Frida Kahlo – Part 3

The Broken Column by Frida Kahlo (1944)

My blog today is the third part of the biography of the Mexican Surrealist artist, Frida Kahlo.  My first look at her life and her paintings concentrated on her parents and ancestors and the second one followed her from birth to her high school days.  Today I am looking at the middle part of her life once her school days were behind her.   In my last blog I talked about the two most important men in her life at that time, her father and her first lover, Alejandro.   Her love affair with her fellow student Alejandro Gómez Arias had run its course and ended after three years in late 1927.

In truth, there were actually three main men in Frida Kahlo’s life and although she had seen this third one when she started at the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria school in 1922, she had not been introduced to him.  Mexican Muralism, which was the promotion of mural painting, began in the early 1920s.  The murals more often or not contained social and political messages.  The reason for this was the desire of the country to try and reunify the population after the bloody Mexican Revolution with its one million death toll.  Three painters were chosen by the government to lead the operation to paint these “murals with messages” in public buildings, churches, libraries and schools and one of them was Diego Rivera.  In 1922, Diego Rivera began painting his mural “Creation” at the school’s lecture hall of Frida’s school.  Frida was fascinated by Rivera’s work and would often stop and watch him create his mural.  The bus crash followed in 1925 which devastated Frida’s life and all her dreams of studying medicine evaporated.

By 1928, Frida had almost completely recovered from her serious injuries although the physical pain would remain with her for the rest of her life as well as the numerous on-going operations which would follow.  However she was a fighter and tried as best she could to once again lead a normal life.  She started to mix again with her old school friends who had all now graduated.   It was one of these friends that introduced her to a group of young people who were interested in the Cuban Communist Julio Antonio Mella, who at the time was in exile in Mexico.    One of the members of this group was the photographer and silent film star Tina Modotti, who was the lover of Mella and also an acquaintance of Diego Rivera.   It was whilst at a party hosted by Modotti that Frida finally met Diego Rivera face-to-face for the first time although they never spoke to each other.  Days later she was introduced to Diego Rivera, the man, who six years earlier, she had watched painting a mural at the amphitheatre of her school.   She showed him some of her paintings and asks his opinion about the standard of her work.  Rivera was impressed and told her so and it is at this point that Frida decided to take up art as a career.   Rivera was not only impressed by Frida’s art but he was also very impressed with the woman herself and started to go out with her.  Rivera approached Frida’s father, Guillermo Kahlo, and asked his permission to marry his daughter.   His father was reputed to have warned Rivera about his daughter, saying:

“My daughter is sick and always will be….she’s intelligent but not pretty…I see that you are interested in my daughter…eh..?

When Rivera replied that he was, Kahlo said,

She is a devil”.

Frida Kahl;o and Diego Rivera
(wedding photograph, 1929)

After a whirlwind romance Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo married in a civil ceremony in the town hall of Frida’s home town, Coyoacán, on August 21st 1929.  For Rivera, Frida had become his third wife.  They made for an odd couple.  Frida was twenty-two years of age, slim, of medium height, weighing a mere 98 pounds whereas her forty-two year old husband was over six feet tall, obese in the extreme, weighing in at 300 pounds.  As far as Frida’s mother was concerned this was not a marriage made in heaven and saw only the worst in Frida’s husband.  According Frida’s mother, Matilde, who was a staunch Catholic, Rivera was too old, too fat and to make things even worse in her mind, he was a Communist and a proclaimed atheist.  She did not attend the wedding ceremony.  She described it as:

“… the marriage between an elephant and a dove…

 Frida’s father on the other hand did attend and was not as damning in his opinion of his new son-in-law as he was well aware that Rivera was financially sound and could pay Frida’s medical bills.  Many of Frida’s friends were horrified by her choice of husband for reasons of his age and his appearance but some realised that by marrying him, Frida could get a foothold in the Mexican and American art world.

More heartbreak followed for Frida with two terminations of pregnancy due to complications which occurred through the physical injuries caused by the bus crash.  The fact that Frida had actually survived was almost a miracle. However, part of her injuries were caused by a steel handrail of the bus which had literally skewered her body in the abdomen and out the vagina. She never had a day without pain because these severe injuries never fully healed.

Whilst Frida was saddened by the terminations, Rivera was relieved as he never wanted children as he believed they would hamper his career and the travelling required carrying out various commissions.   In 1930 Frida and Rivera travelled to America where they remained for three years.  The American public became fascinated with the Mexican cultural development since the revolution and especially interested in Mexican Muralism of which Rivera was a leading proponent.  The couple settled in San Francisco and Rivera was idolized by the elite of the city and commissions for his work poured in.  Unfortunately for Frida, it was Rivera’s work which was in demand and it was he alone who achieved a God-like persona whereas she was looked upon as simply an “add-on”

There can be no doubt as to the amount of physical pain she had to endure following the bus crash and this was highlighted by the self portrait she completed in 1944 entitled The Broken Column which is today’s featured work  It was in 1944, ten years before her death, that her physical decline became more life-threatening. She has to endure painful spinal taps and was confined in a series of corsets and for her last ten years had to suffer many severe and painful operations on her back and leg.  Her physical and mental wellbeing was almost tested to breaking point at this time in her life and this can be seen encapsulated in this very moving self portrait.

Look how the silent tears cascade down her cheeks, the sharp metal nails puncturing her body all form part of her pain and we wonder how she had managed to endure it.  She stands alone in a desolate wasteland without any sign of hope on the horizon. This is a depressing self image but Kahlo’s fortitude courageously prevails in this barren landscape of despair.

I think this painting also gives one an idea of the mental suffering the accident had also caused Frida.   In the painting we see her with her nude torso surrounded by a brutal body cast which holds her broken body together.  Her spinal column is represented by a stone column which is broken in several places.  The mental torment of the young women can be seen by the way she portrays herself, not as a beautiful woman but as an ugly person with her joined eyebrows.   Could it be that this self-portrait highlights a sort of double life she had to endure – outwardly proud but inwardly broken.  In Helga Prignitz-Poda’s 2004 biography on Frida Kahlo entitled Frida Kahlo: The painter and her work she quotes the artist’s own comments with regards the painting.  Frida said of it:

“…Waiting with anguish hidden away, the broken column, and the immense glance, footless through the vast path … carrying on my life enclosed in steel … If only I had his caresses upon me as the air touches the earth…”

It is a harrowing painting.  One is mesmerised by it.  We can feel her distress and pain as she sorrowfully stares out at us.  The physical pain we can understand but the mental pain associated with her illnesses, her accident and the turbulent life she had with Diego Rivera are a little harder to contemplate.

In my next blog I will conclude the look at Frida Kahlo’s life.

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Frida Kahlo – Part 2

In my last blog I started to look at the life of Frida Kahlo, the great Mexican surrealist painter and had reached a point where Frida was born on July 6th 1907 and was living in Coyocoán, the small town on the outskirts of Mexico City with her father Guillermo and her mother Matilde.  They lived at La Casa Azul, the house the father had built for the family and in which Frida was born.   Today I am carrying on with her life story and taking a look at two men who had a great effect on her life, her father and her first true love.

Frida’s father had arrived in Mexico in 1891 aged nineteen and had managed to get some work at a jewellery store in Mexico City.  He had married in 1895 but was widowed three years later.  He married for the second time in 1898.  His second wife, Matilde, was his co-worker.  Matilde was a devout catholic and was the oldest of twelve children.  Matilde’s father was a photographer and it was through him that Guillermo took up photography and in 1901 he opened up a photography studio and made photography his full time profession.  He received a number of government commissions and his business thrived until 1910 when the Mexican Revolution began and the government fell.  For the duration of the turmoil, which lasted ten years, Guillermo and his family struggled to survive financially and it was not until the late 1920’s that his photographic work was once again appreciated and money from commissions started to roll back in.   Frida often spoke of the relationship between her mother and father.    She said that her mother did not love her father and she said her mother had told her that she only married Guillermo because he was German and he reminded her of a previous young German lover, Luis Bauer, who had committed suicide in her presence. Frida recounted how her mother secretly grieved her whole life for her first love and the manner of his death was to haunt her all her life.

It is believed that her mother’s fanatical and obsessive piety may have hampered the likelihood of a close mother-daughter relationship.  Frrida was close to her father.  It was through her father’s love of photography, painting and other creative interests that would later influence his daughter and it was this shared interest that probably made Frida become closer to her father than her mother.     Later, Frida wrote in her diary that her father was the only one who understood all her problems.  Her father who suffered from epileptic fits all his life was also prone to bouts of depression and his daughter described him as “a kind of fearful mystery”.  Throughout her life, Frida kept a photograph of him pinned to the headboard of her bed.   In a diary entry she wrote about her father and her relationship with him:

“My childhood was marvelous because, although my father was a sick man [he had epilepsy], he was an immense example to me of tenderness, of work (photographer and also painter)….”

Portrait of My Father by Frida Kahlo (1951)

In 1951, ten years after his death, Frida completed a painting of her father simply entitled Portrait of My Father.  It is an oil on masonite work and is housed in the Museo Frida Kahlo in Mexico City.

Under the portrait are the words:

“…I painted my father Wilhelm Kahlo, of Hungarian-German origin, artist-photographer by profession, in character generous, intelligent and fine, valiant because he suffered for sixty years with epilepsy, but never gave up working and fought against Hitler, with adoration. His daughter Frida Kahlo…”

Guillermo died of a heart attack in 1941.   Frida then aged thirty-four, was devastated and at the time she wrote:

“…The death of my father was something terrible for me. I think that it’s owing to this that I became much less well and I grew rather thin again. You remember how handsome he was and how good?…”

Around the age of 6, Frida contracted polio, which caused her to be bedridden for nine months. Although she did recover from the illness, she limped when she walked because the disease had damaged her right leg and foot. In order to help her recover, her father encouraged her to play soccer, go swimming, and even wrestle, which were highly unusual pastimes for a young girl of her age.  Her right leg was slightly withered and later in life, being conscious of this she would hide her legs under long flowing colourful skirts or trousers.

It was a time of violent turmoil in Mexico during the Mexican Revolution which had started in 1910 and was to last for ten years.  The young Frida witnessed the violence of the street fighting throughout that period.   She was a great supporter of the Mexican Revolution and would, later in life, give the date of her birth as July 7th 1910 to coincide with the start of the revolutionary struggle or maybe she was just reducing her age by three years !!!.   Frida attended classes at a German elementary school, Colegio Aleman in Mexico City and had to put up with taunts from her classmates about her pronounced limp.  In 1922, aged fifteen, having completed her primary education, she was enrolled in one of the top schools of the country, the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria,  where she studied natural sciences and it was hoped that eventually she would achieve good enough grades to go on to study medicine.   The decision to send Frida to this type of educational establishment was solely made by her father who wanted the best education money could buy for his daughter.   Frida’s mother was vehemently opposed to the decision on the basis that the school, which was a one hour bus ride from home, was too far to travel each day and she saw no point in her daughter receiving such an education as she had already taught her daughter to cook and sew.   It should be remembered that Frida’s mother was one of twelve children and because of the size of the family received no formal education and probably saw no need for her daughters to receive a high standard of teaching.

At this point in her life Frida still had no wish to become a professional artist as she still had her heart set on becoming a doctor.  She was one of only a few girls to attend this school and she was known for her high spirits and the colourful way in which she dressed.  While at school, Kahlo hung out with a group of politically and intellectually like-minded students and becomes a member of their group known as “Los Cachuchas“, a socialist-nationalist political group.  The leader of this group was a law student, Alejandro Gómez Arias, who later became Frida’s boyfriend and lover.  He was to be her first true and enduring love.  The couple were almost inseparable.  During the next few years, Frida helped her father in his photography studio and it is during these times that he teaches her how to use a camera and how to develop, retouch and colour photographs.  Frida is taken on as a paid apprentice by the commercial printmaker Fernando Fernandez who was a close friend of Guillermo Kahlo and it was he who taught Frida to draw and how to copy prints by the Swedish Impressionist Anders Zorn

The year 1925 saw  Frida in her final school year and plans had been drawn up for her to attend a medical school but Frida’s life was about to take a tragic twist as on September 17th, a rainy day, whilst the eighteen year old Frida and Alejandro were taking a bus journey home from school, the bus they were riding in was in collision with a trolley car.  Alejandro was lucky not to be seriously injured but Frida sustained major injuries including a broken spinal column, broken collarbone, ribs and pelvis and multiple fractures to her right leg and was almost left for dead had Alejandro not persuaded the doctors at the Red Cross Hospital, where they had been taken, to attend his badly injured girlfriend.  Subsequently her life was saved but she was hospitalised in the Mexican capital for several weeks.  From there she returned home to rest and recuperate and was confined to bed for several months.   It was during this convalescent period, with encouragement from her father, who was besides being a photographer, an amateur painter, that Frida started to take an interest in painting.

While recovering from the accident, Frida wrote numerous letters to Alejandro.  She would talk about the pain she was in and how she was becoming depressed and wondered what would happen to her in the future.  In one letter to him she wrote:

 “…what is going to happen in 30 years how am I going to be when I am 30…”

Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress by Frida Kahlo (1926)

In 1926, her relationship with Alejandro was beginning to hit problems as he had heard rumours that Frida had been unfaithful prior to the accident.  Frida denied that she had been unfaithful to him and in a desperate attempt to salvage their relationship she painted a self-portrait, entitled Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress and gave it to him as a gift.  In some ways the painting was to be a substitute for her as she still could not physically be with him and the couple had drifted apart.  She sent it to Alejandro in late September. On the reverse side of the painting she inscribed a dedication:

“…For Alex. Frida Kahlo, at the age of 17, September 1926 – Coyoacan -Heute ist Immer Noch…” (Today still goes on).

One cannot help but notice the elongated neck and fingers which leads us to believe that Frida was aware of the European Mannerist style of art.

The following year Alejandro, funded by his parents went on a tour of Europe with his uncle.   His parents had never liked Frida and believed by sending him abroad it would finally end his relationship with her.   Before he left for Europe he gave the painting back to Frida for her to keep safe.  They wrote to each other whilst he was on tour and eight months later he returned to Mexico but the long separation had been the death knell to their relationship and it was soon over.

Portrait of Alejandro Gomez Arias by Frida Kahlo (1928)

In 1928 Frida Kahlo completed a portrait of Alejandro, entitled Portrait of Alejandro Gomez Arias and in the top right of the painting are the words:

“…Alex, with affection I painted your portrait, that he is one of my comrades forever, Frida Kahlo, 30 years later…”

This painting disappeared and was thought to have been lost but it resurfaced in 1994.  However what is interesting about this work was whilst being exhibited at the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City in 2007 it was seen by Rachel Tibol, a well known Mexican art critic and author of several Kahlo books.  She was unequivocal in stating that the painting she was looking at was a fake!  Its authenticity is currently being investigated.

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Frida Kahlo – Part One

There has been a much longer period since my last blog than I would have liked or I had intended.  I could simply explain that the reason for the delay being down to how busy I am with my Bed and Breakfast business, which is true, but there is another reason.  My blogs, as you know, take the form of an artist’s biography or the biography of the sitter and the painting itself.  The problem arises when I get sucked into the life of the artist or sitter.  The more I read of their life story, the more I delve further into their personal life and time soon passes.  Then of course I have to decide what to leave out to make the blog more manageable.  The problem with reading from so many sources is that they do not always agree on dates so I have had to make educated guesses in some cases as which of the sources is correct.  Sometimes the life story of the artist is so fascinating and so all-consuming, as is the case of today’s artist, I just don’t want to edit out any of the details and so have to run with the artist over a number of blogs.  My featured artist today is the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo.  Her life was controversial, traumatic and often full of sadness and as I recount her fascinating life story in the next few blogs, I will look at a couple of her paintings.  Today I want to focus on her arrival into this world, her family and her ancestors.

Frida was born Magdalena Carmen Frieda Kahlo y Calderón on July 6, 1907 at the family home, La Casa Azul (The Blue House) that was built in 1904 by her father in Coyocoán, a small town on the outskirts of Mexico City.   She was later to change the German spelling of her Christian name from Frieda to Frida.

Her paternal grandparents, Jakob Heinrich Kahlo, who owned a jewellery shop, and Henriette Kahlo (née Kaufmann) were European Jews who originally came from Arad, which was formerly part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire but which is now part of Romania.  Much has been written about this assertion by Frida Kahlo that she has Jewish ancestry.   However, the Jewish family connection and ancestry has been contested a number of times.  In a 2006 newspaper an article by Meir Ronnen in the Jerusalem Post cast doubt on the authenticity of the Jewish claim.   In a book published in 2005 by Gaby Franger and Rainer Huhle, about the photography of Frida’s father entitled Fridas Vater: Der Fotograf Guillermo Kahlo they dispute Frida’s assertion of her Jewish ancestry, agreeing that her father was born in Germany but that he came from a long line of German Lutherans and they reasoned that Frida’s story of Jewish heritage was so that she could disassociate herself from the German Nazis during World War II.

In 1860 the family moved to Germany.   Frida’s father, Wilhelm Kahlo, was born in Baden- Baden in October 1871 and was the eldest of four children.  After early schooling, he attended the University of Nuremburg, however the onset of epileptic seizures cut short his academic studies.   In 1890 Frida’s paternal grandmother Henriette died and her paternal grandfather married Ludowika Karolina Rahm.  Frida’s father Wilhelm did not get on well with his stepmother and with financial help from his father he decided to leave the family home and leave Germany altogether.   The following year, 1891, Frida’s father who was just nineteen year old, set sail from Hamburg on the freighter Borussia bound for Vera Cruz, Mexico.   His complete change of lifestyle included changing his forename name from the Germanic Wilhelm to the Spanish Guillermo although throughout his life he never lost his Germanic ancestry as he always spoke with a heavy German accent and Frida referred to him in mock formality as “Herr Kahlo”.  He soon found work in the up-market Diener Brothers jewellery store in the city, probably through his German/Jewish jeweller connections.

Guillermo married his first wife Maria Cardena in 1895 and the couple had three daughters but sadly the middle girl survived only a few days after her birth.   Maria Luisa, born in 1894, was the eldest and Margarita the youngest.   The marriage ended tragically in 1898 when his wife died during the birth of their third child, Margarita.  The night his wife died he sought help and comfort from his co-worker at the jewellery store, Matilde Calderón and her mother, Isabel, both of whom came to his house to offer their support.  Matilde Calderón y Gonzalez was a woman of Spanish and Mexican-Indian descent.  Her mother was a Spanish Catholic and her father was a native Mexican Indian.  Guillermo now faced having to bring up a four year old girl and a baby alone and he did not keep the best of health as throughout his life as he continued to suffer from bouts of epilepsy.  Whether it was because he knew he would be unable to cope alone bringing up his two young daughters, whether he wanted to avoid loneliness or whether, according to Raquel Tibol in her 1983 biography, Frida Kahlo: an Open Life, we should believe Frida when she says her father and mother simply fell in love.  Whatever his reason was, he soon proposed to Frida’s mother, Matilde Calderón, and they were married later that year.  Matilde was twenty-two years of age and Guillermo twenty-seven years of age when they got married.   The couple went on to have four daughters of which Frida was the third.  She had two older sisters, Matilde born in 1899 and Adriana born in 1902, and one younger sister, Cristina, who was born in 1908.

My Grandparents, My Parents and I (Family Tree) by Frida Kahlo (1936)

The reason I gave you that detailed family tree was as an accompaniment to the very unusual painting I am featuring today, which Frida Kahlo completed in 1936 entitled My Grandparents, My Parents and I (Family Tree).

Frida described the work:

“….Me in the middle of this house, when I was about two years old. The whole house is in perspective as I remember it. On top of the house in the clouds are my father and mother when they were married (portraits taken from photographs). The ribbon about me and my mother’s waist becomes an umbilical cord and I become a foetus.  On the right, the paternal grandparents, on the left the maternal grandparents.  A ribbon circles all the group — symbolic of the family relation. The German grandparents are symbolized by the sea, the Mexican by the earth…”

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The Stonebreakers by Gustave Courbet

The Stone Breakers by Gustave Courbet (1849)

For my third look at Realism art and Social Realism art I am going back to the land of its inception, France.   The emergence of this form of art came about in France around 1848, the year King Louis-Philippe lost the French crown and was replaced by Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, who became President of the French Second Republic.  The monarchy had gone, even if it was just for a few years, as Louis-Napoleon had himself crowned Napoleon III.  With the change of ruler came the promise of greater democracy. The French people were excited with the change and were now baying for this pledged greater democracy under the new regime.  Realism in art also arrived with the Realist artists who democratised their art by depicting in their paintings subjects from everyday lives of the working class.   These painters rejected what had gone before them.  They neither wanted to paint idealized pictures, which had no bearing on reality but was what was being taught and expected from the students at the École des Beaux-Arts, the state-sponsored art academy and exhibited at the official Salons, nor did they want to carry on with the exotic themes of Romanticism.

For these Realist artists, they wanted their paintings to be a direct reflection on modern life.  The great French painter and leading proponent of Realism art, Gustave Courbet, described what art should be, saying:

 

“…painting is an essentially concrete art and can only consist in the representation of real and existing things..,”

Gustave Courbet is my featured artist today and I wanted to look at his painting The Stonebreakers.  Sadly it no longer exists as it was destroyed by Allied bombing on a transport convoy in February 1945, whilst it was being transported to the Königstein Castle, near Dresden, for safe keeping along with 154 other paintings.   When The Stonebreakers was exhibited in Paris at the Salon of 1850, it was attacked as un-artistic, crude, and socialistic, so let us look at why this view was taken by the critics.

Courbet wanted to depict the lifestyle of working class people in his paintings.  However, he wanted to depart from the idealized depiction of these poor farm workers and peasants who in the past had always been depicted smiling happily as they got on with the most arduous and often dangerous jobs, for little remuneration.   The problem of course with this artistic style was although it appealed to people who sympathised with the lot of the working class, the buyers of art were often the rich and upper classes, who through association were the very people who treated their workers badly.   His Realism art works were looked upon as being anti-authoritarian and politically threatening.  When he put forward two of his large paintings A Burial at Ornans and The Painter’s Studio for inclusion in the 1855 Salon, the Salon jurists rejected them. Courbet was so angered by the jurists’ decision that he withdrew his eleven accepted submissions and displayed the paintings privately in his Pavillon du Réalisme, not far from the official international exhibition.   In his exhibition catalogue, which described his works, he wrote an introduction which, in essence, was a Realist manifesto.  He stated:

“…his goal as an artist was to translate the customs, the ideas, the appearance of my epoch according to my own estimation…”

The realist paintings of Courbet found no favour with the Establishment.  Courbet’s critics firmly believed that he was bringing about an artistic and moral decline by painting what they deemed distasteful and inconsequential subjects on a grand scale. They accused him of nurturing a “cult of ugliness” against much beloved concepts of Beauty and the Ideal.   His critics even went as far as to state that this Realism was nothing less than the enemy of art.  However there were some high placed supporters of Courbet’s work.  The French socialist politician at the time, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, an advocate of workers’ associations and co-operatives as well as individual worker / peasant possession over private ownership or the nationalization of land and workplaces, saw The Stonebreakers painting and commented:

“… The Stonebreakers was an irony directed against our industrialized civilization … which is incapable of freeing man from the heaviest, most difficult, most unpleasant tasks, the eternal lot of the poor...”
The Stonebreakers was painted by Gustave Courbet in 1849 and shows two peasants breaking rocks into gravel to be used as a base in the construction of roads. One appears to be in his sixties and the other much younger.  The painting could not be described as colourful.  Courbet has used monotonous colours and by doing so has reflected the languishing tone of the painting.  We are not distracted by a colourful landscape.  Our eyes are fixed upon the two men as they carry on with their backbreaking work.    In no way was Courbet’s depiction of the men idealized or romanticized.  What we see is the gritty uncompromising truth.  The job of a stonebreaker was considered the lot of the lowest in French society.   Their differing ages symbolizes the circle of poverty, which will haunt the lower classes throughout their lives.  Those born into poverty would remain so for the rest of their life.   It is a glimpse into the world of the rural unskilled labourer.   The workers are dressed in ragged clothes.  Their ragged clothes and the little meal laid out in the right midground of the work underline their impoverishment. Look how Courbet has depicted the boy as he struggles with the heavy basket of gravel.  It is almost beyond the boy’s strength while the old man exhaustedly bends his knee to work.   One is now too old and almost lacks the strength to wield the hammer whilst the other is almost too young and almost lacks the strength to carry his burden.  This is realist art at its finest.  Courbet has not resorted to ancient heroes for his portrayal of heroism he has taken two simple men whose lot in life was manual labour and who were carrying out their task as best they could.

Despite Realist art not being favoured by the bourgeoisie or the Academies, it found an audience in France who was showing an interest in the plight of the working poor especially following the labourers uprising against the bourgeois leaders of the newly established Second Republic in 1848.  Their demands were simple – a redistribution of property and better working conditions.  The labourers’ uprising lasted just three days and many lives were lost. They did not achieve their demands but suddenly the plight of the working class labourer was centre stage and Courbet’s painting which came a year after the failed uprising could not have arrived at a more fortuitous time.

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Barge-Haulers on the Volga by Ilya Repin

Barge-Haulers on the Volga by Ilia Repin (1873)

My blog today continues, as promised, with the Social Realism Movement in art.  Social Realism is a very broad term for painting or literature that comments on contemporary social political or economic conditions, usually from a left-wing viewpoint, in a realistic manner.  It was a way in which artists were able to draw attention to the everyday conditions of the working classes and the poor, and who were critical of the social structures that maintain these conditions.  As I am looking at a work by a Russian painter today it is important that we understand that Social Realism and Socialist Realism are quite different.  Social Realism evolved from the French Realism of the second half of the nineteenth century whereas Socialist Realism never came into being until the mid 1930’s when in 1934 Joseph Stalin made Socialist Realism the official art form of the USSR and later by the other Communist parties worldwide.  Socialist Realism demanded that all art must depict some aspect of man’s struggle toward socialist progress for a better life.   It was important to the communist regimes that Socialist Realism Art emphasized not just realism but the optimism and heroism of the people and the dictate was that all forms of experimentalism in art was to be looked upon as being degenerate and totally pessimistic.

One group of Soviet Realist artists, of which today’s featured painter was one, was the Peredvizhniki, which was also known as The Wanderers or The Itinerants in English.  This group of painters was formed in 1863 in St Petersburg as a protest at the academic restrictions of the official art center, the St Petersburg Academy of Arts.  Sounds familiar?  It should be, as in the past I have talked about the breakaway of artists from Academic control in both France and England.  The St Petersburg Academy, like other Academies in Western Europe, was associated with neoclassicism.   Neoclassicism was based on the ideal of beauty seen in ancient Greek and Roman art and looked to the Italian Renaissance.  The St Petersburg Academy of Arts was no different.  It wanted its student to depict not Russian subjects but more traditional art-historical themes: classical history, legends and myths.  In 1863, fourteen artists broke away from the Academy in protest of the proposed topic for the annual Gold Medal competition, which was to be the mythological subject of the Entrance of Odin into Valhalla. These fourteen painters believed that this subject was too remote from the real life of Russia and that the academic style of neoclassicism was much too constricting.   Having left the Academy, they organized themselves into a society on cooperative principles and developed their own educational program and in 1870 set up a touring group to exhibit their work known as the Society for Travelling Art Exhibitions. The Society maintained its independence from state support and their travelling exhibitions allowed them to take their art, which illustrated the contemporary life of the people from Moscow and Saint-Petersburg, to the provinces.

The artists adopted the style, which could be termed critical realism. Their aim was to depict their homeland and the life and history of their people from a truthful and democratic standpoint. The artists depicted the working class folk in a favourable and often heroic light but at the same time tore into their corrupt upper classes and aristocracy depicting them as oppressors and enemies of the workers.  Their paintings often highlighted the totally unacceptable and unbearable living conditions that the working class people had to endure.  It should be remembered that even though the first Russian Revolution was still more than 30 years away, and that unlike other Western European countries, Russia was a country where the political freedom to express oneself was strictly prohibited. However things were changing.  Tsar Nicholas I died in 1856 and a year later the Russian armies were defeated in the Crimea.  There was a hint of reform in the air but it was only in the arts, whether it be paintings, literature or the theatre that there was an opportunity to express one’s views.  With this in mind the members of the Peredvizhniki believed it was their duty to effect change to the living conditions of the working class. Our featured artist today, Ilya Repin wrote succinctly that artists come from the people and that the people expect art should reflect a clear understanding of conditions and nature.

Today’s featured work is second painting by Repin which I have looked at in a blog.   The first one was a painting, entitled Easter Procession in the Region of Kursk  (My Daily Art Display of August 29th 2011)   Today’s work is entitled Barge-Haulers on the Volga which he completed in 1873.   An alternative title is Burlacks on the Volga.   A burlak was a Russian nickname for a person who hauled barges and other vessels upstream from the 17th to 20th centuries. The word itself came from the Tatar word bujdak, ‘homeless’.  Before us is a river scene. The barge in the painting’s title is relegated to a minor role in the right background and if you look closely you will see in the distance, behind the barge, a small steam-powered boat, which makes us realise that at the time of the painting we were at the onset of the industrial age and the days of using human beings to haul barges was coming to an end.

The Barge Pullers

It is a magnificent portrayal of a group of eleven men, dressed in rags and bound with leather harnesses, who struggle with their backbreaking task at hand, the towing of a barge along the waters of the River Volga.  This painting is looked upon as being one of the best works of the Peredvizhniki movement.   The men we see before us are simply human pack mules.  This painting focuses on the difficult life endured by the peasantry at that time.  Look how Repin has portrayed the barge haulers.   It is a hot day and the men seem to be at the point of collapse and exhaustion as they lean forward in a desperate effort to keep the laden barge moving.   The painting is not just a testament to the peasant’s heroic efforts but it is a damning condemnation of the people that have set them this inhumane task.

The young optimist

There is an added touch of heroism.  Look at the line of men.  All but one of them is dressed in drably-coloured clothes.  In the middle of the line one man stands out from the others.  He is a fair-haired young man, dressed in slightly brighter colours.  He is not exhausted and bent over like the others.  He stands upright and proud as he looks out over the river.  He is not humiliated by his menial  and backbreaking task.  His spirit, unlike the others, is not broken.  He scans the horizon and in this gesture we realise he is not just scanning the river, he is looking to the future – his future. 

Repin, who was twenty-six at the time he started this work, formulated the idea for this painting during a summer holiday he spent near Stavropol, close to the river Volga in 1870.  He had spent three months there with his brother Vasily and friends. During that time he took a boat trip down the Volga and watched the gangs of barge haulers. Initially he made many oil sketches of the area and the men working on the riverbanks and the people we see in the painting were real people.  One was a former soldier, one and artist and one a defrocked priest.  The former priest’s name was Kanin, who became a good friend of Repin, and he can be seen as the lead hauler of the group wearing a bandana.  From the dialogue Repin had with the barge haulers he was shocked to find that at one time most of them had held relatively important positions in society but had since fallen on hard times.  Although not shown in this painting, there would often be women employed as barge haulers and the number in a barge-hauling gang would normally be more than the eleven Repin has depicted.

Vladimir Vasilievich Stasov, who was looked upon as the most respected Russian critic during his lifetime, said of the way Repin depicted the barge haulers:

“…They are like a group of forest Hercules with their dishevelled heads, their sun-tanned chests, and their motionlessly hanging, strong-veined hands. What glances from untamed eyes, what distended nostrils, what iron muscles!…’

and of the painting itself, Stasov commented:

“….with a daring that is unprecedented amongst us [Repin] has abandoned all former conceptions of the ideal in art, and has plunged head first into the very heart of the people’s life, the people’s interests, and the people’s oppressive reality… no one in Russia has ever dared take on such a subject…”

Despite its critical message of how the upper classes badly treated its workers, the painting was bought by the Tsar’s second son.   After the Russian Revolution the art collection of the grand duke was nationalized and it is now housed in the State Russian Museum in St Petersburg.

Repin commented on the paintings of the Russian Social Realist artists and what they achieved, saying:

 “…The pictures of those days made the viewer blush, to shiver and carefully look into himself…. They upset the public and directed it into the path of humaneness…”

Posted in Art, Art Blog, Art display, Ilya Repin, Realism, Realism Artists, Russian artist | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Newgate: Committed for Trial by Frank Holl

Newgate: Committed for Trial by Frank Holl (1878 )

Today I am going to revisit the Social Realism art movement and look at one of the leading English Victorian Social Realist painters, Frank Holl.  I featured two of his very moving paintings Hush and Hushed in My Daily Art Display of February 9th 2012).   The Realist movement which has its roots in France came to the fore in French art in about 1840 in the aftermath of the 1848 Revolution which threw out the monarch, Louis-Philippe and saw the start of the Second Empire under the rule of Napoleon III.   Realist art flourished in France until the late nineteenth century.

The Social Realism Movement originated from this European Realism, and from the works of the great French Realist painters such as Honoré Daumier, Gustave Courbet and Jean-François Millet.   A revolution was also taking place in England in the nineteenth century – the Industrial Revolution, where changes in agriculture, manufacturing, mining, transportation, and technology had a tremendous consequence on the social, economic and cultural conditions of the times. It was a time of poverty and unemployment for many of the lower classes and it aroused a concern in many artists for this urban poor.  During 1870s the work of many of the Social Realist artists, such as Luke Fildes (see My Daily Art Display May 17th and 18th 2011), Hubert Herkomer (See My Daily Art Display July 25th 2011) and today’s featured painter, Frank Holl came to the fore.

Frank Montague Holl was born in Kentish Town, London in 1845. His father, Francis, was a well-known engraver and Academician as was his grandfather, William Holl.   His family environment was politically driven for his family were steadfast Socialists and even when he was just a youngster his family instilled in him the thought that he had a duty in life to change society and make it better for the common people.  Holl went to Heath Mount School in Hampstead and at the age of fifteen he was accepted as a probationer at the Royal Academy Schools. He proved to be an outstanding student but often shocked his tutors by adding a hint of political content to his works of art. At the age of seventeen he won a silver medal for his work and the following year was awarded a gold medal and a travel scholarship for his painting entitled The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away.  It was a painting that depicted a family bereavement and when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1869, the then monarch, Queen Victoria,  attempted to buy the painting but the original purchaser refused to sell it. Two years later Holl painted another painting on the same theme entitled No Tidings from the Sea and on this occasion Queen Victoria purchased it for a 100 guineas.

Holl went away to Italy on his travel scholarship but the Italian sojourn lasted only two months, at which time he wrote to the Royal Academy saying that he wanted to return home and concentrate on his social realism paintings based on working-class life in England.   Holl began exhibiting his work in 1864 when he was nineteen years of age and from 1869 onwards he was a regular contributor to the Academy Exhibitions.  Many of these works were depicting the plight of the less fortunate and their pitiful existence, such as No Tidings from the Sea (1871) and Leaving Home (1873).  After he had he completed his studies in 1869 he was employed by William Luson Thomas, a successful artist, wood engraver and social reformer, who had just founded a new weekly illustrated newspaper, called The Graphic.

The newspaper when launched in December 1869 was printed in a rented house.   A successful artist himself, the founder, William Thomas recruited talented authors for the story lines and exceptional artists for the illustration which were to accompany the words.   The gifted artists included Luke Fildes, Hubert von Herkomer and John Millais and great writers who worked on the journal included George Elliot, Thomas Hardy and Anthony Trollope. Thomas believed that it was not just words but the illustrations which had the great power to influence public opinion on political issues.  Thomas said later of his newspaper idea:

“…The originality of the scheme consisted in establishing a weekly illustrated journal open to all artists, whatever their method, instead of confining my staff to draughtsmen on wood as had been hitherto the general custom… it was a bold idea to attempt a new journal at the price of sixpence a copy in the face of the most successful and firmly established paper in the world, costing then only fivepence…”

For William Luson Thomas, his commitment was to force social reform and he hoped that the visual images in The Graphic would have a political impact on the reading public.  In his 2004 biography of Thomas, entitled Thomas, William Luson (1830–1900), Mark Bills, described Thomas’ journal:

“…The format of the paper offered artists an unprecedented opportunity to explore social subjects, and its images of poverty made it a catalyst for the development of social realism in British art. Many of the wood-engravings which it featured were developed into major paintings…”

This commitment to social reform by Thomas was exactly what Frank Holl desired and what he had been brought up to hear at the family table when he was growing up.  He, like Thomas, believed passionately in the cause for political and social change.  Frank Holl produced a series of pictures that were used to illustrate stories in the magazine and sometimes he and the other artists working on the journal would turn their engravings, which they had fashioned for the pages of The Graphic, into oil paintings.  These depictions of the hard and squalid life lead by the “under-class” of the nation lead them to become known as the Social Realist Movement.  Although we may look upon these depictions of poverty as a welcome wake-up call to the nation, they were badly received by the Victorian establishment at the time. The more fortunate viewed the works as being disloyal. The establishment and many of the people who had never suffered poverty wanted to turn a blind-eye to the suffering of the less fortunate. Their motto was “out of sight, out of mind” and they frowned upon these upstart young artists who wanted to drag the social differences which existed into the public forum.

The featured painting in My Daily Art Display today is entitled Newgate: Committed for Trial  which Frank Holl completed in 1878 and is housed in Royal Holloway, University of London, Egham, just outside London.  It came about when Holl was given and assignment to visit Newgate Prison by the management of The Graphic.   Holl visited Newgate on a number of occasions and over time he and the Governor became friends.   What we see before us is what Holl described as a “cage”   It was where prisoners on trial were allowed, at certain times, to see visitors and talk to them through a double row of bars.  The space in between the two sets of bars was patrolled by a warden.    Holl later commented that he became very emotional when he saw the desperation of the prisoners and their visitors as they awaited the results of their trials.  In an attempt to better capture the emotion of imprisonment, Holl painted this picture whilst inside the Newgate Prison. In the painting today we see Holl’s depiction of two women and their children visiting their husbands who had been incarcerated.   Look at the face of the prisoner on the left.  It is a look of wide-eyed innocence but as we catch sight of his wife that stands before him we note how she seems wearied by her husband’s protestations of his innocence.  Could it be that she has heard it all before?  Almost hidden by this female visitor we can just make out a second prisoner.  He is in a much more animated and distressed state and seems to be pleading to his wife who is seated clutching her baby to her chest.  Is it a plea for forgiveness and understanding or is it a plea of innocence?  Whatever it is, the young woman seems unmoved and somewhat resigned by what she hears.

As I said earlier, the rich and aristocratic were unmoved by what they saw in Social Realist works and it is remarkable that the wealthy English philanthropist, Thomas Holloway, who had made his fortune patenting medicines, would buy this work and add it to his collection, which grace the walls of the Royal Holloway College, which he had built in 1880.  Of his collection of seventy seven works of art which can be found there some were simple idyllic landscapes depicting the beautiful English countryside but like today’s work of art by Frank Holl, some were harrowing aspects of Victorian life.

The painting received mixed reviews when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1878 but one critic summed up what we see before us, writing:

“…The characters are so real in this fine work that one feels there is a story to be told of ruined ambitions, of broken home ties, of devotion scorned and trampled underfoot….”

In the next few blogs I will stay with Social Realism art and look at the works of Social Realist artists from other countries

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Portrait of Laura Battiferri, wife of the sculptor Bartolomeo Ammannati by Agnolo Bronzino

Portrait of Laura Battiferri by Agnolo Bronzino (c.1560)

My featured painting bears a strange resemblance to the painting I looked at in my last blog although they were painted about thirty years apart by two different Italian artists.  It is not unusual to see paintings featuring the same sitter or views of certain buildings or particular landscapes painted by different artists but it is somewhat unusual to look upon two portraits of two different women featuring a similar gesture towards a certain object which has been included in both of the works of art.  Sounds a little confusing?  Ok let me say that if you have just stumbled on to this page without looking at my previous blog (June 25th  Portrait of a Woman with a Volume of Petrarch by Andrea del Sarto) then go to that one first and read about that particular painting before you read more about today’s offering.

I am sure having now looked at the two paintings you can see the unusual similarity – the book and the pointing fingers.   My featured work of art today is a portrait completed by Agnolo Bronzino around 1560 and is entitled Ritratto di Laura Battiferri, moglie dello scultore Bartolomeo Ammannati  (Portrait of Laura Battiferri, wife of the sculptor Bartolomeo Ammannati) and is housed in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence.  It is part of the Loeser Bequest of Palazzo Vecchio which comprises of over thirty works of art that the American collector Charles Alexander Loeser bequeathed to the Florence City Council on his death in 1928.  The idea behind his bequest was that he felt it would play a part in the enhancement and reconstruction of the ancient atmosphere of Palazzo Vecchio, which the Florentine Council was carrying out at that time.   One of the conditions Loeser made was that he laid down procedures for the layout of his bequest, which was to be displayed in several rooms in Palazzo Vecchio, and that they were to be kept united in perpetuity, in an arrangement that would give the area not the habitual appearance of a museum but as he put it, it would  make each room appear “simply beautiful for the repose and enjoyment of the visitor”.

Before we look at the painting in detail I suppose the first question one asks when we look at this work of art is, who was Laura Battiferri and why would the great Italain Mannerist painter, Bronzino,  depict her in the portrait pointing at a book?  To find the answer to those questions one needs to look at the life of both the artist and his sitter.

Bronzino, whose real name was Agnolo di Cosimo, but was was probably given the nickname Il Bronzino (the little bronze) because of his relatively dark skin.  He was born in 1503 in Monticelli, a suburb of Florence.  His first artistic training was under the tutorship of the Florentine painter, Raffellino del Garbo and this lasted several years before he became an apprentice at the studio of Jacopo Carrucci, better known as, Pontormo, named as such after the Tuscan town where he was born.  Pontormo is now recognised as one of the founder of Florentine Mannerism.  Despite Pontormo being nine years older than Bronzino they became great friends and artistic collaborators and in some ways Pontormo acted as a father-figure for the young Bronzino.

In 1522 the plague struck Florence and Pontormo and Bronzino left the Tuscan city and headed for the Certosa del Galluzzo which is prominently situated on a hillside just south of Florence.  Here Pontormo, with Bronzino as his apprentice, worked together on a commission to paint a series of frescoes.   This was a very important time for Bronzino as he began to gain a reputation for the beauty of his work.   Bronzino returned to Florence in 1532 and worked on his frescos, as well as a number of portraits.    Seven years later in 1539, Bronzino had a major breakthrough with his artistic career when he received the patronage of the Medicis and was commissioned to carry out the elaborate decorations for the wedding of Cosimo I de’ Medici to Eleonora di Toledo who was the daughter of the Viceroy of Naples.   From that moment in time he became the official court painter to the Medici court and over time would paint a large number of portraits of the Medici clan and members of the royal court.  His portraits of the royal couple, Cosimo and Eleonora, and other figures of the Duke’s court, revealed a delicate coldness, almost an aloofness.  This was to define Bronzino’s portraiture style.  It was a portraiture technique which showed no emotion whilst always remaining stylish. The works were well received by the sitters and Bronzino’s portraiture style went on to influence a century of European court portraiture.

It is now we have our first connection between Bronzino and the sitter in today’s painting, Laura Battiferri, because she was a close friend of Eleanora di Toledo, Cosimo’s di Medici’s wife and there is no doubt that the artist and sitter met at the Medici court.  Another thing the artist and sitter had in common was poetry.   Although we are well aware that Bronzino was an artist he was also, like Laura Battiferri, an accomplished poet. Besides the portraits of members of the Medici family and some of the favoured royal courtiers he would paint portraits of his fellow poets, one of which was Laura Battiferri.   Laura Battiferri  came from Urbino.  She was born illegitimately to a pre-Reformation churchman Giovanni Battiferri, and his concubine. Her wealthy father, a Vatican cleric, provided her with a humanist education. As a well regarded and well respected poet she mixed with the most distinguished poets and artists of her day and lived all her life in court circles. She was the wife of the renowned architect and sculptor Bartolomeo Ammannati, who was a close confidant and adviser to Cosimo di Medici.

And so to the painting.    I would ask you to look at today’s work in conjunction with Andrea del Sarto’s  Portrait of a Woman with a Volume of Petrarch which I featured in my last blog (June 24th).  Both are female portraits but Bronzino has unusually reverted to the type of female portraiture of the Quattrocento (the art of 15th century Italy).   In those days, in female portraiture, the sitter was seen in profile view.  These works were traditionally painted by male artists for male patrons.  Graham Smith commented on why female portraits in those days were painted in profile view in his 1996 book Bronzino’s Portrait of Laura Battiferri.  He wrote:

 “…the profile portrait allowed the suitor to explore his lover’s face ardently, while simultaneously attesting to the woman’s chastity and female virtue…”

As we look at the portrait of Laura are we immediately struck by her beauty?  I think not.  There is a remoteness about this lady as she looks straight ahead avoiding our eyes.  It is if she has turned away from us showing her disdain for us.   Or could it be that she is exhibiting a sense of modesty, and it is this which makes her avert her eyes?   Whatever the reason, it has in some way, added a majestic aura to her character.   There is a sense that she is untouchable and unattainable which of course would please her husband who is thought to have commissioned the work.  Laura was also recorded by historians as being a devout Catholic and a very pious person.  It is known that she was a great supporter of the Jesuitical Counter-Reformation also known as the Catholic Reformation which was the period of  Catholic revival beginning with the Council of Trent (1545-63)and which historians now look upon as a response to the Protestant Reformation. Therefore Bronzino’s portrayal of her is a very fitting one and it could well be that the artist wanted to indicate this piety in the way he depicted her.

Laura Battiferri

Look at her closely.  Her neck and fingers have been elongated in a Mannerist style.  The upper part of her body is now completely out of proportion in relation to her small head and the way in which Bronzino has depicted her forehead in some ways draws attention to her long and slightly hooked nose.  She is wearing a transparent veil, which hangs down from the shell-shaped, calotte-style bonnet covering her tightly combed-back hair onto her goffered shawl and puffed sleeves.  Her one and only gesture, as she ignores us, is to point to a page in an open book which she is holding.  Her elongated thin fingers frame a certain passage of the prose.  It is a book of sonnets by the Italian poet Petrarch.  Compare this with Andrea del Sarto’s woman who is also pointing to a book of his sonnets.  So similar and yet so different.  The woman in del Sarto’s portrait connects with us.  We have eye contact with her.  We can almost know what she is thinking but with Laura Battiferri she is an enigma.  With no eye contact, her thoughts remain her own.

The passage in the book

In both portraits we see the women pointing to a passage in Petrarch’s book in which the central theme is the poet’s love for a woman he met when he was in his early twenties. Her name was Laura de Noves.   In this painting, Laura Battiferri points to a passage in the book where Petrarch talks about “his Laura” and maybe Battiferri identifies herself with Petrarch’s Laura and empathizes with the poet’s words as he describes the love of his life:

“….she is an unapproachable, unattainable beauty… as chaste as the adored mistress of a troubadour, as modest and devout as a ‘Stilnovismo Beatrice’”. “Laura’s personality is even more elusive than her external appearance. She remains the incarnation of chaste and noble beauty.”

Bronzino had already painted a number of portraits which featured the sitter pointing to pages in a book.  Around 1540 he completed his portrait entitled Portrait of Lucrezia Panciatichi in which the young lady points to a page in a book which rests on her knee.   Eight years earlier he painted a portrait entitled Lorenzo Lenzi, in which the young son of a prominent Florentine family holds an open book inscribed with sonnets by Petrarch and so when he completed his portrait of Laura Battiferri around 1560 showing the sitter pointing at pages in a book it was not a unique depiction and of course as we know Andrea del Sarto’s painting was completed about thirty years earlier.

I end with a question to any females reading this blog.  If you were to commission an artist to paint your portrait would you go for the Bronzino-profile style in which the artist would probably depict you as modest and unattainable or would you choose the del Sarto-style in which you look out at the us, the viewer and from your facial expression maybe we are able to read your thoughts?

Posted in Art, Art Blog, Art display, Bronzino, Italian artists, Laura Battiferri, Mannerism, Pontormo, Portraiture | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment