Friday, August 8, 2008

Would You Like to Borrow my Tweezers, Ms. Kahlo?

I had a lovely afternoon in San Francisco today, though it started a little less than lovely. I have been enjoying a very quiet summer in the suburbs and I had forgotten how loud a city can be. The difference was pretty jarring. I felt like an aging Southern Belle who needed her "tonic" to soothe her nerves. It was a reminder that I'd better become accustomed to noise again because in two weeks I'm back to seeing 180 adolescents a day. They have city noise beat by many decibels.

PJ and I had a nice lunch and then he very kindly walked me to the Museum of Modern Art and used his membership to get me in, specifically to see the Frida Kahlo exhibit. I often have a love/hate relationship with modern art. Just when I think that I am really enjoying the pieces I'm looking at, I'll turn the corner and be confronted with a giant canvas covered only in white paint and then, instead of thinking that I don't like it or that I don't find it interesting, I get upset because I feel like I should be "getting" some understanding from the piece. I feel like everyone else in the room is thinking about how the white canvas makes you contemplate only texture without figure and color and if they could read my empty thoughts, they would shake their heads sadly and move on to look at the single black box on the floor. So I was grateful to PJ for this quote in his blog from The Cutting Ball Theater's artistic director. Referring to his avant garde festival, the director, Rob Melrose, wrote in the program: "Sit back, enjoy and let your mind be washed over with these beautiful words and images." I decided I would let the art just wash over me and forgive myself for not understanding.

It turns out that this is a much more enjoyable way to see modern art. Don't like the urinal on a pedestal? That's okay; just move on. Leave it to someone else to contemplate the beauty of this common object. Drawn to the giant curtain made of pieces of silk flowers sewn together in a cascade? Excellent! Do not worry that you do not see how the curtain reminds us that negative space is an important aspect of art, as the card on the wall tells us. (By the way, I loved the silk flower curtain for its gigantic size and because someone actually came up with this insane idea, and made me want to go home and make one).

This does make me wonder about modern art. If much of it is made not to be understood but to just wash over you, that makes it very different from any art that came before, in which the point seems to have been either to communicate or to decorate a practical object. Does that make modern artists more self-centered? Should they care whether or not the viewer understands what they are trying to convey?

I saw much that I liked today. I was mesmerized by an area that was painted to appear to be the light and shadow caused by the sun streaming in a window in autumn. The artist had painted the shadows, but it seemed so real. Three different seasons through the same window were depicted in different rooms of the museum. I also loved that an artist had taken simple white shirts and folded them in several different ways. My favorite piece in the museum's permanent collection is Diego Rivera's The Flower Seller . I love it for its spectacular colors and touching depiction of the two workers who must load and carry the flowers, and because most artists paint a picture and then frame it, but Rivera seems to have decided that he had a canvas in a frame and that the figures in the painting would just have to fold and bend their bodies to fill the frame.

And from Diego Rivera we segue into Frida Kahlo. This is an incredibly popular show. The crowds were large, which is a shame because there is definitely an intimacy to Kahlo's work. In fact, I found myself wondering if she ever meant for thousands of people to have this kind of access into her life. The paintings are almost all autobiographical, which is part of what has been responsible for the cult that has grown up around Kahlo. Many different groups of people who see themselves as underrepresented or underserved have seen a fellow sufferer. Add to this that she was completely overshadowed by her more famous husband (who cheated on her with HER SISTER!!!) and you have a bona fide symbol for many causes. Make no mistake. Frida Kahlo did suffer. She was in pretty constant physical pain, she was disappointed in love, and she longed for a child. And this suffering is made palpable in her paintings. I found the most affecting to be one that she painted after learning of one of her husband's affairs. She is lying naked on a bed, her body covered with stab marks and blood. Her husband, fully dressed, looks on. The blood is even smeared onto the frame of the painting.

I felt almost shamed for looking at the paintings. They seemed way too personal to share. And here I was confronted by the opposite of what makes me uncomfortable about modern art. Here I was, being moved but made uncomfortable for the sake of an artist who is long gone. I found myself wondering if maybe she should have not included herself in the paintings. Couldn't she depict her emotional pain using another subject or some abstract figures? So, I stood there in the museum, realizing that maybe I don't want to know so obviously what the painting is about. Maybe I like and understand those canvases with nothing but squares of different colors better than I thought. Still, the paintings were very, very moving, and in many ways as jarring as the outside noise.

If you go, don't miss the photographs or the short film of Kahlo and Rivera. It became clear to me that my image of Frida Kahlo as a shy, simple woman who quietly painted was very wrong. First of all, she was very attractive by today's standards. Her looks were probably pretty exotic for the 1930's, though. I'm pretty sure she knew exactly what she was doing with her famous elegant peasant look. It suited her looks, it made her stand out, and it was easy to accessorize with great earrings and bracelets, along with flowers for her hair. Okay, she should have plucked her eyebrows, but everything else looked good. After viewing these, I came to the conclusion that she probably would have enjoyed her cult status.

Me? I would have hated it.

I left the museum with my new attitude still intact. I let the outside noise wash over me. Thanks to the strong Euro, I heard many different European languages being spoken by tourists. I looked around me to see what they must be seeing for the first time. San Francisco is a great city for tourists. I walked with the stream of tourists to the ferry building, where I always now feel at home. I bought two chickens and some rustic bread and I went home.

A nice way to almost end my summer vacation.


Anonymous said...

While I curse you for mentioning the end of vacation, I now want to see the show.
Have you seen Frida(the movie)? Is it close to reality?

Did the silk curtain resemble the hideous Hildy bathroom on trading spaces(there's an artist(?) that is hard to understand)?

vicmarcam said...

I haven't seen the movie, but I am anxious to now because I am wondering how much of an overshadowed victim they decided to make her.

Actually, I had never seen that episode of Trading Spaces, but I found a picture and it does slightly resemble the wall. In fact, I am wondering if that is where she got the idea. The difference is that the curtain was a curtain that was sewn together and therefore can be taken down and washed. Also, it had a lot of space instead of all the pieces jammed together. Lastly, it had an interesting color effect. The artist took the brightest colors and sewed them together at the top of the curtain, and it became less bright as it went to the floor, becoming almost white by the bottom.
Here is a set of photos: