The long and drawn out tale of a Frida Kahlo painting

Back at the start of 2020 I made a plan.  It was for the group of adult amateur painters that I coach and guide in their creative activities once a week.  As a group we also make an occasional trip out to see an art exhibition that I feel would be both interesting and in some way aligned with the group’s own painting activities. Last year we visited the David Hockney and Vincent van Gogh exhibition at the van Gogh museum in Amsterdam.

My plan, back at the beginning of 2020 was that, as a group we could make a trip to the Drendts Museum in the northern Dutch town of Assen, to see the planned Frida Kahlo exhibition, Viva la Frida!, due in the autumn of 2020.  Without telling the group, and as way of introducing them to my plan, I set them a small painting assignment. 

I used one of the iconic portrait photographs of Kahlo, enlarged it and cut it into vertical strips, each about 40 cm tall by 2 cm wide.  To accompany each strip there was a wooden panel, larger (about a metre tall), but of the same proportions.  The task in hand was simple, use the blurry strip of black and white photograph to make a comparable blurry monochrome painted strip on the wooden panel.

To make it a little more technical I asked the group to do this using oil paints but making no use of black when mixing the grey tints that we needed.  The purpose here was twofold, firstly to challenge the group to experiment broadly with the mixing of chromatic greys, but secondly to result in more variation across the panels when the final composition was assembled.  One would hopefully be a slightly bluey mix of greys, another with more red and another with perhaps a purple edge.

We made a start, and all was going well. 

But then along came Covid-19, lockdown and the weekly painting sessions were suspended.  The painting was half finished, my painters still didn’t actually know what it was they were painting, but at this stage I told them the whole story and what my plans for the autumn had been.  In the meantime the museum in Assen had also had to change their plans.  The Kahlo exhibition was cancelled, or rather suspended, and has subsequently been rescheduled for the autumn of 2021……..I’m sure as a group we’ll be going.

Our group reconvened back in September.  Meeting as two smaller groups, strict social distancing in place and returned to the business of painting, and getting our Frida Kahlo painting finished. 

We almost made it!  Four weeks later, we are back in lockdown, hopefully not for as long as last time.  We are returning to our sharing of creative work in the app group and working at home on some group projects that I assemble as we progress.  Such projects help us all feel that we are still part of a group.  Our Frida work is all but finished, we’re just missing a couple of panels from the outer most reaches of the composition, but the work as it currently stands is a satisfying result and good approach work for the exhibition visit next year.

Sprezzatura – Italian painting 1860-1910

I’m reading Fingersmith by Sarah Waters at the moment. It is set in Britain during the Victorian era. It’s an atmospheric and descriptive read that conjures images in the mind of the reader of life in the back streets of London, life in a country house and at points also a lunatic asylum. Waters’ writing is excellent at pulling you into these worlds, the people, the struggles of life and in the case of Fingersmith, the deceptions that could play out in these places.

I travelled to The Drendtsmuseum in the northern Dutch town of Assen to catch the last day of the Sprezzatura – fifty years of Italian painting 1860-1910 exhibition, wondering whether my insights from Waters’ book may be relevant in the way I viewed the exhibition. The seventy or so paintings from various Italian museums cover very much the Victorian period. In the end though, I have to conclude that I found only limited parallels and overlaps. Britain in the second half of the of the nineteenth century was of course a very different place in comparison to the newly established and unified country of Italy. Equally, northern Europe and southern Europe were in terms of landscape, traditions and politics also very different places.

 

The exhibition pitches in on trying to catch the diversity of artistic focuses in this period, but ultimately seems to get a little stranded in the middle ground between thematic approaches that artists took in their choice of content in the their work and technical and painterly innovations and developments.

We move from history painting to travel paintings, from gritty realism to luscious handling in idealized figure painting and from innovative painterly technical experiments to gushing symbolism. There is also space for sentimentality and tragedy. All in all, although I really quite enjoyed looking at the displayed work, it left me feeling a little confused by the switch from one sub-group of paintings to the next.

Italy must have been a country searching for an identity in this turbulent period, and in this sense the curating of the exhibition may well be an appropriate and fitting approach. But in terms of a clear direction or theme that helps the viewer work their way through an exhibition it was a difficult path to find.

In the train on the way home I’ll be returning to my book. Fingersmith certainly has an easier narrative to follow.