Saturday, April 19, 2008

Two Women in Philadelphia

In the past couple months, I've seen two separate shows in Philadelphia that were retrospectives of individual women artists: Cecilia Beaux at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and Frida Kahlo at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Until my drive home yesterday, I really hadn't thought about what the shows had in common, and what made them appealing to me as a visitor.

Cecilia Beaux (1855-1942) was Philadelphia born and trained (at the Academy) and her extensive body of portrait work reflects her own social sphere--which included a number of notable women making their way in academics and the arts. The exhibit was simply installed, and the labels for individual labels did a great job at setting the story of both Beaux's work and the way in which the life of the sitter fit within Beaux's own life. The museum was not very crowded, so it was a real chance to see and contemplate the work. The museum had also produced a very simple xeroxed family guide that encouraged family visitors to look for "clues" and meaning in individual paintings. I didn't see families using it, but I liked it enough to bring home to save as an example.

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), of course, is an icon, and the show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art reflects that iconic status. It was expensive to see (enough that I became a member as I go to Philadelphia on a fairly regular basis) and it does seem to me that if you purchase a timed ticket than you shouldn't have to spend almost 45 minutes in line. The audio tour is free, and gallery attendants drape it around you--sort of a benediction as you enter. I loved the colors of the exhibit and it was wonderful to enter through the first several rooms that were photographic images of Kahlo, Diego Rivera and their lives together. It made her a real person--and served as the prologue for her work of creating herself as an iconic, complicated figure in her work.

I appreciated the way that the labels (I'm not much of an audio tour person--I find that when everyone uses the audio tours, conversation declines in exhibitions) really helped understand the circumstances under which she created the work, and the many symbols and cultural practices that she drew upon. Just a few things I didn't like--I always wish that, for a show like this, you didn't have to shuffle around, looking over shoulders to see both work and labels. At the Rijksmuseum, main labels are installed large and very high up, so you can see them, even when there is a crowd in the room. That would have been nice here. Individual object labels were well-written and interesting, but too small to see in a crowd. Importantly, materials were also available in Spanish. And why does a male British voice have to do the audio tour narration? Is that the voice of curatorial authority? (okay, I just checked and it is the voice of curatorial authority, one of the exhibit's curators, Michael Taylor--hear his podcast about the exhibition here)

Even though Beaux's work feels very cool, and Kahlo's very hot, they share the common denominators of concern with the human condition and the fierce, driving urge to create, to be an artist.

The Frida Kahlo show is at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through May 18 and will travel to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art this summer. The Cecilia Beaux show has already ended.

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