Another Open Letter to the AGO

Dear AGO,
Every morning on my way to work, I pass a poster advertising your current exhibit, “Frida and Diego: Passion, Politics and Painting.” Now, I’m an art lover. So you would think I would be excited that I get to stroll past your art images each morning. You would think your posters would inspire me to walk a few extra blocks from my workplace to check out your exhibit on my lunch-break. But, in fact, each time I pass this poster, I find myself less inspired than angry. The poster reads: “She painted a diary of her life. He painted a diary of Mexico.”

So far I’ve been venting my frustration in private, with friends, but Sarah Mortimer’s post at The Shameless Blog about your use of Frida unibrows in your publicity campaign has made me realize how insidiously deep the disrespect of women artists here runs.

It’s been years since I’ve heard someone make the old mistake of thinking the personal isn’t political, or domesticating women’s work to the private sphere while elevating men’s work to the public.

So let me be really clear – Both Frida and Diego painted a diary of their life. And both Frida and Diego painted a diary of Mexico. Each simply told those two stories by imaging different subject matters. But last time I checked, no one really thought art needed to be so literal to communicate something true.

Yes, Diego’s most famous works were large-scale and explicitly historic and political in their subject matter. In a somewhat antiquated aesthetic understanding – one that holds to a hierarchy of subject matters that has long been abolished (and abolished, largely, before and during Diego’s career and Frida’s childhood) – such historic and political subject matters would have been seen as the height of what could communicate a social world.

So if we’re judging (and publicizing) Frida’s and Diego’s work according to an antiquated aesthetic regime, then yes, I suppose he painted a diary of Mexico, a broad and complex social world, and she – as a painter most famous for her self-portraits, a subject matter much lower on that old hierarchy of subjects – painted a diary of her life.

But why would we interpret their work through an aesthetic understanding we’ve long abandoned?

Over a hundred years ago, the Impressionists taught us that portraiture can communicate a vast social world. Portraiture can tell a story about art itself. I can’t imagine you would publicize a collection of Van Gogh’s self-portraits as a diary of his life or, going back even further, a collection of Rembrandt’s?

For much too long, Frida’s work was dismissed as primitive, naive, personal and subjective. Diego was the important painter – the painter of Mexico. Frida was simply his wife, a quaint little painter of her self.

But now we know that she was using her story to tell much larger stories than her own. She painted a gendered diary – one that challenged our understanding of female beauty, one that played with the contrast between women as the subjects of art and women as the creators of art. Where would Cindy Sherman be without Frida Kahlo? Like the Impressionists – male and female – she challenged our understanding of what even constitutes art. And in so doing, she told a story about art itself – its limits and its possibilities. But she didn’t just tell a story about art as something personal or general – she told a national story about art as Mexican too. Not just via subject matter, but via form, medium, style, and even the canvas size, her works communicate a complex narrative of Mexican identity, Mexican art, Mexican history and Mexican politics.

She may have painted her own body, but she did so with a diary of Mexico tattooed onto it.

And even if you wanted to argue, dear AGO, that Diego’s subject matter remains more historical and political than Frida’s (although, given that the hierarchy required to uphold such an argument is undone, I’m not sure where that would get you), then surely you would need to concede that even when painting such historical scenes, Diego did so from a particular, unique perspective. As much as he was painting history, he was painting himself.

But Diego’s enduring influence has happened not through his subject matter so much as his medium – like Frida’s portraits, Diego’s murals opened up new media and new forms. They challenged our understanding of the relationship between art and public space. They didn’t just tell a story; they told a story in a new way that would change how we would tell a story.

And so what has made Diego enduring is precisely what has made Frida enduring – their ability to mix the personal with the political, their ability to change the way we see the world, and their ability to communicate something that transcends themselves.

In the end, the only reason why I can surmise you would interpret Frida’s work as a diary of her life and Diego’s as a diary of Mexico is because you’ve bought into perpetuating gender stereotypes that domesticate women to the private sphere and elevate men to the political. In other words, you’ve bought into a patriarchal regime that interprets the world to minimize women’s work and valorize men’s.

Every time I walk past that poster, I find myself wanting to shout the feminist mantra – the personal IS political! As a woman, I am offended by its false juxtaposition. As an art lover, I am confused by the antiquated aesthetic misunderstanding.

With hope that your next publicity campaign will be much less sexist,

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One response to “Another Open Letter to the AGO

  1. Siobhán Garrigan

    Terrific. Thank you. It makes me wonder if perhaps the fact she was so attuned to the plight of the indigenous of her country (and discussed it in her attire, her paintings and her words) might also be why she’s not seen as concerned with the “proper” politics or history of Mexico.

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