May 19, 2008
Heroes locked under Plexiglas
As I mentioned in an earlier post, on Saturday I went to the Frida Kahlo exhibit at the Philadelphia Art Museum.
Now, while I happen to think Frida Kahlo's art is overrated as art and I abhor her and her husband's Stalinist politics, I still find her art interesting. While she is not (despite what anyone says) one of the leading artists of all time, her morbidly personal style and imaginatively warped sense of self-absorbed surrealism intrigue me. There are a couple of reviews here and here and it isn't the purpose of this post to get into detailed discussion of her art.
Besides, there's a well established Frida Kahlo cult, and you're either a Kahlo cultist or you're not. (Excellent reappraisal of Kahlo here.) I can take Kahlo or leave her, so I'm hardly a cultist. However, I do find her work far superior to that of her blowhard abusive husband Diego Rivera, whose crassly political Stalinistic murals I have always found dull and dreary.
Of all the Kahlo paintings, there was one that particularly drew my attention -- not merely because of the subject material but because of the way it was on display.
While the rest of the paintings were simply hanging on the walls with guards watching as you'd expect in a normal museum exhibit, one was encased in a heavy-duty plexiglas box which was bolted around it and firmly affixed to the wall. I don't think the primary concern was theft either. I think the curator feared vandalism.
To this painting:
(If interested, you can click to see a larger version.)
The painting (from 1945) is titled "Moses," and here's a brief description:
In the extraordinarily detailed painting Moses, 1945, the sun is presented as 'the centre of all religions'. The composition is divided into three registers, which consist of images of gods in the upper section and portraits of 'heroes' below, including Alexander the Great, Martin Luther, Napoleon and Hitler, whom she called 'the lost child'. At the bottom are the masses, and scenes relating to the process of evolution. The painting was inspired by an essay by Sigmund Freud that made a link between Ancient Egyptian beliefs, Moses and the origins of monotheistic religion. The infant Moses has been given the third eye of wisdom, a device Kahlo sometimes used in her portraits of Rivera.In the painting, both ancient and modern deities are depicted alongside those humans Kahlo considered to be the greatest heroes of mankind.
From her own description of the painting:
On the same earth, but painting their heads larger, to distinguish them from the "mass," the heroes are pictured (very few of them, but well chosen), the transformers of religions, the inventors and creators of these, the conquerors, the rebels.... To the right, and this figure I should have painted with much more importance than any other, Ahmenhotep IV can be seen, who was later called Akhenaten... Later Moses, who according to Freud's analysis, gave his adopted people the same religion as that of Akhenaten, a little altered according to the interests and circumstances of his time. After Christ, follow Alexander the Great, Caesar, Mohammed, Luther, Napoleon and ... "the lost infant", Hitler. To the left, marvelous Nefertiti, wife of Akhenaten, I imagine that besides having been extraordinarily beuatiful, she must have been " a wild one" and a most intelligent collaborator to her husband. Buddha, Marx, Freud, Paracelsus, Epicure [sic]. Genghis Khan, Gandhi, Lenin and Stalin.Here's a closeup of Kahlo's greatest heroes on the left.
(Top row, left to right: Epicurus, Freud, Paracelsus, Marx, Nefertiti; Bottom row, left to right: Stalin, Lenin, Ghandi, Genghis Khan, Buddha).
And the greatest heroes on the right.
(Top row, left to right: Akhenaten, Jehovah, Jesus Christ, Zoroaster; Bottom row, left to right: Alexander the Great, Caesar, Mohammed, Luther, Napoleon, and Hitler).
Of all the subjects in the painting, which one would so worry the curator that he felt the need to put it behind a protective encasement?
I don't think that takes much imagination. All of these subjects have been painted in many times and places by many artists, but the only one I can think of who would generate such paranoia on the part of a museum curator is Muhammad. Frankly, I don't blame the curator. Nuts do vandalize paintings from time to time, but the kind of people who would want to erase the image of Muhammad are not your garden variety schizophrenics. They're more likely to be serious and determined people who believe they are on the side of God.
Perhaps it isn't accurate to be lumping them in with nuts. Perhaps it is. Some might consider it a form of denial to dismiss violently determined religious people as "crazy." (Certainly the violent and determined people themselves wouldn't want to be called crazy.)
But whatever they are, the problem is not one that's going away. No avant-garde artist today would dare include an image of Muhammad in any painting. No museum would show it, and few galleries would display it. I realize that many, many artists, in both the Western as well as Eastern traditions (including my favorite, Salvador Dali) have portrayed Muhammad, and I know that a bas relief sculpture of him is still on the Supreme Court building (although Muslim activists want it sandblasted off). But would any museum dare to do an exhibition of Muhammad images in the history of art? Would any gallery display a Muhammad collection? I think not, and I don't think calling them "cowards" ends the inquiry.
For starters, they wouldn't be able to get insurance for the event. Police departments would warn them of violence, and would suggest the events not be held. Various bureaucracies would chime in, and demands would be issued by activist organizations.
In this context, exhibiting the Kahlo painting behind plexiglas has to be seen as an act of courage.
UPDATE: I appreciate the comments! Little did the pain-wracked Frida Kahlo know that what she was painting in 1945 would become such a masterpiece of moral equivalency.
posted by Eric on 05.19.08 at 06:00 PM
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