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Motorways, Mexicans and Cathedrals – Pallant House Gallery

13 Jul

Pallant House’s new exhibition of works by Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera called for a trip down to Chichester, so early yesterday morning I set off on another Mini adventure.  Sean the satnav (I just love his Irish accent) seemed to think I was on a tour of English motorways and I went on more than I care to count to get to Sussex and back.

For many, Kahlo and Diego are inseparable but this is the first UK exhibition that brings their works together.

Kahlo is such a feminist icon and her self-portraits became familiar to many during the Tate retrospective in 2005 (so enduring that it seems like only yesterday).  Presenting a challenging view of the female role, her works address issues of pain, betrayal, loneliness, love and heartbreak, throughout the emotional turmoil of her life.  Rivera’s most famous works are his large-scale political murals – less familiar as, by their very nature, they remain in situ in Mexico.  During their lives, Rivera was recognised as the greater artist, his commissions adorning public buildings, but, in death, Kahlo has far outshone her husband and it is she who has become a cult figure whilst many have never heard of him.

Diego Rivera, Landscape with Cactus, 1931. Image via www.guardian.co.uk

This is a rare opportunity to see Rivera’s works: striking beautiful pieces with strong use of line.

Their relationship has attracted much attention – Kahlo was half Rivera’s age when they met, a delicate cripple attracted to this philandering beast.  The two could not have been more different and Kahlo’s parents even described their union as a “marriage between an elephant and a dove”.  This exhibition lacks biographical information (in fact, the wall labels consistently present inaccurate information), assuming we already know the horrific tale of how Kahlo was involved in a trolley-car collision which caused her spinal column and right leg to smash, her ribs, collarbone and pelvis to break and her foot to dislocate and then be crushed.

Frida Kahlo, Self Portrait with Bed, 1937. Image via www.guardian.co.uk

There are two arguments as to whether or not this exhibition works at all.  Judy Chicago, renowned artist and author of a terrific new Kahlo book, argues that it is appalling to exhibit both Kahlo and Rivera together, saying this parallel showing continues to place Kahlo in the shadow of her husband.  Chicago wants us to see Kahlo as central rather than peripheral.  While viewing her in relation to Rivera we are somehow diminishing her excellence.

On the flip side is the curator’s argument that it is nearly impossible to view one without the other because they were so united.  Rivera was important to Kahlo, featuring in many of her paintings.  She once said “Diego was everything … my child, my lover, my universe.”  Well, considering this, then, of course, the two should be shown together.

Frida Kahlo, Diego in My Thoughts, 1943. Image via www.guardian.co.uk.

Both Diego and Kahlo were inspired by each other.  For Kahlo painting was a form of catharsis, a motivation to rise above her pain.  Rivera encouraged her to continue working in spite of the misery it sometimes caused her; he was essential in the success of her endeavours.  In turn, Rivera was motivated by Kahlo’s courage.  They both thought the other to be the greater artist.  They were both spurred on by each other’s love and devotion.

Now, I don’t like sitting on the fence but I genuinely think each of these arguments raises good points and both are correct.  There are huge contrasts in their artistic styles yet there are many overlaps between their works.  It is an inescapable relationship and, one that, in many ways, does necessitate them being shown side by side.

For me, this is where the exhibition fails.  The works are not shown side by side.  The exhibition opens with a small, single room of Rivera’s works (on blue/grey walls for a boy) and is followed by two Kahlo rooms (pink/red for a girl).  For me, the point of the exhibition is for comparison.  These works were painted side by side so let them be seen together.  In particular, the exhibition includes both artists’ portraits of Natasha Gelman – an obvious and simple pairing that doesn’t happen.

Frida Kahlo, Portrait of Natasha Gelman, 1943. Image via www.guardian.co.uk.

The exhibition is supplemented by an interesting selection of photography including Nicholas Murray’s emblematic images of Kahlo with her monobrow and moustache – iconic and beautiful in her own unique way.  Also exhibited are the rarely-seen photographs by Kahlo’s father showing the area around Mexico City and Tepotzlan.

Nicholas Murray. Image via http://yercle.wordpress.com.  

The exhibition offers a glimpse at Kahlo and Rivera’s fascinating relationship but doesn’t quite delve deep enough.  One more room may have sufficed but the size of the current show is slightly disappointing – only 40 works in all.  For a small show, it’s strong with well-chosen works.  Would I recommend a two hour drive from London and an entrance fee?  If you’re a Frida fan then yes.  If not, you may not see enough to whet your appetite.

The Pallant House Collection includes such greats as Francis Bacon, Peter Blake, Patrick Caulfield, Richard Hamilton, Jann Haworth, Antony Gormley, Frank Auerbach, David Bomberg, Walter Sickert and Barbara Hepworth.  There’s even a nice (if slightly random) room of 18th century portraits upstairs.  Contemporary has successfully been mixed with this traditional 1712 Queen Anne townhouse.  Pallant seems to have a strong history of commissioning artists with Spencer Finch’s light installation, The Evening Star, currently hanging in the main stairwell.

Spencer Finch, The Evening Star. Image via www.pallant.org.uk

Elsewhere in Pallant House there are some wonderful temporary shows including Mervyn Peake’s exhibition of drawings and illustrations and Anna Fox’s newly-commissioned series photographing the Bognor Regis Butlins to celebrate their 75th anniversary.  These oversaturated large-scale photos provide an insight into today’s Butlins.  The holiday camps first opened in 1936 becoming a much-loved part of British culture and a popular holiday destination for working-class families – only three now survive.

Anna Fox, Ocean Hotel Restaurant, Butlin’s, Summer 2010. Image via www.pallant.org.uk

This trip afforded me an opportunity to once again indulge my love of Cathedrals.  Work commenced on Chichester Cathedral in 1076 – it isn’t one of Britain’s finest but does boast a beautiful Chagall stained glass window.  Reaping the benefits of natural light, Chagall worked with intense colours that inspire and stimulate.  The Cathedral is significant – the detached bell-tower is the only one of its kind remaining in England and the spire has been much admired.  Unfortunately, as with so many of our great churches, the Reformation brought much destruction and some of the Cathedral’s former glory was diminished.

Marc Chagall stained glass window at Chichester Cathedral. Own photograph.

Moving out of Chichester we headed to Pagham Harbour for the night and stayed at the wonderful Crab & Lobster.  I can’t sing the praises of this pub-hotel enough.  I had planned a walk across the marshes but luckily the barman pre-warned me that the nature reserve of marsh and swampy mudflats is mostly smelly quicksand.  I stuck to the footpath!

Marshes and mud. Own photograph.

Before heading home this morning, there was time to fit in another Cathedral.  With Winchester being so close, I couldn’t resist.

Winchester Cathedral. Own photograph.

A stunning Perpendicular Gothic building, Winchester Cathedral is an overwhelming space, thanks, in part, to William Walker, a heroic diver, who worked for years underwater to strengthen the submerged foundations.  The building has a fascinating history: the West Window was destroyed by parliamentary troops during the English Civil War and rebuilt using the shattered glass found around the Cathedral.  As well as being architecturally wonderful, Winchester has two big draws – Jane Austen’s grave and, surprise surprise, a Gormley sculpture in the crypt.  Sound II is a mysterious lead and fibreglass life-sized man who contemplates the water that he holds in his cupped hands.  But, the crypt only floods in winter so sadly the water element of this piece is missing for six months of the year.  It does, however, work beautifully in this space.  Gormley and Cathedrals – tried, tested and triumphant!

Antony Gormley, Sound II. Own photograph.

And all in 24 hours.  I made it back for a trip to the RA in the afternoon but more of that in my next post…

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera: Masterpieces from the Gelman Collection is at the Pallant House Gallery until 2nd October 2011, www.pallant.org.uk.

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