Archive for March, 2021

Conserving Kahlo

The Dallas Museum of Art was given the opportunity to exhibit a collection of exceptional Frida Kahlo works. In preparation for their display on February 28, 2021, three of the paintings were studied in the paintings conservation studio, including Still Life with Parrot and Flag from 1951, Sun and Life from 1947, and Diego and Frida 1929–1944 from 1944. Using infrared photography, X-radiography, and microscopic examination, novel information was brought to light regarding each work.

Frida Kahlo, Diego and Frida 1929–1944, 1944, oil on Masonite with original painted shell frame, Private Collection, Courtesy Galería Arvil. © 2021 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Frida Kahlo, Sun and Life, 1947, oil on Masonite, Private Collection, Courtesy Galería Arvil. © 2021 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Frida Kahlo, Still Life with Parrot and Flag, 1951, oil on Masonite, Private Collection, Courtesy Galería Arvil. © 2021 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Infrared photography allows conservators to look through surface level paint to the underlying preparatory layers. X-radiography, on the other hand, allows us to visualize compositional changes made in paint. This type of imaging provided a fascinating perspective into Frida Kahlo’s working practice.

In Still Life with Parrot and Flag, an initial planning drawing done in both thin lines and wide ink strokes shows how Kahlo simplified compositional elements in the final painting, especially with regards to shifting the size and shape of the fruits. The most labored part of the underdrawing shows several adjustments made to the parrot’s wing and beak, and changes made to the adjacent mango. The blue lines overlayed onto the visible light photograph represent a tracing made from the IR photograph of the most prominent changes Kahlo made to this initial underdrawing. The underdrawing observed in each painting made clear that Kahlo had a strong vision for the overall composition of each work, regardless of the subtle changes made in the painting process.

Infrared photograph of Still Life with Parrot and Flag
Tracing of drawing lines overlaid onto visible light photograph

IR photography also revealed a small inscription on one of the shells attached to the frame on Diego and Frida. This inscription reads “Recuerdo de Veracruz” and was subsequently covered up by red paint, probably by Frida herself. Frames like this one would have likely been found in the tourist market of Veracruz; here, it is a special hidden detail giving us an intimate glimpse into the past life of the object.

An inscription on one of the shells on the right originally read “Recuerdo de Veracruz”

The X-ray taken of Sun and Life revealed an exciting evolution observed in the painting: although Kahlo’s basic composition was generally set from the underdrawing to the early painting phase, the details evolved significantly in later phases of painting. The plant pods surrounding the sun, for example, largely began closed but opened gradually during the painting process. Another interesting discovery was the fetus-like element directly behind the sun that emerged as Frida finalized the painting, in contrast to the X-ray that reveals a closed pod. The blue lines overlaid onto the visible light image of the painting represent a tracing made from the X-ray and indicate where compositional changes took place during the painting process.

X-radiograph of Sun and Life
Tracing compositional changes observed in x-radiograph

Kahlo’s brushwork is stunning, utilizing a vast array of application techniques and styles to create movement and texture in each work. In Still Life with Parrot and Flag, her use of small rapid, brushstrokes achieves a composition of intricately varied textures and color, while long, sinuous strokes are used predominantly in Sun and Life. Frida and Diego takes a more direct painting technique of highly textured paint applied in short, tiny strokes. It is interesting to note that in two of the paintings, impressions of Frida’s fingerprints are visible in the paint—a subtle hallmark that humanizes the work.

Varied painting techniques shown in close-ups of her works

Artist’s fingerprints in Frida and Diego
Same detail under 10x magnification
Artist’s fingerprints in Still Life with Parrot and Flag

It was a privilege to examine these great works together with Dr. Mark A. Castro and Dr. Agustín Arteaga. I hope you enjoy this special moment to see the works together.

Laura Eva Hartman is the Paintings Conservator at the DMA.

Panamanian Molas: Made For and By Women

This past December, the Kaleta A. Doolin Foundation donated the Reverend Isaac V. and Alicia C. Pérez Mola Collection to the DMA. The collection is composed of some 70 molas: hand-stitched textiles that form part of Guna women’s clothing in the Republic of Panama. The Guna occupy a territory called the Gunayala Comarca (Gunaland Province), formed by hundreds of tiny islands, as well as by the adjacent coastline. This attire was adapted from the ancient practice of women painting their bodies with complex geometric designs, later translated to textiles following the adoption of new fabrics and tools introduced by European settlers. Over the decades, molas have become the single most recognizable material element of Guna cultural identity.

Molas: Two aquatic birds (T44205.43); Terrestrial birds, fish, and mammal (T44205.46); Aquatic bird and fish with spiny dorsal fin (T44205.15), Guna people, Gunayala Comarca, Panama, mid-20th century, cotton, Dallas Museum of Art, The Isaac V. and Alicia C. Pérez Mola Collection, gift of The Kaleta A. Doolin Foundation; Man and woman wearing hats, mid-twentieth century, Guna people, Gunayala Comarca, Panama, cotton, Dallas Museum of Art, gift of The Dozier Foundation, DS.1990.303

The arts in Guna society are strictly gendered, with men engaged in basket weaving and public oratory, reciting poems and stories. Women, including men who identify as women, design and fabricate molas. The molas are created using a complex reverse appliqué process. Two or three pieces of fabric are first basted together and then a design is hand cut into the top layer, with multiple layers of colorful, contrasting fabrics and appliques then sewn between the top and bottom layers. This elaborate technique is intensive, typically taking a maker three to five weeks to complete the 15 by 17-inch textile.

Care is taken to match the thread to the cloth and layer the fabrics in a way that gives the impression of a seamless and uniform composition. Mola designs incorporate elements such as flowers, birds, animals, and mythical creatures, but geometric patterning remains a crucial element.

The mola has deep ties to Guna identity. In 1918 the Panamanian government began a campaign to subjugate and assimilate the Guna, which included banning traditional dress. The Guna resisted, and making and wearing molas became an act of political protest. In 1925 the two parties reached an agreement granting the Guna autonomy to govern their own affairs and sovereignty over their Indigenous identity and culture. To this day, Guna women still produce beautifully executed molas for their own use in clothing, as well as versions for tourist consumption.

Blouse incorporating National Liberal Party mola, Guna people, Gunayala Comarca, Panama, 1962, cotton, Dallas Museum of Art, gift of Carolyn Williams Marks, Harriet Williams Peavy, and Suzanne Williams Nash, 2016.68.19

Reverend Isaac V. Pérez, his wife, Alicia, and their daughter, Elva, moved to Panama in 1953 when Reverend Isaac accepted employment with a denomination-affiliated organization. Among his responsibilities was working with local Guna to create a new church. On one of his first visits to the islands, he was gifted a mola as a gesture of friendship. Alicia and Elva were fascinated by the complex and unusual qualities of the design, heightened by its vibrant colors.

Mola: Ground cuckoo, Guna people, Gunayala Comarca, Panama, mid-20th century, cotton, Dallas Museum of Art, The Isaac V. and Alicia C. Pérez Mola Collection, gift of The Kaleta A. Doolin Foundation, T44205.25

The Pérezes remained in Panama for 22 years and amassed a stunning collection of molas. The family treasured them for their creativity, design, and imagery—but even more so as a reminder of the graciousness of the Guna people. Their collection joins 10 molas already stewarded by the DMA, and together they offer a testament to the creativity and resilience of the Guna people, and the critical role of women in preserving and adapting Guna culture.

Mola: Two terrestrial birds perched in trees, Guna people, Gunayala Comarca, Panama, mid-20th century, cotton, Dallas Museum of Art, The Isaac V. and Alicia C. Pérez Mola Collection, gift of The Kaleta A. Doolin Foundation, T44205.16

Dr. Mark A. Castro, The Jorge Baldor Curator of Latin American Art
Dr. Michelle Rich, The Ellen and Harry S. Parker III Assistant Curator of the Arts of the Americas
Alyssa Wood, Curatorial Assistant

Gertrude Stein and Juan Gris: A Close Connection

Photograph of Gertrude Stein in her salon, writing, 1920, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers. American Literature Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University

This is the history of Juan Gris.
—Gertrude Stein[1]

After the Salon des Indépendants in 1920, Juan Gris wrote a letter to Gertrude Stein, putting an end to more than half a decade of silence between them:

I am greatly flattered by what you say about my contribution at the Indépendants, more especially as you have a great understanding of painting.[2]

Stein was an American novelist, born in 1874 into an affluent upper-middle-class Jewish family. She studied psychology and medicine before moving to Paris in 1904. There she became one of the foremost connoisseurs of modern art and an early champion of Cubism. She was especially close to Picasso, and it is likely that she met Gris sometime in 1910 through their mutual friend; however, she did not start collecting Gris’s work until 1914, when she bought the first painting from the artist’s gallerist, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler.

Gertrude Stein was particularly interested in papier collé works by Gris.
Image: Juan Gris, The Lamp, 1914, pasted paper, gouache, and conté crayon on canvas, Private collection

Gris and Stein seem to have been on friendly terms up until World War I. She always tried to support her artists while at the same time adding works to her impressive collection. When the war broke out in August 1914, and Gris’s German gallerist had to leave France, the artist found himself without income. Upon Picasso’s appeal, Stein tried to help Gris out by setting up an opportunity for him to exhibit in New York in the gallery of Michael Brenner. Additionally, she and Brenner offered monetary support in exchange for works. Kahnweiler, who thought the war would be a short affair, prohibited this deal and Gris had to decline the offer. Stein broke off contact with the artist until her visit to the Salon in 1920.

Their friendship resumed, grew stronger, and became more intimate. Gris valued Stein’s feedback, and he trusted her taste in and opinions on art. They visited each other frequently and were known to engage in deep and intellectual conversations. She appreciated the artist especially for the exactitude of his Cubism and his intricate compositions. When Gris’s sales and self-esteem were low, Stein tirelessly promoted his work by sending journalists to his studio, publishing texts about him, and collecting his works. In 1926 they collaborated on a project, with Gris contributing four lithographs to Stein’s publication A Book Concluding with as a Wife Has a Cow: A Love Story.

A sign of their close relationship, she was the only one to call him “Juan,” emphasizing his Spanish heritage, while he referred to himself as “Jean,” being enamored with everything French.

Most of Gris’s works in Stein’s collection are from the 1920s.
Image: Juan Gris, The Electric Lamp, 1925, oil on canvas, Centre Pompidou, Paris, Musée national d’art moderne/Centre de création industrielle. Gift of Louise and Michel Leiris, 1984. On deposit at Musée d’art moderne et contemporain de la Ville de Strasbourg since 1999

When Gris died in May 1927, Stein was heartbroken. Two months later, she published a personal epitaph in the magazine Transition. In her Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stein would later acknowledge Gris’s importance to Cubism by elevating him to the same level as Picasso, where in her eyes he belonged:

[T]he only real cubism is that of Picasso and Juan Gris. Picasso created it and Juan Gris permeated it with his clarity and exaltation.[3]

Christine Burger is the Research Assistant for European Art at the DMA.


[1] Gertrude Stein, The Life of Juan Gris: The Life and Death of Juan Gris, in: In Transition: A Paris Anthology: Writing and Art from Transition Magazine 1927-30. New York, 1990,195.
[2] Gris to Stein, February 2, 1920, letter XCI, in Douglas Cooper, trans. and ed., Letters of Juan Gris [1913-1927]. Collected by Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, London, 1956, 76.
[3] Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, New York, 2020, 110.


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