Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving

Posted on March 21st, 2019 by

A blog post by Deputy Director Tracie Guy-Decker. Read more posts from Tracie by clicking HERE.

Several weeks ago, Joanna Church and I were in Brooklyn for a meeting, and Joanna suggested we check out the Frida Kahlo exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum. She said there were more Kahlo canvases in one room here than there had been since her death. When Joanna’s text first came across my phone I immediately thought of some of Kahlo’s iconic self portraits (and then of her skeletal appearance in Disney’s Coco. What can I say, I am the parent of a first-grader), and I tried to remember the last time I’d seen a Kahlo canvas up close.  As I wracked my memory, I realized I had never seen a Kahlo painting in person.

That deficiency had to be rectified! Joanna arranged to get us the (very expensive) tickets to the exhibit, and we were set. (As soon as we emerged from the subway station, I knew these Brooklynites were my kind of people, as a giant “OY” statue greeted me.)

The exhibit was well-attended, with cattle-line stanchions set up to control traffic (luckily they were unnecessary for us, as it was after 7 pm when we arrived). As we passed through the bright pink and blue entry, helpful docents let us know that no photos would be permitted in the exhibit, and the excitement built.

On entering the first room, the exhibit was not what I expected. There were very few examples of Kahlo’s work, but a great deal of artifacts and photos from her life. From the very beginning, this exhibit helped me to deepen my understanding of Frida Kahlo, a figure who had become somewhat two-dimensional in my imagination.

My first surprise was realizing that Frida Kahlo was born Magdalena Frida Carmen Kahlo. In my two-dimensional caricature of her, Frida is unequivocally Mexican. That is undoubtedly true of the three-dimensional woman who lived and loved and painted, but IRL, Frida Kahlo was so much more complicated than I had given her credit for. One of her complexities was that even with her decidedly Mexican identity, she chose to go by the German “Frida.”

Just as they deepened my sense of the complexities of her identity, the curators of this exhibit provided me with context for Kahlo’s paintings—both personal, political, and cultural. Among the cultural context was a great deal of information about the history and usage of some of the costumes featured in Kahlo’s portraits. The most notable may be the Huipil Grande she wears in Diego on my mind. I was entranced by the illustrations of the article of clothing—totally unknown in my life experience—and appreciated the vintage film of young women wearing them.

Interspersed with the contextual cases were many photographs of Frida Kahlo throughout her life, and, somewhat surprisingly, photographic self-portraits of her father. Guillermo Kahlo was a German-born (his birth name was Carl Wilhelm), Mexican photographer, and young Frida grew up looking at her father’s self-portraits. There was a decided suggestion that his work was influential on her oeuvre.

(As an aside, it is really interesting to peruse museum exhibits with other, trained museum professionals. At one moment, early in the exhibit, I approached Joanna who was examining one of Kahlo’s scarves under a vitrine. She frowned and said, “I wouldn’t have displayed this that way.” Before I worked at JMM, I can tell you I never once heard or said that to a fellow museum-goer!)

As I moved through the several rooms of artifacts from Frida Kahlo’s life, I learned a great deal about her loves and losses and passions. Evidence of her repeated disappointment at her infertility (the fetus painted on one of her body casts was particularly poignant) both resonated with me and touched me. I was fascinated to read about her choices around presentation of gender and surprised by the realization of her disability (the reason for the cast).

Despite the reason I decided to come see the exhibit, the real heart of the Brooklyn Museum’s display is not Kahlo’s paintings. It is a trove of her clothing. According to the handout from the museum, “In 2004 a remarkable trove of personal items belonging to Frida Kahlo was brought to light at her lifelong home, the Blue House (La Casa Azul), in Mexico City. Locked away at the instruction of her husband, Diego Rivera, following her death in 1954, these materials—including exceptional examples of her vibrant wardrobe—are here displayed in the United States for the first time.”

It was the clothing that really stayed with me, probably because we are hard at work putting the finishing touches on our own clothing exhibit, Fashion Statement. By taking a deep dive into the motivations and of a single person, Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving investigates some of the same things we look at in Fashion Statement. My mind-caricature of Frida Kahlo as self-consciously Mexican was not wrong—in fact her Mexican-ness was an identity she cultivated through the use of traditional garments. But what my pre-exhibit understanding didn’t contain was that he loose-fitting tunics and long skirts were also helpful in disguising medical corsets and a limp—in other words, people are more complicated than we often give them credit for.

A deeper insight than the realization of the role of Kahlo’s disabilities in her clothing choices, was my new-found sense of just how deliberate all of Kahlo’s clothing choices were. The garments on view in Brooklyn suggest that she was regularly altering, modifying and pairing garments in unusual ways. Kahlo was highly aware of the connections she made (or rejected) for herself by what she wore and how she presented herself. She used her clothing to assert her affiliations and her heritage. She used her clothing to fashion her private and public identity.

(And, though I believe her influence and insights are sufficient for her inclusion here on our blog, I was tickled to learn that both Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera claimed Jewish heritage during the war, as a show of solidarity with Jews persecuted by the Nazis. Kahlo’s German father made her claim more believable than Rivera’s, though the Brooklyn curators do not suggest it was more true.)

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Repairing injuries with gold: 1 West Mount Vernon Place

Posted on January 3rd, 2019 by

A blog post by Deputy Director Tracie Guy-Decker. Read more posts from Tracie by clicking HERE.

One of the great perks of being a museum professional is visiting museums with other professionals. On Friday, December 21, I had double good fortune when Eleanor Hughes, Deputy Director for Art & Program at the Walters Art Museum hosted the JMM management team at the Walters’ historic site, 1 West Mount Vernon Place.

The tour of the house begins at the top of a spiral staircase in the house’s conservatory. The first thing you see as a visitor is a wall of glass shelving featuring ceramics from the Walters’ collection, all in a similar hue.

Eleanor begins her tour of the house by pointing out a small, somewhat unassuming bowl in the shelves. This little bowl seems to have a thin gold line drawn on the side facing the conservatory. This gold line, Eleanor explained, is in fact evidence of a crack that was repaired in the Japanese style of kintsugi.

I had heard of Kintsugi before, though since my visit to 1 West Mount Vernon, I’ve learned a great deal more about it. “Golden Joinery” is a Japanese practice of repairing ceramic vessels with layers of lacquer mixed with precious medals. This repair technique is also a philosophy—one that highlights breakage and repair as moments to be honored and celebrated, rather than hidden from view. I find the notion and the Japanese practice deeply beautiful.

Eleanor begins her tours of 1 West Mount Vernon with this bowl to encourage visitors to think about the practice of kintsugi as a metaphor for what she and her team have done with the historic site that was once known as the Hackerman House. In their research and decision-making about the visitor experience, they’ve decided to foreground the stories not just of the owners of the home, but those of the people who served in the house. These latter stories include written evidence, including a letter written by her own hand, of a woman, Sybby Grant, enslaved by the original owners of the house. As Eleanor acknowledged, this choice was not universally embraced by those in the family and orbit of the Walters. Nevertheless, she and her team, felt it was a necessary move in order to be true to the full story of the house. It was a necessary move for the Walters to take their place in the broader culture’s effort to acknowledge and repair the injuries of the past. It is their version of repairing a crack with golden lacquer.

From the conservatory, Eleanor led us into a front drawing room decorated with an assemblage of historic and contemporary art and material culture. A collection of ceramics in the room by contemporary artist Roberto Lugo mix traditional ceramic forms with contemporary images, including a portrait of Colin Kaepernick, a bust of Frederick Douglas (featuring a golden hair pick protruding from his curly hair), and other images of historic and contemporary African Americans including the artist himself.

In the dining room, the Museum staff’s curatorial efforts were in full kintsugi mode, gilding the crack of the history of enslavement in the house. An exhibit case in the room featured the letter written by Sybby Grant, an enslaved cook, to her master, Dr. Thomas, imprisoned for his support of the Confederacy. The dining room table was set with dishes, created by Roberto Lugo for the space, and featuring images from Sybby’s letter as well as her initials.

As we moved through that level of the house that juxtaposition continued. The library, the dining room, the hallways all were filled with both the traditional trappings of an historic house museum and contemporary art addressing the injuries hidden behind those trappings—including enslavement, dehumanization, and erasure.

When we asked Eleanor about the choice to include the Kaepernick piece in the drawing room, for instance, she talked about the importance of making space for contemporary voices in the historic house—especially from communities that had traditionally been silenced there. In our conversations after leaving the house, JMM management talked about the ways in which the juxtaposition invited visitors to rethink who and what belong in an historic house or an art museum. We talked about the importance and power of people—children and adults alike—finding resonance with their own lives inside the walls of the museum.

Though Eleanor didn’t name it at the time, kintsugi remains an apt metaphor for the joining of disparate art forms. After my visit to 1 West Mount Vernon, I’ve spent more time than I’d care to admit on the internet looking at images of kintsugi repairs. One method, called joint-call, involves repairing ceramics with missing pieces using similarly shaped fragments from a different broken object. The resulting product is a single unified piece of pottery made up of 2 aesthetically different works.

From the kintsugi-inspired second floor, we moved upstairs, past the now iconic view of the dome, to a more traditional set of gallery spaces. I say the spaces were more traditional, though the exhibits hardly were. The first room we entered was all about ceramics, but rather than organizing the artifacts by chronologically or by method or maker, they were organized by color. Pull out drawers in the exhibit cases invited visitors to learn a bit more about both the museum enterprise (the light and humidity monitor is labeled!) and about the process of making red ceramics.

In the next room we encountered ceramics that had literally moved around the world and been embellished along the way. My favorited example was this cheerful Chinese Buddhist figure wearing a golden hat and sitting on a golden bower made for him in France. As we moved through this portion of the house, Eleanor used her executive privilege as deputy director to raise the blinds for us in one of the rooms. The music and the art that is the city of Baltimore are a part of the fabric of this house, she explained.

Meanwhile, inside the house, she and her team are working to find ways to incorporate the artwork of the people of the city of Baltimore, including this installation of ceramic coins, created by visitors reacting to the story of Sybby Grant, or this amazing art room, where adults and children are invited to sit and create in reaction to what they’ve seen.

One of the ways we measure success here at JMM is whether our visitors feel inspired by their time here. We want to know if they’re thinking, talking, and doing as a result of what they see and discover with us. By that measure of success, 1 West Mount Vernon Place was a big success with the JMM team. From our spirited conversations over lunch about the role art museums vis a vis history museums in the movement toward making museums a cause to my embarrassingly lengthy time spent reading, learning and looking at kintsugi, to the research and thinking I’ve done about Sybby Grant since I left the house, it was an inspiring visit. And I only scratched the surface of what’s there.

The Walters is free. I highly recommend you schedule a visit. You might even check out their free app (search 1 Mt Vernon Place in the app store) before your visit (it will definitely be helpful during). The entry to 1 West Mount Vernon is an unassuming door on Charles Street.

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Museo Antonio Felmer

Posted on December 13th, 2018 by

A blog post from JMM Volunteer Coordinator Wendy Davis. To read more posts from Wendy, click here.

I knew extremely little about Argentina and Chile until this past month when I was fortunate to spend 2 ½ weeks there.

The majority of the population are descendants of immigrants, just like in the US.  Besides seeing people that resembled those I see on the streets at home, the immigrant similarity really hit home when I visited Museo Antonio Felmer, a museum outside the Chilean city of Puerto Varas.  The collection consisted of objects brought by German immigrants to Chile, starting from the mid 1800’s into the 20th century.  There was a parallel immigration of Germans to Baltimore at the same time.  Some of those Baltimorean immigrants established the congregation that populated our Lloyd Street Synagogue.  I wonder how many of their precious objects they carefully packed and brought to the new world to either help them in daily tasks or with their occupation.

Antonio Felmer, a descendant of one of the German families in Chile, wanting to preserve his community’s history, started collecting household and farm related items which he housed it in his barn.  Antonio has since died, but his son has taken over the ever-growing collection and is running the museum that fills the three floors of the barn.  Much to his son’s chagrin, Antonio didn’t keep records regarding the provenance of the items or the items’ function. It has taken some guess work, and input from visitors to determine the function of some of objects.  For example, for years, he wondered why a chair in the collection had only 10” tall legs.  A visitor recalled that mothers would sit on chairs like that to be close to their children as they sat around her on the floor.

The collection is wonderfully displayed with related items grouped together. Many of them are kept in working condition from items needed for daily living to items used for entertainment.

There were food molds, meat grinders, – wait, didn’t I see similar objects in the pop-up exhibit in the lobby of JMM in September?

There were multiple sewing machines which brought to mind the sewing machine in the Voices of Lombard Street exhibit.

Yes, there were wedding dresses, too, on display.  Most of the wedding dresses in the JMM “Just Married” exhibit were white.

In this collection, some of the dresses were black though the veils were always white.

Why black?  Because the dress owners lived in a poor farming community where the women needed to have the dress to wear for other good occasions and white was not practical to keep clean.

When I saw a steamer trunk on display, I wondered if Houdini held the patent on its design.

The Felmer family obviously has a passion to preserve their history, something all who are associated with the Jewish Museum of Maryland can relate to.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




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