Frida Kahlo and Graciela Itrubide at MFA

Frida Kahlo and Arte Popular (through June 16)
Graciela Iturbide's Mexico  (through May 12)
Boston Museum of Fine Arts

{Apologies for the orange tint on some photos. Someone forgot to reset the white balance on the camera!}
Did you ever go to a museum psyched to see a particular exhibit only to be blown away by another that you hadn't given a second thought? This was my experience at a recent trip to Boston's Museum of Fine Arts (MFA). There's nothing at all wrong with the MFA's Frida Kahlo blockbuster, but photographer Graciela Iturbide steals the show.

Frida Kahlo and Arte Popular is the MFA's entrée into "Fridamania," a term coined in the late 1970s to describe the robust interest in (and soaring prices of) Kahlo's art and unorthodox life. Perhaps some of you have seen Julie Taymor's film Frida (2003) that cast the glorious Salma Hayek in the title role. Kahlo (1907-54) was born in Mexico to a German father and a mestiza (European/Indian mix) mother. She was an artistic wonder and a committed communist by the time she met and married Diego Rivera in 1928. The two had a tempestuous on/off relationship marked by sexual libertinism (bisexuality on Kahlo's part), political involvement, professional jealousy, mutual independence, and alcohol-fueled arguments, but they were also drawn to each other like moths to a flame. Kahlo's life was cut short by the ravages of polio and a degenerative spine condition that led to amputation of part of her right leg. She was in such pain that many consider her death to have been a suicide.

No fairy tale ending for Frida Kahlo, but few would doubt her artistic genius. The MFA considered it a coup when it was able to purchase her Dos Mujeres (Two Women), and its current show is an attempt to build off that acquisition. The problem, of course, is what to say about Kahlo that hasn't already been revealed during the various waves of Fridamania. The MFA opted to explore the influence of Mexican popular culture–arte popular–on her work. They present her as someone akin to Georgia O'Keeffe, whose time in Taos, New Mexico was marked by immersion into indigenous cultures. Kahlo was also of a middle-class background, but she presented herself as the embodiment of Mexican folk culture. Her very clothing was a canvas upon which she called attention to Mexican folkways, hues, and designs. If one wished to be uncharitable, one could say hers was fashionista peasantry, though my take is that was bohemian to the core.
The MFA spotlights Kahlo's inspirations: toys, icons, art, effigies, and retablos (religious art).  Kahlo was fascinated by Day of the Dead pageantry and it shows up in her art. The surrealist movement, especially the works of André Breton, also entranced her. The MFA was able to borrow several Kahlo paintings to supplement its exhibit. I really enjoyed it, but I wouldn't call it revelatory. Mostly it's a testament to Kahlo's influences and a reminder–if anyone needs one–of her talent. I suppose one might also say it's also a case study of how art imitates life.

Graciela Itrubide was a revelation. I had previously seen a famed shot of a woman wearing iguanas
in her hair, but had no idea it was taken by Itrubide (b. 1922). After seeing more than 125 of Itrubide's black and white photos, I felt embarrassed that her name previously rang no bells. She covered some of the same terrain as Frida Kahlo–she even took shots inside Kahlo's bathroom that spotlighted her physical struggles–but Iturbide sees herself as a realist who shoots what she sees without composing her subjects. Her take on life is unvarnished, but she see also captures the magic and beauty of the plebian.

This Iturbide show features some of her work with indigenous peoples in areas such as Seri women from Sonora and those from Juchitán (Oaxaca). Her Mujer Ángel is a stunner. A ghostly veiled figure has her back to us, her skirts billowing in the wind. She appears to be staring across the barren landscape in front of her. But if she's an apparition, she's traveling with her favorite tunes. Note the boom box in her right hand! 

Itrubide delights in everyday unintended irony, a bicycle tricked out as a bull, birds circling a crossed-shaped telephone pole as if heralding the apocalypse, a man resting in front of a mural of the Bride of Death. Like Frida Kahlo, Itrubide knows that death is woven into the fabric of everyday life–she lost a six-year-old daughter–and presents Day of the Dead costumed figures, but she also films literal death. Itrubide always asks for permission to film and two of her more distressing subjects are of the sacrificial slaughter of lambs and of a funeral procession of a family burying a small child. Along the route lay an anonymous dead man–murdered. As she explains in a superb video, when she's away from the camera she weeps, but when looking through the lens she detaches and shoots what she sees. If such subjects are too hard for you, rest assured that Itrubide also shoots gardens, birds, and other such subjects. As noted, this is a large retrospective. 

Now that I know about Graciela Itrubide, I can't stop searching for more images. Hers is truly astonishing work. Get yourself to the MFA before this show closes on May 12. 

Rob Weir

No comments: