Tag Archives: art gallery of ontario

Patti Smith – Camera Solo

6 Feb

When the Art Gallery of Ontario announced that they would be doing a major exhibition of Patti Smith’s photographs, I can’t say that I was overly excited. We’re members there, so I figured that I’d see it eventually, but I wasn’t going to make a special trip for it or anything.

I have to admit that before today, I didn’t know much of Smith beyond her status as the godmother of punk and her seminal 1975 album Horses. Part of my disinterest in her show probably stemmed from the fact that I often don’t trust artists who dabble in other forms of art – actors who put out an album, say, or musicians who try to be novelists. I guess that part of my curmudgeonry is because they don’t have any obligation to be talented in fields other than their own – some label will release David Hasselhoff’s album because he’s David Hasselhoff, not because he’s good. I figured that Patti Smith and her photography had a similar story.

Then today, I scheduled myself two hours of do-something-pleasant time (which is a thing I’m trying to do lately) between 11 and 1. I decided to go down to the AGO, wander through the galleries, and maybe park myself in the members’ lounge (actually several shabby-chic rooms in a Victorian mansion that’s attached to the gallery) and write in my journal. But when I got to the AGO and showed off me membership card and ID to the woman working at the desk, she asked if I’d come to see the members-only preview of Patti Smith’s show. I told her no. She asked me if I wanted to see it. I shrugged and said sure, because I’d already seen just about everything else in the gallery.

Smith’s show was a revelation. After making a tour of the main room, I sat down in one of the comfortable old wooden chairs provided (tastefully arranged on an oriental rug) and started scribbling in my notebook. The first words that I wrote were, “miniature & melancholy & perfect,” which seem like an accurate way of summing up how I felt.

The exhibition is made up of approximately 70 photographs taken with Smith’s vintage Polaroid camera, presented there as gelatin prints, as well as a handful of personal objects, and Equation Daumal, a film Smith directed which was shot on 16mm using Super 8 film.

The room is bare and white, with the rug and chairs occupying the floor space along with a large piece of artwork constructed by Smith. The photographs that line the walls are tiny (as you imagine vintage Polaroids would be) and are displayed in groups of four or five, sometimes with cases full of related objects underneath.

Some of the photographs are self-portraits. Some are of Smith’s children. Most of them, though, can be summed up by this quote by Smith, which is posted on one of the walls:

I have a strong relationship with the dead, even a happy one. I get pleasure out of having their things and sometimes photographing them.

Some of the dead are people she knew – Robert Mapplethorpe, for example, the well-known photographer and her one-time partner who died of AIDS in the late 1980s. Most of the photographs, however, are of people who inspired her and the various objects they owned.

There’s Herman Hesse’s typewriter. The river Ouse where Virginia Woolfe drowned herself, her pockets full of stones. A stuffed bear belonging to Tolstoy that served to hold calling cards in its outstretched hands. A funeral wreath. William Blake’s grave. Nureyev’s ballet slippers. Virginia Woolfe’s bed. Victor Hugo’s bed. Frida Kahlo’s bed. So many photographs of beds belonging to dead, famous people.

Why beds? I wondered, then realized all the various uses we put them to.

Beds are places where we sleep, yes, and also dream. We fuck in beds. We eat, read, maybe write in bed. Beds are places where we fight with the people we love the most; beds are places where we make up those fights, with whispered reconciliations, skin brushing against soft skin. Sick days are spent in bed, sleeping, Facebooking or watching old movies. Nearly all of us are born in a bed; many of us will die in one, too. Beds are equally places of pleasure and pain, but even more than that, they’re places of transition. Beds are where we make our way in and out of this world, making them a sort symbolic doorway or portal.

There are objects in Smith’s collection, too. Her father’s chipped white bone china mug, a cross that belonged to Mapplethorpe, and a sort of totem Smith made for Brian Jones. There’s a pair of slippers belonging to Pope Benedict XV, the man who canonized Joan of Arc. There’s a stone from the river Ouse.

There’s an entire section devoted to Arthur Rimbaud, photographs of his bed, the path near his house, his grave. There are drawings that Smith has done of Rimbaud, black lines with a few dabs of colour. The large object in the middle of the room is a reconstruction she’s done of the litter Rimbaud designed to carry him 100 miles across Ethiopia, to a place where he could seek medical treatment after falling ill in the jungle.

As I walked around the room, I thought, yes. Yes. I live here. Here, in this grainy black and white land between living and death. I know the holiness that surrounds the grave of a painter or poet that you love. I know the happiness of holding an object that someone I love once cupped in their hands. I know this place. I live here.

The whole exhibit was a sort of communion with the dead. It was about the ways we connect with those we’ve loved and lost, through sight, through touch. It was a reminder that love still exists, even after death. And what do you do with all that leftover love, the heart-searing shit that’s left behind when you lose someone you care about? What do you do with the love you have for a poet or painter or musician who has greatly inspired you but died long before you were born?

You channel it into something, even someone else, I suppose. You put it into your own art, or your work, whatever it is, or into your children or your lovers or your friends. Or else maybe you waste it, let it drain out of you, use it to feed your loneliness.

I’ve been thinking all afternoon of the things that I have that once belonged to people who are now dead. My names, for a start – Annie, after my great-grandfather’s sister who died of tuberculosis when she was 16, and Rebecca, from my mother’s beloved Nana Kelley. I have a scarf that belonged to my Grampy, an old wool plaid affair that’s looking rather moth-eaten these days. I have my grandmother’s father’s Latin grammar book. I have a photograph of my Poppa in his RCAF uniform from when he served in WWII. I have a letter that my father’s grandmother sent to my mother when she was pregnant with me, a note that has my great-grandmother’s name, the date and “Halifax City” written neatly in the upper right-hand corner.

I have things that belonged to people I’ve never known, too . A blue vintage dress printed with purple and orange flowers. An American 1st edition of Camus’ The Outsider. My antique engagement ring. I have all the words of the dead that line the walls of my living room, shelf upon shelf of well-loved books. I am surrounded by the dead.

I still feel breathless, almost light-headed, even several hours after seeing the exhibit. I wish that I had sufficient words to explain how it affected me, but every sentence in this post, though carefully and meticulously constructed, somehow seems flat and emotionless.

I can tell you this: it was lovely. You should see it. And then you should sit down, and think of your beloved dead.

Patti+Smith+beautiful+with+camera

Frida

22 Oct

On Friday night, Matt and I went on a For Real Date to see the Frida & Diego exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Frida Kahlo is probably my all-time favourite painter; I have literally been counting down the days until this show opened.

I have friends who know a lot more about galleries and exhibiting art than I do. They make intelligent remarks like, I wasn’t thrilled with how this collection was curated, or, I thought the lighting in the third room really brought an interesting tone to the whole show. I hope you’re not here to read anything like that, because I honestly know very little about how galleries should or shouldn’t display art. On top of that, I’ve been waiting at least ten years to see Frida’s works in person, so the AGO could probably have held the show in a dank basement room lit by a single 60-watt bulb and I would still have been thrilled.

The Frida & Diego exhibit is an assortment of Kahlo and Rivera’s works, often juxtaposed in interesting ways. The first room is filled with paintings from Rivera’s days as an art student in Madrid and Paris; they’re neat because you can clearly see the time he spent dabbling in Realism, Cubism and Post-Impressionism. That being said, although his early paintings are clearly technically very good, for the most part they aren’t terribly interesting or different.

Three of Rivera’s earlier works

The second room is more still more Rivera, and includes a reproduction of one his most famous murals, The Arsenal, starring Frida as a communist bad-ass distributing weapons to the people.

Finally, in the third room, we begin seeing some of Kahlo’s work. I dragged Matt from painting to painting, drinking in the familiar scenes and pointing out details that I was noticing for the first time. I began to look at the dates of the paintings, trying to slot them into the narrative of her life, and in doing so  I was struck me was how young she was. I mean, I’d always known that she’d died young, but for the first time I realized that she’d been painting masterpieces when she was younger than me.

Frida was born in 1907 (although she often gave her birthdate as 1910 in order to coincide with the beginning of the Mexican Revolution), and was the third of four daughters born to Guillermo and Mathilde Kahlo. Frida’s father came from a German-Jewish background, and her mother was of Spanish and Indigenous descent; Frida was fascinated by her parents’ history, and her own mixed heritage would come to play an important part in her art. In 1927, at the age of 20, she already considered herself to be a professional painter. She married Diego Rivera in 1929.

Her seminal painting Henry Ford Hospital, which depicts a bed-ridden Kahlo shortly after a traumatic miscarriage, dates from 1932. I kept looking at it and thinking, she was only 25 when she went through that. She was only 25 when she painted that.

Henry Ford Hospital, 1932

Kahlo’s 1932 miscarriage (which was the second of three that she suffered) was by no means the first time she’d experienced pain or hardship in her life. At the age of six she was stricken with polio and, although she made a near-full recovery, for the rest of life her left leg remained smaller and weaker than the right. Then, at the age of 18,  she was riding a bus that collided with a tram car. She suffered massive injuries, including three breaks in her spinal column, a shattered pelvis and multiple other broken bones. She was also skewered by a steel handrail, which pierced her abdomen and came out her vagina. She later told her family that the handrail took her virginity (totally untrue, by the way).

Her boyfriend at the time, Alejandro Arias, described the scene of accident to Kahlo biographer Hayden Herrera in gory but also hauntingly beautiful terms:

Something strange had happened. Frida was totally nude. The collision had unfastened her clothes. Someone on the bus, probably a house painter, had been carrying a packet of powdered gold. This package broke, and the gold fell all over the bleeding body of Frida. When people saw her they cried, ‘La bailarina, la bailarina!‘ With the gold on her red, bloody body, they thought she was a dancer.” – Hayden Herrera, Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo

Frida suffered from the effects of that accident for the rest of her life. She underwent 35 separate surgeries in an attempt to repair the damage. The handrail had gone through her uterus, leaving her unable to carry a baby to term; this was especially heartbreaking, as Frida wanted almost more than anything to have a child with Diego.

Part of the reason that Kahlo wanted to have Rivera’s child is that she thought it would bind them together in a way that marriage on its own couldn’t. Diego was a known womanizer, and continued to sleep with other women even after he married Frida. Deeply hurt by Diego’s infidelity, as well as her own inability to carry a child (which would have been Rivera’s fifth, as he had four others by past wives and mistresses), Frida began to have her own affairs with both men and women. Throughout the rest of her life Frida had dozens of lovers, including, purportedly, Josephine Baker and Leon Trotsky.

The fact that both Frida and Diego had numerous love affairs over the course of their marriage (which lasted from 1929 until 1939, then resumed in 1940 and lasted until Frida’s death in 1954), and the fact that both of them slept with women, makes the AGO’s juxtaposition of the two portraits of Natasha Gelman, one each by Kahlo and Rivera, all the more interesting.

Kahlo’s portrait of Gelman, 1943

Rivera’s portrait of Gelman, 1943

In Kahlo’s portrait, Gelman is unsmiling, even stern, while Rivera’s version of Gelman is languorous and sensual, a small smile playing on her lips. Kahlo’s Gelman seems matriarchal, perhaps even a bit masculine, with a square jaw and intently serious gaze. Rivera’s Gelman, on the other hand, takes on a more traditionally feminine appearance, both in the softness of her face and the curve of her hip and leg. Simply put, Kahlo’s version of Gelman looks like a fucking awesome boss lady, and Rivera’s looks like someone he would want to sleep with.

I’m no expert, but I feel like these two pictures say a lot about how Kahlo and Rivera view women, both in general and as prospective partners.

It was also fascinating to see a selection of works by Kahlo that were inspired by her miscarriages hung alongside a series of paintings by Rivera depicting mothers of young children. I can’t imagine how heartbreakingly difficult it must have been for Frida to know that Diego had children with other women; how at times she must have felt inferior and defective because she could bring another “Little Diego” into the world.

Frida Kahlo – Frida Y El Aborto

Diego Rivera – Maternidad

One of my favourite parts of the exhibit was the room that contained media by other people of Frida and Diego. There were photographs on the walls, and a black and white video of the couple was playing on the large screen. Of all the photographs that were included in this show, my favourites by far were those taken by Nickolas Muray, Frida’s former-lover-turned-good-friend.

Nickolas Muray – Frida In The Dining Area Coyoacan With Cigarette

Nickolas Muray – Frida Kahlo on White Bench

In many of Muray’s pictures, Frida is looking straight into the camera. Her gaze is intimate, disarming; her eyes bore into you, and it seems like she’s just about to speak. In some of the pictures, her mouth is quirked into a half-smile, as if she and the viewer share some kind of inside joke. No one else really understands, her expression tells you, no one but you and I, that is. You feel complicit in something, but you’re not sure what.

The video was just as wonderfully intimate as Muray’s photographs. In it, Frida and Diego are shown at home, in the courtyard of Casa Azul. In their every movement, their every look and touch, their tenderness for each other is evident. At one point Frida reaches out to take Diego’s hand and place it on her cheek; her expression when she feels his palm against her face is like that of a cat sleeping in a puddle of sunlight.

On the whole, the show is wonderful. My only issue with it (aside from the fact that several of my favourite Kahlo pieces are missing) is the subtitle, Passion, Politics and Painting. The advertising done for the show, which includes the slogan, “He painted for the people. She painted to survive.” makes it seem as though the politics were all Diego’s and the passion all Frida’s. Even within the exhibit, there is much attention given to Diego’s political activities, and only a few brief mentions of Frida’s membership in Mexico’s communist party.

To say that Frida wasn’t political is a mistake; she was deeply political, and on a very personal level. The way she dressed was political, as was the way she behaved, not to mention her art. In a time when the Western culture and its concept of beauty was beginning to take over Mexico’s cultural landscape, Frida, in many ways, turned her back on it and embraced her Mexican of her heritage. She traded the European clothing of her childhood for traditional Spanish and Indigenous garb. She refused to alter her unibrow, and, in fact, accentuated it and her mustache in her self-portraits. She was known to be unfaithful to her (equally if not moreso unfaithful) husband, and took women as lovers. Perhaps most importantly, she painted and talked about things that no one had ever publicly discussed before: things like miscarriage, infertility, sexuality, violence against women and infidelity.

In many ways, she started conversations that we’re still having today.

Plus, how can you think someone is not political when they paint this on their own body cast?

Kahlo’s Body Cast with Hammer & Sickle and Fetus

I wish I could explain to you how and why I love Frida so much. I keep starting sentences and then deleting them; all the words I pick seem fumbling and wrong, the emotion either overwrought and clumsy or woefully lacking. Even the things that I’ve already written here seem stilted and lifeless, which is the opposite of what writing about Kahlo’s life should be.

I guess that the best thing that I could say would be this: Frida had a really hard fucking life, but instead of backing down, she took all of her pain and heartache and turned it into something beautiful. She lived and she worked and she loved and she challenged and she pushed and in the end, I think, she won.

***

Frida died of a pulmonary embolism in 1954, at the age of 47. I mean, 47. Fuck. She was so heartbreakingly young. Shortly before her death, she wrote the following in her diary:

I hope the exit is joyful — and I hope never to return — Frida”

I hope that wherever you are now, Frida, you are joyful. I hope that you’re finally free from pain. Most of all, I hope that Diego is there with you.*

Frida and Diego ofrendas

The exhibit closes with a pair of ofrenda depicting Frida and Diego. An ofrenda is a type of Mexican home altar, most often built for el Dia de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead). An ofrenda typically represents a dead family member, and is honoured by the living with traditional offerings of food and flowers. On October 24th, Mexican artist Carlomagno Pedro Martinez will construct an ofrenda in the gallery space; visitors on that day will be given art supplies and encouraged to contribute drawings and words to Martinez’s work. The installation (along with the entire exhibit) will be on display until January 20th, 2013.

*And that he’s, like, hanging out with you and not busy macking on angels or whatever (I am JUST SAYING, okay?)

p.s. In case you weren’t sure how I felt about Frida Kahlo in general, and this exhibit in particular, here is a visual aid for you: