In a blaze of glory

Frida Kahlo She painted searing self portraits

Whether their stories are remembered or forgotten, or made into a movie, women artists have been revolutionary in every age.

It was while watching a BBC Artsnight segment called Pram in the Hallway that I first considered what might happen when there are children in an artist’s life, and the tremendous sacrifices that are demanded and often made. The programme featured Barbara Hepworth, famed British sculptor of rounded stone monuments, who put her four toddlers into a residential nursery so that she could continue sculpting.

Even when living with a fellow artist, even when free of children, a woman might remain invisible. While watching the programme, I thought about artists I only vaguely know about.

For instance, I seem to recall that Man Ray’s lover was also a photographer; that Jackson Pollock’s girlfriend was a painter; and that Pablo Picasso slept with a painter or two. I can’t remember any of their names.

As Whitney Chadwick points out in Women, Art and Society (1990), women’s role as muse has almost always overshadowed their own art. Almost. Sometimes an artist’s blaze of glory is too bright for shadows. Barbara Hepworth was married to a sculptor and Georgia O’Keeffe (who painted the insides of irises and poppies and insisted they had nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with genitalia) was married to a photographer. Both women have entire museums named after them, and I always have to look up their husbands’ names.

In the case of one particular painter couple, there is no way to forget either half. I always read whatever I can find about Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and an earlier book by Chadwick, Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement (1985), caught my eye because Kahlo’s self-portrait was on the cover. Inside was one of her paintings of the couple. Kahlo is tiny, with miniscule embroidered shoes peeping out from her wide, pleated skirt; while Rivera, with feet as big as dogs, nearly fills the canvas.

Their art is almost deliberately gendered, and both had established their styles before they met. He painted muscular murals about industry, capitalism, revolution and war and she painted searing self-portraits that contained braids and ruffles, but also blood, bone, viscera and heartbreak.

Another book I’ve been reading is a history of what happens when the artist pair is entirely female. From diaries, letters and news articles of the time, Julia Markus puts together the lives of a group of women actors and artists famous in the mid-1800s, though forgotten in ours, who were involved in overlapping relationships with other women. Her book is Across an Untried Sea (2000) and among its cast of characters is Charlotte Cushman, an actor who often played male parts; her “wife” Emma Stebbins, who sculpted an exquisite fountain that stands in New York’s Central Park; the sculptor Harriet Hosmer, who was commissioned to make monuments of Abraham Lincoln and other American statesmen; the animal painter Rosa Bonheur, who was the first woman to be awarded the French Legion d’Honneur; and the many extraordinary artists who lived and worked with them.

Many were thought to be old maids in their time but, in fact, they lived in a kind of marriage with other women. Ironically, the letters they left behind could not be revealed while they were famous. Only as forgotten women could the story of their many revolutions be fully told.

[Source:- The Hindu]