Sunday, January 05, 2014

Frida auf Erden

My mother and I went today to a very interesting exhibition. For the first time, all of Frida Kahlo's paintings on display in the same place! A miracle? Better. Nothing on show was painted by Kahlo herself. But all of them were painted. It's an exhibition not of copies but of replicas: not just photographs or 3-D prints, and not from some copy factory in China but the inspired work of "master painters" - tho', interestingly, Chinese ones. To add to the international wonder of it, this is the collection of a private museum in Baden Baden (where Frida's father came from), one of whose two corporate entrepreneur curators, an Italian-Swiss polyglot, has lived in Beijing for a decade. The collection was brought to San Diego by a LA-based promoter whose past successes include exhibitions of replicas of King Tut's tomb and original and recreated sets and costumes from "Star Trek" and "Titanic."

What to say? The exhibition's arrival in San Diego in October - "American premiere!" - was complicated by promotional materials that didn't mention that all the works were replicas, something it's a little hard to believe was an oversight (as was claimed). But I knew they were replicas - it's one of the reasons why I went. Kahlo's not one of my faves, but her almost oppressively self-referential works seemed a perfect test for the need for what Walter Benjamin called "aura" in art: how much would it bother me to encounter her work through replicas? If Kahlo at a remove didn't bother me much, "The Complete Frida Kahlo" might be what it hopes to be - the prototype for a whole new kind of art exhibit. (And yes, it would be cool to have been there at its start!) My other reason for going was the Chinese connection: how did that come to pass?
The exhibition's rationale is interesting. Seeing all the works of an artist (together with photographs and objects from her life, the latter all replicas, too) offers you insights into the oeuvre you can't get any other way. Since much of Kahlo's work is inaccessible (and the pieces in Mexico City aren't allowed to leave the country), the only way such an exhibition could happen would be through replicas. The first premise makes sense to me - it's the thinking behind exhaustive picture books, too - and the second seems valid, too. If picture books are OK, why not an exhibit (assuming that you could get truly effective replicas)? I've actually long thought it a shame that famous works of art can only be seen by country-hopping tourists and rich students of art history.
In this exhibition I did see works I never knew existed - many more self-portraits but also portraits of other people, still lives, etc. - and got a sense of Kahlo's finding her style over time. Did it help that these were painted replicas? I appreciated being able to see the works in actual size, to sense the difference between works on canvas, on masonite, on metal, etc., and when I noticed differences of brushwork I credited them to Kahlo, too. (I do not know enough of painting to sense the difference, as one critic did, between the four Chinese painters.) I don't think I ever forgot that these were replicas, but I did soon stop doubting if I was really encountering Kahlo's work. Am I willing to go as far as one visitor to the Baden Baden museum, who wrote on TripAdvisor

Die Bilder sind Repliken aber meine Gefühle sind ORIGINAL UND ECHT 
(The paintings are replicas but my feelings are ORIGINAL AND TRUE)

I could imagine that Frida lovers might feel the whole exhibition to be a travesty, indeed a profound violation, but one person's desecration may be another's act of reverencce. Many Frida lovers - who, of course, know her primarily through reproductions - have apparently felt her presence in the exhibit. Frida Kahlo's face is, in fact, so much reproduced that back when I taught my course on the meaning of saints, I encouraged students to reflect on the talismanic work of reproductions, teeshirts, fridge magnets and mugs of Frida (along with, of course, Ché Guevara!). Frida is undoubtedly more than just a painter to her devotés. The poster doesn't even show a painting, but a photograph of the artist (below).
We had the chance to talk to each of the two curators (they evidently spend a lot of time with their collection), and there can be no question that they are bona fide Frida lovers, too. While they might stand to make a buck off her now, I don't think their 30-year love of her work had this end in mind. Indeed, I sense that they will spend a lot of time with visitors to the exhibit wherever it goes, as they did with visitors to the museum, sharing the love. The disdain of some critics and the anger of museums confuses and ultimately bemuses them. (They've been able to do an end run around the museums because Frida left her work to Diego Rivera, who left it to the Mexican people, who continue to be the intellectual copyright owners of all her work - and who, after some courting, gave them authorization to commission and display "replicas.")

There's still something confusing to me about the whole thing, though. It's the work the "replicas" are supposed to be doing - work thought to be qualitatively different from what mere reproductions would do. I think it has something to do with "aura" after all: while this is the era of mechanical reproducibility, the "replicas" are touted as "original," "authentic," "one of a kind" works of art: while not Frida's work, they have the aura of being the work of "master painters" - true artists from the renowned arts village Songzhuang, not just copyists. But is aura transferable, or re-inhabitable like this? What would that even mean? (But see below for why you might want it to be possible.) It still jars that the painters are unnamed; the curators claim they wanted to acknowledge them, but these artists, not wanting to be mistaken for mere copy artists, preferred to go unnamed - just a little too convenient, that, even if the story is true!

I don't want to be naive. The intentions of the curators, even if they were purest homage, wouldn't tell us all we need to know. The purposes of the promoter Global Entertainment Properties 1 LLC - which appears to have bought the entire collection from the curators - are clearly commercial; their earlier exhibits didn't offer artist-made replicas but scientifically supervised ones. I don't want art museums and artists to be shut out of the art economy - or is that just nostalgia for a world well lost, well, in any case lost? And is it a bad thing to be facilitating "ORIGINAL AND TRUE" feelings in this unconventional way?

Somehow the China connection feels important to me - and not because I'm suspicious of "made in China." Chinese culture apparently honors the capacity to execute a convincing replica (a big part of traditional arts training in many cultures, of course). It's also in a moment, I imagine, where people are grateful such skills exist, as so much of its own cultural patrimony was destroyed in the cultural revolution, and much is being recreated as we speak. As I sensed already in Shangrila's rebuilt Tibetan monastery Songzanlin last year, fetishization of "authentic" "originals" may just be unhelpful in the context of a history of traumatic loss and recovery. I wonder how much these sorts of considerations affected our curators,as they hobnobbed with artists and businesspeople in Beijing, leading them to conceive of this transgressively unprecedented kind of project. I might look them up in Beijing!

Enough. A word about the images here (from here and here). The replica of the famous "Two Fridas" painting, apparently the first one the curators persuaded/dared a Chinese artist acquaintance to try to replicate. Three scenes from the exhibit - in the first two, replicas of things Kahlo wore in adjacent painting replicas somehow cheapen the experience; in the third, two paintings credited to a specific Chinese artist, the larger an enlargement of a photograph, something he was apparently famous for during the cultural revolution (the face isn't quite right). A famous photo of Kahlo by her last lover, an original. The end of the exhibit, including a replica of a late self-portrait with a portrait of Stalin (when I asked if Kahlo's a concept in China the answer was yes, yes - she had three Mao portraits in her bedroom!); on an easel next to a recreation of her painting studio, a replica of Kahlo's last painting with the words VIVA LA VIDA, as if she's just stepped out of the room.

1 comment:

Hj gehrke said...

Thank you for your visit and this fair review. Best regards also to your mother.
Hans-Juergen Gehrke