiar with, and by far the best ones, were taken by Nickolas Muray.

There is almost no information about Muray in the exhibition, which is a shame because his images are iconic. According to Wikipedia, Muray had a ten-year-long affair with Frida, from 1931 to 1941. (During this period she divorced, then remarried Rivera. And sometime in there, she also managed to have the affair with Levy, which led to the nude photos. Those bohemian artists, eh?)

The only flicker of recognition of Muray’s role in helping to crystallise the Kahlo brand is a wall label next to one of the portraits. Here Muray is quoted as saying

colour calls for new ways of looking at things, at people

This struck me as pointing towards something very profound. Most of Kahlo’s paintings are striking in composition (and for their generally ‘naive’ style) but are surprisingly drab, especially the earlier, political ones. the later paintings are marvellously colourful and inventive. But in a way it is these photos alone which do justice to the tremendous colourfulness of her self-presentation.

According to Wikipedia, Muray was:

famous for his creation of many of the conventions of color advertising. He was considered the master of the three-color carbro process. (Nikolas Muray Wikipedia article)

In other words, Muray wasn’t just quite a good colour photographer – he was one of the inventors of colour photography for the modern age.

This knowledge goes a long way to understanding why Muray’s photos of Kahlo stand out from the other contemporary photos of her, done at the same time, by other photographers. The coming together of Muray and Kahlo’s bodies in their long affair is trivial compared to the coming together of their shared understanding of colour and design – with phenomenal results.

The (admittedly black and white) photo of her by Florence Arquin makes her look like a person, an ordinary human being, squinting in the sun. But the three photos I’ve included by Muray give Kahlo a feeling of power, self-control, majesty, an almost goddess-like calm. In Muray’s hands Kahlo becomes an icon to be worshiped.

You can imagine these images of Frida Kahlo carrying on being iconic for a very long time. Iconic of what, exactly? Whatever you want: our current cultural obsessions are with gender, sexuality, race, identity and so on. But I think her image transcends any one set of ‘issues’ and lends itself to infinite reformulation. Which is one of the characteristics of great art.

The movie

A film of her life was released in 2002. According to the trailer, Frida was ‘one of the most seductive, and intriguing women, of ours or any time’, and it features numerous clips of her jumping into bed with men and women, with little of no mention of the physical disabilities and ailments.

The shopping

Kahlo was an ardent communist. Today she is marketed as a fashion icon, feminist saint, and, more to the point, the inspirer of a whole world of merchandise.

In the shop you can buy some 134 items of merchandise including at least 20 books about her, notebooks, greeting cards, pencils, lapel badges, earrings, necklaces, brooches, jewellery, sunglasses, scarves and shawls, t-shirts, handbags, tote bags ( I counted 20 different design of bag), a Mexican cookbook and ingredients, pillows and socks – yes, socks.

Here’s the full list of Kahlo merch:

Curators: Claire Wilcox and Circe Henestrosa


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Other V&A blog posts

Modigliani @ Tate Modern

His name is pronounced Mod-ill-ee-arn-ee – the ‘g’ is silent.

This is the most comprehensive Modigliani exhibition ever held in the UK, bringing together a really comprehensive range of portraits, sculptures and the largest ever group of nudes (12) to be shown in this country.

Modigliani

Modigliani

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Amedeo Modigliani died very young, on January 1920, aged just 35. By that time he had developed a look, a brand, a style, which was instantly recognisable and has made him one of the most valued of ‘modern’ painters, with two entries in the top twenty-five most expensive paintings of all time:

No. 9 – Nu Couché $170 million
No. 21 – Reclining Nude With Blue Cushion $118 million

Art capital of the world

In the 1900s Paris was the acknowledged capital of the art world, full of artists who’d flocked there from all over Europe (e.g. the Spaniard Picasso, the Romanian Brancusi). Modigliani moved from his native Italy to Paris in 1906, when he was 21.

The second room in this big exhibition shows an excellent five minute video montage of black and white photos and very basic movie footage of the Paris of the day, starting with grand scenes of the Eiffel Tower and the buildings left over from the Great Exhibition of 1900, then moving to the ramshackle buildings up the side of the hill of Montmartre, the white Sacre Coeur church still being completed, cabarets and theatres, the back alleys and tenements where the artists rented apartments and studios, and then shots of key figures of the time, Picasso, Brancusi, Gertrude Stein from the family of art collectors, Modigliani himself and some moving footage of workers manhandling lumps of the limestone he carved into sculptures.

Experiments in styles

With a good feel for the life and times of 1900s Paris we move on into a room which shows Modigliani experimenting with the variety of looks and styles on offer. Loose brushwork and abstracted figures testify to the pervading influence of Cézanne on everyone at the time. This is apparent in the very visible diagonal brushstrokes which draw attention to themselves of this early nude, or of his study of Brancusi, who soon became a good friend.

Sculpting

Between 1909 and 1911, heavily influenced by Brancusi, Modigliani went through an intense phase of sculpting. Like many others he was caught up in the fashion for exotic, non-European art, supposedly ‘primitive’ sculptures from ancient Egypt or from France’s colonial possession like Cambodia or the Ivory Coast. It had only been in 1906/7 that Matisse and Picasso both began to incorporate non-European masks and body shapes in their work. Two rooms are devoted to this phase, one showing the lovely preparatory sketches he made, showing Modigliani’s wonderful way with elegant curved but geometric lines, the other showing a dozen or so sculptures which are, without exception, faces, some squat square ones, but most a highly characteristic elongated, narrow face with a long pendulous nose ending in a little round pouting mouth.

The commentary tells the story that sometimes visitors to his studio at night found that Modigliani had placed lighted candles atop each of the sculptures. He told friends he planned to create a kind of pagan temple decorated with them. On a few occasions, at hashish parties, he was seen to embrace them.

In all, Modigliani made about 25 of these highly characteristic heads. A handful were included in the 1912 Salon d’Automne, the only time they were displayed in his lifetime. There are several theories why he abandoned sculpture in 1913 – possibly the constant dust of a sculptor’s studio exacerbated the childhood tuberculosis which he was always holding at bay. Possibly it was just too expensive compared to painting.

The Modigliani look

But the extensive sketches, and the really physical engagement with sculpture, had set in stone (as it were) what was now established as the Modigliani ‘look’ – elongated faces with swan-like necks and blank almond-shaped eyes were to characterise all his paintings from now to the end of his life.

This is already apparent in the many portraits he painted of fellow artists, mistresses, and the collectors and art dealers who were important in launching his career. The commentary gives a good deal of background information about each of them, for example about the several portraits of his dealer, Paul Alexandre, a leading promoter of African art. I particularly liked the ‘naive’ way Modigliani writes on the paintings: he writes the name of the subject (Picasso, Paul), his own signature, and then often writes a comment, for example writing ‘Novo Pilota’ – meaning ‘guiding star’ – onto his portrait of Paul Guillaume.

Portrait of Paul Guillaume, Novo Pilota (1915) Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris. Collection Jean Walter et Paul Guillaume

Portrait of Paul Guillaume, Novo Pilota (1915) Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris. Collection Jean Walter et Paul Guillaume

The elongated, cylinder-like neck, the perfectly almond-shaped face especially the pointed chin, the simple one-line depiction of the nose and eyes and eyebrows and especially the slate grey or blacking out of the eyes to emphasise the impassive mask-like effect – all these are apparent in his several portraits of his mistress-lover Beatrice Hastings who, the commentary tells us, was a British-born writer and editor who covered the Paris art scene for British magazines.

Beatrice Hastings (1915) Private Collection

Beatrice Hastings (1915) Private Collection

There are three rooms devoted to his artistic peers, to colleagues, collectors and dealers, friends and lovers and patrons, featuring his portraits of such luminaries as Jean Cocteau, Juan Gris and the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. By the time war broke out in 1914 Modigliani was very well-connected, an ‘insider’ in the Paris art world, friends with the leaders of the avant-garde, beneficiary of regular commissions from the cognoscenti.

A people person

What these three rooms really crystallise is the fairly obvious point that he only painted portraits – heads or busts or full bodies, but only individual people. Landscapes such as had obsessed the godfather of modernism, Cézanne? None. Still lives such as absorbed the Cubists, Picasso and Braque? None. Cityscapes such as dominated the Futurists from his own native land, Italy (the first Futurist manifesto was published in 1909)? None. On the strength of this exhibition it seems that he never sketched, drew, painted or sculpted anything but the human form and face. And although highly stylised, they are always recognisable, with recognisable clothes (or not), in chairs or leaning on tables in a recognisable space.

Compared to the wild experiments going on around him (Fauves, Cubism, Futurism) Modigliani’s art seems – well ‘conservative’ is the wrong word, a genuinely die-hard conservative style continued to be produced by academic painters – but understandable, assimilable, acceptable.

Modigliani’s nudes

It was with this in mind that I walked into the big room displaying ‘the largest ever group of Modigliani nudes to be shown in this country’, 12 of them, to be precise.

The commentary would have us believe that these are ‘shocking’ and ‘provocative’ works and tells the story that the one and only exhibition of them – held at Berthe Weill’s gallery in 1917 – was closed down by the police on the grounds of indecency. Apparently, this was specifically because Modigliani showed his models having pubic hair and underarm hair.

Reclining Nude (1919) Museum of Modern Art, New York

Reclining Nude (1919) Museum of Modern Art, New York

To be honest, I found this a little hard to credit (not that the show was closed down, but that the works were particularly shocking or provocative). I’ve just read a book about the Fauves which included plenty of Fauvist nudes which a) are really wild pictures, sometimes difficult to make out amid the riot of colour; and b) where you can, quite routinely show depict pubic hair.

Compared with any of these works from at least ten years earlier, Modigliani’s nudes seem very tame – in terms of colour (which is very restrained and ‘realistic’ – the flesh is generally flesh-coloured), in terms of line (Modigliani’s nudes are all clearly defined by wonderfully crisp, curving outlines), in terms of facial features (which are stylised but not, actually, that much), even in terms of crudity, none of the Modiglianis are as in-your-face as that final nude by Camoin.

On the contrary – they all share a similar warm orange body, lovely curves, ample bosoms, pink nipples, all depicted with super-clear, well-defined black outlines. If they so show women’s pubes, they are as neat and geometric as their oval faces. Actual women’s pubic hair is a lot more unkempt and varied than Modigliani’s tasteful version.

No, what struck me about all of Modigliani’s nudes was their restraint, their tastefulness, and several of them really did strike me as deeply conservative, particularly the nudes where he is consciously referencing the European tradition, like this one which is based on Ingres’ famous Odalisque.

Reclining Nude (1919) Museum of Modern Art, New York

Reclining Nude (1919) Museum of Modern Art, New York

All four curators of this exhibition are women and so you have a strong feeling in the audio commentary that they feel duty bound to discuss how women’s bodies were a battlefield in the 1910s (prompting the thought, When have women’s bodies not been battlefields, according to feminist history?), but, at the same time, want to assert that the women Modigliani depicts are not helpless victims of ‘the male gaze’ – these women are strong independent women, as evidenced by their wearing lipstick, make-up and – in some of them – necklaces or ear rings.

The commentary compares the lot of the average model to the really grim lives of working class women slaving away in factories or as laundresses etc (Modigliani’s models earned about double the daily working wage for spending a day lying on a couch).

But none of this semi-political feminist interpretation really changes the fact that these are cartoons. The simple black outline, the stylised and fairly flat colouring – they could almost come from a Tintin cartoon, or from any number of subsequent comic strips. Compare and contrast with the genuinely experimental way nudes had been portrayed for at least a decade.

If the Berthe Weill show was raided and closed down it was, if anything, because the nudes were – in artistic terms – so conservative, so realistic, so figurative and so traditional in style – that they really did teeter on the brink of pornography.

No one could mistake the Matisse, Derain or Picasso nudes for soft porn, they are all very obviously far more interested in experimenting with new ways of seeing and new ways of painting than with titillation. You can’t really confidently say that about the Modigliani nudes. They are all pretty sexy and sexiness is their subject, although the curators prefer the more polite word ‘seductive’.

By this, room 8 of the 11-room exhibition, it seemed to me that Modigliani had progressed far beyond his earlier experiments, incorporated all the stylisation he’d learned from studying ‘primitive’ art and sculpting, and had emerged to produce a really consistent brand of very quaffable female nudes. Their naive simplicity makes them extremely enjoyable and explains, I think, the extraordinary prices they fetch at modern auction, tasteful, soft-porn works which any self-respecting billionaire would be proud to hang in his luxury apartment in New York, Paris, Moscow or Beijing. (Nu Couché was bought by the Chinese billionaire Liu Yiqian for $170 million, Reclining Nude with Blue Cushion was bought by Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev for $118 million.)

The curators can use feminist tropes all they like to try and defend these nudes but there seems no doubt that they are now, as they were then, designed for the visual pleasure of rich men.

The warm South

Towards the end of the war Modigliani was sent to the Mediterranean coast by his new art dealer, Léopold Zborowski, as a precaution against increasing Zeppelin raids on Paris and also because of his worsening health. Modigliani was worried about leaving behind his well-developed network of friends and artistic accomplices, but in fact soon settled in to a new life, not least because he was accompanied by his mistress, Jeanne Hébuterne.

Again he painted nothing but portraits and, deprived of the network of professional models in Paris, took to painting local adults and then a series of children. He seems to have reacted to the far brighter light of the south by using warmed Mediterranean colours and also applying the paint much more thinly, both of which make these portraits seem light and airy.

The Little Peasant (c.1918) Tate

The Little Peasant (c.1918) Tate

Children and peasants. Is there not something a little, well, twee about some of these works? (Looking it up I see that ‘twee’ is defined as ‘excessively or affectedly quaint, pretty, or sentimental’.)

Again compare and contrast with his contemporaries or, in this case, with the Master, Cézanne. With the current exhibition of Cézanne portraits at the National Portrait Gallery in mind, we can see how Modigliani has learned the lessons of the old Frenchman – the patches of colour, the visible brush-strokes, the steep foreshortening of the subject and backdrop, the confrontational -full-on pose, but made it somehow, well babyish. Toy-like. Here’s a Cézanne.

Man with Pipe (1891-6) by Paul Cézanne. The Courtauld Gallery, London

Man with Pipe (1891-6) by Paul Cézanne. The Courtauld Gallery, London

Comparing the two it seems to me the main difference is in the face. Not only does Modigliani use his simplified mask design, but, by this stage, he’s often painting his faces in a unified flesh tone (true of almost all the nudes) which gives them quite literally a baby-faced freshness. Again compare and contrast with the complex brushwork Cézanne has applied to the face of his old bloke with a pipe, let alone the wild blues and greens which the Fauves used in their portraits. Compared to all of them, surely Modigliania is tame.

In fact it’s only really the use of the mask motif which prevents his works toppling over into kitsch. In particular I felt it was only the blacking out of the eyes of the portraits (which gives them a weird voodoo science fiction vibe) which prevents them from turning into the kind of Modernism light paintings you see being hawked on the streets of any tourist trap European city.

Last works

The final room shows his last works, painted back in Paris after the war, depictions of more rich patrons and commissions, alongside a suite of portraits of his mistress, Jeanne Hébuterne, who was pregnant with their second child.

Jeanne Hébuterne (1919) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Jeanne Hébuterne (1919) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

It’s notable that the flesh tones have moved away from the warm pinks of the nudes, back towards a more ‘experimental’ colouring. But the most striking thing about these last paintings is that the almond-shaped face and swan neck are taken to new extremes. Some of the people look like giraffes.

The colouring is richer and denser than in the South of France paintings. But each work, no matter how varied the subject, is now totally identifiable as a Modigliani. Who knows how his work would have continued to evolve and develop; he was half-way towards the kind of crisp neo-classical feel which so many French artists would adopt after the war.

But we’ll never know. Modigliani died from tubercular meningitis on 24 January in 1920. In a grim note we learn that just a few days later, his mistress Jeanne, nine-months pregnant, committed suicide by jumping from the fifth floor of an apartment building.

This is a really enjoyable, carefully and thoughtfully curated overview of a wonderful artist, whose draughtsmanship is a joy to look at, from his earliest works, and whose mature geometric style produced painting after painting which fills the eye with pleasure.

Modigliani Virtual Reality

Towards the end of the exhibition is an ambitious innovation – a room where about ten visitors at a time can sit and have a visitor assistant clamp onto their head a kind of helmet with built-in 3-D goggles. These give you a virtual reality tour of a computer-generated recreation of Modigliani’s studio. It’s a bld new idea and a first for Tate.

Inevitably, there was a fairly long queue for this brave new digital experience, with an estimated waiting time of 25 minutes so I’m afraid I decided not to. Some of the content can be seen on the video screen outside the exhibition which is running a film about the making of the VR experience (which I’ve embedded, below).

So my advice would be to go the exhibition soon after opening (at 10am) and go straight to the queue for the VR, do it, and then go back to do the exhibition in order.

Seated Nude (1917) Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, Lukasart in Flanders. Photo credit: Hugo Maertens

Seated Nude (1917) Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, Lukasart in Flanders. Photo credit: Hugo Maertens

Videos

Introduction to the exhibition by curator Simonetta Fraquelli.

Video showing how the virtual reality experience was made.


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

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