Saturday, August 18, 2007

Frida Kahlo's last secret finally revealed, The Guardian

The artist's confessions to her doctor were locked up for 50 years. Now the details of her misery at not being able to bear children have been exposed.
She was always one of the most painfully personal of artists, producing a series of autobiographical canvases that dealt with everything from the consequences of the terrible injuries she suffered in a tram crash to her abortion. But finally the one part of the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo's life that has remained secret - at the orders of her former husband, fellow painter Diego Rivera - has been revealed in a new book published in Mexico. It tells the contents of a series of letters that Kahlo exchanged with her physician, and confidant, after she suffered a miscarriage in 1932, describing the devastation she felt when she realised that she could never have Rivera's child. The new material is certain to fill out the biography of one of the most fascinating artists of the 20th century, whose colourful life, which included a reputed affair with Trotsky, rivalled her art.

Kahlo's confession, My Beloved Doctor, is a bilingual compilation of the letters she exchanged with Dr Leo Eloesser between 1932 and 1951, which remained hidden for 50 years after her death. Kahlo always began her letters with the phrase 'My beloved doctor', Doctorcito querido. Hence the title of the book.

The personal letters, published in the month of the centenary of her birth, were locked away in trunks and cabinets in her house in Mexico City on Rivera's orders. Rivera, 20 years Kahlo's senior, left strict orders to his trust's caretakers not to open the letters until 15 years after his death in 1957.

However, one of Rivera's patrons left the collection hidden behind bathroom walls inside the house turned museum, fearing it might contain information that would compromise the couple's image. Curators opened the trunks in 2004, a year after the patron's death.

'She felt so disheartened because she would have loved to have a little Dieguito, but her dream did not come true', said Isabel Granen Porrua, in charge of the restoration and compilation of the material found in the house.

Kahlo's inability to bear a child, after the injuries she suffered in a tram crash, was painfully close to her. She had had one abortion when it was clear that her health would not allow her to go through with the pregnancy. When she became pregnant again a couple of years later, she miscarried.

Twelve days after her miscarriage she wrote to Dr Eloesser: 'Doctorcito querido: I have wanted to write to you for a long time than you can imagine. I had so looked forward to having a little Dieguito that I cried a lot, but it's over, there is nothing else that can be done except to bear it.'

In 1931, she wrote to him: 'I'm not painting or doing anything. I dislike the "high society" here [in New York where she had travelled with Rivera] and feel a little rage against all these fat cats, since I've seen thousands of people in terrible misery.'

Kahlo even dedicated a self-portrait to Eloesser in 1940: 'I painted my portrait in the year 1940 for Dr Leo Eloesser, my doctor and my best friend. With all my love. Frida Kahlo.'

In the letters, she elaborates on the first days of her pregnancy; her earlier abortion and her excruciating back pain caused by a tram crash in 1925.

She was operated on more than 30 times during her life. Part of her leg was amputated months before she died in 1954. It was during one of her visits to a hospital in San Francisco that she met Eloesser.

Eloesser went on to play a key role in her relationship with Rivera. In November 1940 he convinced her to reconcile and marry Kahlo for a second time. 'Diego loves you very much, and you love him. It is also the case, and you know it better than I, that besides you, he has two great loves: 1) painting 2) women in general. He has never been, nor ever will be, monogamous,' the doctor wrote in one of his letters to Kahlo.

Kahlo's confidence in her doctor continued to grow and she even told him she was jealous of Guadalupe Marin, Rivera's first wife and the mother of his two daughters.

'Please don't get mad at me over what I'm going to say: this morning, when you invited me to the concert, I was determined to go to make you happy and see you, but when I learnt that Diego invited the friends of that Marin, who I can't stand, to his box, I lost the desire to go. I prefer to speak to you frankly, since I know you understand me and will forgive me for changing my mind.'

The letters are among 30,000 other objects kept in her house long after her death and are currently on display among photographs, notes, sketches, magazines, books and pieces of clothing at her former family home in Mexico City and the Palacio de Bellas Artes, the country's most important cultural centre. Eighty per cent of the material is being shown to the public for the first time. Other items on display to mark the centenary of her birth include X-rays of Kahlo's fractured back, a trolley bus ticket and a note with a lipstick-stained kiss.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

MOCA show asks: Is it business or art? LATimes

In a move that seems sure to offend art world purists, the downtown Museum of Contemporary Art will merge the worlds of art and commerce this fall by including a fully operational Louis Vuitton boutique as part of a retrospective of the work of Japanese artist Takashi Murakami. Highlighting Murakami's longtime professional association with the luxury goods label, the boutique will offer limited-edition handbags and small leather goods featuring Murakami designs. The estimated prices of the bags, ranging from $875 to $920, represent about a $300 markup over the $575 to $665 that consumers would pay for the same line without the Murakami designs at the Vuitton store on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. Unlike the traditional gift shop or museum store outside the exhibition area, or a shop set up for a traveling exhibition such as the 2005 King Tut show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Vuitton shop will be situated approximately in the middle of MOCA's Geffen Contemporary space. It will be among about 20 rooms featuring paintings, sculpture and animation. "People have touched base with the play between the commercial arena and high art, but this is a little more confrontational," MOCA Chief Curator Paul Schimmel, who organized the show, said Wednesday. Although MOCA will receive no profit from the boutique's sales and no rental fee for the space, the unorthodox plan raises questions about whether a nonprofit museum tarnishes its reputation by peddling high-end handbags in its hallowed halls. Gail Andrews, director of the Birmingham Museum of Art in Alabama and president of the Assn. of Art Museum Directors, said she had conversations with MOCA leaders about their concept of including such a boutique during the planning stages of the Murakami exhibition, which will open Oct. 29 and run through Feb. 11. "They are doing something that contemporary museums do, pushing the boundaries," Andrews said. "They are going to have to work very hard to get the curatorial concept across to the visitor so they do not perceive a conflict of interest. That's going to really be at the heart of this." Selma Holo, director of USC's Fisher Gallery, said that MOCA's decision is the next step in an apparent trend. "What's happening in museums is that the lines between commerce and pure art are increasingly blurred," she said. "So with respect to the Murakami show and the Vuitton shop, one has to wonder whether it is meant as a celebration of the trend, a critique of the trend or a satire?" Referring to the pioneering 20th century artist who labeled a urinal a work of art, Holo said, "Ever since Duchamp, we have trusted the artist to determine what art is. Is a latrine in a gallery any less valid than a store? "At the very least," she added, "it's going to be fun." MOCA Director Jeremy Strick said the idea of a boutique is in keeping with the 45-year-old Murakami's commitment to breaking down the boundaries between low and high art. The acclaimed multimedia artist, who has been credited as the progenitor of the art movement called Superflat -- influenced by pop culture, anime and graphic design -- has his own company, Kaikai Kiki, which mass-produces Murakami-designed products at reasonable prices and serves as a management organization for other artists. "Murakami is an artist who is perhaps the most significant and influential artist to have emerged from Asia in the last half-century," Strick said. "And one of the key elements of his work is the way in which he melds commercial practice and fine art and really makes no distinction between the two. "When Paul Schimmel invited Louis Vuitton to participate in this way, he really felt that the act of buying, the way one approaches the objects when they are consumable within the museum environment, spoke to the unusual nature of his work." "We really didn't need a faux boutique," Schimmel said. "I felt that the experience could only be achieved by having an operational one, rather than a fixed, embalmed replication. The fact that there is a new product that is only available here is very dynamic and represents that kind of relationship between the viewer and the consumer." Couldn't the concept of commerce vs. art be illustrated with less pricey goods? Schimmel said that he had also approached the artist about doing a Kaikai Kiki boutique but that the company wasn't interested in participating: "They said it was too much trouble." As is customary with artists who also create mass-market objects, another room in the Geffen will contain 350 items produced by the Kaikai Kiki company, although those will not be for sale. Other Kaikai Kiki products will be available for purchase in the gift shop. However, Schimmel contended that the relationship with Vuitton has been integral to Murakami's career. "For Takashi, it has something to do with his expanding self-vision," Schimmel said. "Every time he collaborates with a kind of strong brand identity, it seems to morph his own identity into something else." Schimmel said MOCA is leaving pricing of the products and the operation of the boutique to Vuitton -- including making sure there are enough handbags and leather goods to last through the run of the show. "The only request we made is that they operate and have it functional throughout the exhibition, that we do not have this sort of 'dead booth,' " he said.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Why Andy's 15 minutes will never be up, The Guardian

Half a century on, many of Andy Warhol's iconic images may have lost their original pop culture references, but his style and vision leaves his legacy looking more assured than ever. Andy Warhol would have been 80 next summer. His soup cans and Brillo boxes, Jackies and Elvises are nearly half a century old. They have lost none of their graphic force, but what about their original content? What has time done to an art based on images that were once so familiar anyone could 'recognise them in a split second in the street', as Warhol said, but which are now instantly recognisable only as Warhols? Take this huge show in Edinburgh - A Celebration of Life... and Death, as it is portentously titled. There are a good many works here that can have no split-second factor at all. How many visitors under 20 will recognise the numerous pictures of Grace Jones, say, or Keith Haring or Nico? Can anyone spot the venerable Man Ray? And Del Monte's peach halves may still be global business, but Mott's apple juice? Did it make it over here? Who has ever heard of Eighties DJ Juan Dubose?

Dubose and the juice crates are now meaningless as icons of themselves, and I'm guessing that few enough people dine daily on Campbell's soup (as Warhol always did) that the gigantic cans currently wrapping the pillars of the building outside are only a semi-successful promotion. But what all this obsolete imagery reveals, in a sense, is just how much of an old master Warhol has become, how enduring the look and power of his art. Dubose may be unfamiliar, but the hot shimmer of his body, black on blood-red and haloed in a solar glow, declares what a star he once was: a star burned out, dead of Aids a few years after this sombre painting.

The celebration of life, not death, is a trickier proposition for this show to put over, given that practically all of the portraits commemorate the dead and whole galleries are given over to the car crashes, suicides and skulls. But the point is well made; Warhol loved the design of the Campbell's cans, the serpentine flash of the dollar sign, adored the twin stars of the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty. You were to relish the red, white and blue of the Brillo boxes (themselves designed by a painter) with their evocative address - Brooklyn NY - printed as if on a letter.

Of course, you were also to ponder the fact that they appeared indistinguishable from the real thing - art could no longer be defined solely in terms of visual criteria - and that everyone could and did own something exactly like this. That they are priceless today, and now look so very evidently handpainted, probably goes against the spirit in which they were made (and sold, at $5 a pop).

The Brillo boxes date from 1964, and the standard claim is that Warhol's best works were all made between the late Fifties and Valerie Solanas's attempt to kill him in 1968. This show contains a large tranche of later works loaned by Anthony d'Offay, Warhol's London dealer, that don't counter that claim - guns and burgers, ads for paratroopers' boots, Liberty wanly reprised, all set against miles of high-chrome US camouflage that suggest weary scepticism, if not joyless line-extension. But the Mao paintings, the hammers and sickles, all of the death's head self-portraits and more were made after he had recovered from the bullet.

As the years recede, death does seem to be Warhol's subject: his forte. He painted Liz Taylor when she was dangerously ill and her face is fading fast into mist. Truman Capote, his eyes blue as heaven, is nothing but soul and cigarette. Warhol's gods and goddesses are all gone. Elvis, literally printed on a silver screen, appears twice like double vision, both of himselves a blur. Marilyn loses her definition, just held on the verge of dissolution by a few final touches like make-up.

Suicidal Marilyn, widowed Jackie, grieving face growing darker like her funeral shadow until it becomes a pictogram of pure pain, the terrible car crashes where you scan the multiple image trying to find the body beneath the tyres. It isn't true that repetition deadens the emotions. The more you try to decipher these grainy screenprints the more you fear to look, dreading what you might find. There is the shattered car. Then the driver dangling from a telegraph pole barely visible in the flames and then, last and nearly worst, a man in white jeans walking insouciantly by. On suffering they were never wrong, the Old Masters.

The room of skulls is brilliantly installed: ice-white wallpaper, the skulls in pistachio, pink and tutti-frutti; it looks like some nightmare version of a children's nursery, and sure enough the shadows cast at a certain angle by these old bones look exactly like infant skulls. Lurking among them is Warhol himself, looking remarkably bright, if not right at home here, a skull like a pet monkey on his shoulder.

A whole lower floor is devoted to Warhol's drawings, photographs and time capsules, and they give a greater sense of his character than any show I've seen. The sheer camp of his early commercial drawings - pouting boys, dandy clothes - prefigures so much of the deadpan humour of his films and books, and there is an unexpected nostalgia in the capsules into which he presses every fragment of his life and times.

But even the children's paintings, very rarely shown, of spacemen and police cars, clockwork mice and drumming pandas, have a minatory tone: dangerous and strange, as if liable to explode. An overlay of buzzing yellow or a lightning strike of orange can give a frightening charge to the most innocent of toys.

You can cut Warhol many ways, make of him a history painter or a radical portraitist, a philosopher or a cold parodist. An exhibition of nothing but his late portraits of zillionaires, from German industrialists to Conrad Black in his prime, would certain reveal him as the latter. This show does not want to admit that he idolised celebrity, or skimmed the shallows of the mass media, though both form distinct strains in his art. But its overall selectiveness gives a much deeper, graver Warhol than before, a Warhol who has long since passed the test of time.