Every hermit needs an energetic, extroverted friend to impose on their privacy and get them out of the house and garden. Thankfully, I have one. We all need something to keep us three-dimensional in our world of flat screens and communication by device. Art is one of those things. I’d forgotten.
Work in the garden does it, but morning temperatures still hover at twenty degrees. Patches of snow still lurk in the shade. The crocuses and galanthus haven’t opened yet. I’ll have to wait another week to plant peas – well, maybe Tuesday will be warm enough. We’ll see. At least the birds have started gathering nesting material from my mulch.
pressured invited me to come out to the DIA for an exhibit of Frida Khalo and Diego Rivera’s work. Detroit almost sold the DIA’s collection recently in bankruptcy proceedings. Can you imagine such a thing? Our city is so injured that this possibility was actually on the table.
Rehabilitation is on the way. Emphasizing the historical importance of the DIA’s very walls, this exhibit shows plans and drawings by Rivera for the murals in Rivera Court. If you visit cities for art, Detroit should be on your map for the murals alone, and also for the thriving contemporary art scene outside of the DIA collection. Detroit rises from the ashes of industrial decay. You’ll know I’m being literal and not figurative when you see the burned-down houses that stood empty for decades giving way to urban gardens, new corporate headquarters, and young families from the suburbs moving into the neighborhoods. All the twenty-somethings want to move to Detroit now.
But we’re almost 300 words in and we haven’t mentioned Frida. Where is she? What about Frida?
I didn’t care for her work when I was a young snobby surrealist in art school. I was taught to value the work of men, mostly from European countries. I don’t remember if Frida showed her face and eyebrows in my textbooks. The history of art is the history of the exclusion of women.
I’ll say that again:
The history of art is the history of the exclusion of women.
The personal drama that unfolds as you walk through the Frida and Diego exhibit punches you in the face with this point. Here you see Diego’s massive charcoal sketches for the mural, reams of twenty-foot tall and fifty-foot long paper dwarfing the crowd. I love drawing because I can watch the artist’s process behind a finished work, and I ate these up. Those bold lines. Yes.
In contrast to his work, Frida’s small drawings, paintings and Milagros speak a completely different language. Diego’s work is massive, forceful, crowded with bodies and exploding with content both symbolic and political. Frida’s work is reticent, precise, solitary and almost always painfully self-referential. She paints her own body in pain and in loss, her own face in obsessive repetition. How much time does a woman spend looking in the mirror compared to an average male? Frida seems always trying to seek some kind of a self in a culture where women’s value often depends upon things outside the self.
She paints her own body after a miscarriage with ribbons tying her uterus to the floating objects outside of herself: fetus, speculum, pelvic bone. Diego’s murals were commissioned by Henry Ford. Frida writes “Henry Ford Hospital” on the cold metal frame of her hospital bed in the painting. Oh my. Feeling some rage?
She paints other women’s bodies as objects of violence, either self-inflicted or as victims of crimes. Her choice to represent the female figure in a non-smiling and non-alluring form says “F You” to art history. No cherubs and soft-fleshed virgins with titles that say “no” and poses that say “yes.” Frida paints so much blood it literally splatters onto the picture frame in one of the pieces. She seeks a physicality that can blast through the flat space of a painting, and she is not ashamed to embrace the folk art techniques of untrained artists from her native Mexico. She grabs whatever she needs. Simultaneously naïve and political, she speaks a language twenty-first century feminists may recognize. She speaks of a world that both ignores and tolerates multiple repeated outrages against women. She’s hash-tagging rape culture.
Frida wasn’t known as an artist when these pieces were made. She was just as an artist’s wife who “dabbled” as an article in the newspapers at the time put it. As she matured her works increased in size and confidence. She stepped into her power. This old snapshot into the mind of young Frida exposes her struggling with the questions young women still navigate even after the success of the women’s liberation movement of the 1970’s: If I am not an object of desire or violence, if I am not a wife or a mother, who am I and what am I? Is my body mine, or is it a cultural signifier subject to the demands of religion, aesthetics and economics? Who legislates my body, and why are they permitted by society or by me to do so?
Diego’s monumental sketches dominated the gallery walls of the exhibit. Some works showed collaborative pieces where Diego and Frida played exquisite corpse or merged their faces and bodies into one figure. Frida’s solo work was small and sparse. Her story is not easy to hear, especially in the man and machine clatter of Diego’s industrial murals. It’s a story you have to listen to closely, painted in miniature. It’s the story of too many women, even today.