13 April 2024

Famous people close to Frida Kahlo

Born in 1907, Magdalena Frida Kahlo grew up in Mexico City in a blue house/Casa Azul built by her father. Fath­er Guill­ermo Kah­lo was a Ger­m­an-Jewish photo­grapher and moth­er, Matil­de Cald­erón, indig­enous and Cat­holic Spanish. At 6 Kahlo contracted polio, rendering her right leg perm­an­ently smaller. More than a fashion statement emphasising Mexico, long skirts became Kahlo’s modest uniform. In any case, Frida’s father trained her in his photog­raphy studio

Frida Kahlo painting in bed.
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In high school Frida studied biology, anatomy and zoology at one of Mexico City’s best schools, one of only 35 girls. But then a troll­ley car collided with the bus she was taking home, forever derail­ing her health. Could she have made a good physician? Instead she became a painter of striking auto-biographical canvases. However some works did look medical eg The Broken Column, 1944.

This Mexican artist produced c200 paintings, mostly self-portraits, depictions of family and friends, and c30 still lifes. Fig­ur­ative and very personal, her paintings fused folklore and symbol­ism to illustrate her own experiences.

In 1922 Kahlo started studying at Mexico City’s Escuela Nacional Pre­paratoria with a focus on sciences and became part of a group of communist activist students. During her years there the big three Mexican artists, incl­ud­ing Diego Rivera, all worked on murals at her school. Kahlo met Rivera briefly when he was painting in the school amphitheatre.

In 1925, Kahlo and friend were on a bus that collided with a tram. Some passengers were killed; Kahlo suffered fract­ures of her spine, right leg, collarbone and pelvis. Hospitalised for ages, Ka­hlo was fitted with a plaster corset (to wear for the rest of her life). Alas she later had mult­iple miscarriages and underwent 30+ surgical procedures.

During her long recovery, Kahlo painted using a compact eas­el and mirror that her mother installed under her 4-poster bed. She began with the most readily available subject: herself, using self-portraits to ill­us­trate her inner world in distinct moments in her life.

After her recovery Kahlo again met Rivera through an Italian photographer friend, Tina Modotti. Riv­era was by then an established artist. 20 years older than Kahlo, they married in Aug 1929, forming an unst­able but lasting union. They each had affairs, sometimes with the same people. Kahlo’s li­aisons included Russian revolutionary Leon Trot­sky (who temporarily lived in the Casa Azul) and Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi.

Kahlo and Rivera spent their early married years in US, with a recent book Frida in America (2020) suggesting that Kahlo exp­er­ienced her creative awakening in New York, Detroit & San Francisco. Her marriage self-portrait, Frida and Diego Rivera (1931) showed her much smaller than Rivera!

She put forward distinct bohemian and left­ politics, the image that still makes her a pop culture icon now. A new document­ary will premiere at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Kahlo entranced many key C20th photographers, including Julien Levy and Dora Maar, who left images that still fascinate us.

Edward Weston was one of many artists Kahlo befriended while in the US. After arriving in San Francisco she met famous photographer Dor­othea Lange, who shared her studio and introduced Kahlo to Dr Leo Eloesser.  The doctor diagnosed her injuries and remained a trusted friend.

Rivera was the spouse sought out for mural comm­is­s­ions and other projects, because Kahlo was still emerging as an art­ist. Some thought she was the better painter, but she never got the credit. A 1933 article in a Detroit newspaper headlined Wife of the Mas­­ter Mural Painter Glee­fully Dabbles in Art, placing Kahlo firmly behind Rivera. Dabbles?

Kahlo’s career changed in 1938 as her work began to gain recog­nit­ion. She made her first sale that year when actor-collector Ed­ward G Robinson visited Rivera’s studio. Robinson saw Kah­lo’s paintings and bought 4 canvases for $200 each. Kahlo was thrilled.

Frida Kahlo, The Two Fridas, 1939
The traditional Frida in Tehuana costume has a broken heart, 
sitting next to an independent, modern dressed Frida.
Frida Kahlo.org

18 paintings travelled directly from New York to Paris when Kahlo participated in a 1939 group show of Mexican art at the Pierre Colle Gallery. The show was arranged by Andre Breton with help from Mar­cel Duchamp, whom Kahlo described honourably.

Some months later Kahlo had her 1st solo show, exhibiting 25 paintings at New York’s Jul­ien Levy Gallery. The Nov opening drew an A-list crowd inc­luding Alfred Stieglitz, curator Alfred H Barr, art historian Meyer Schap­iro and Georgia O’Keeffe (whom Kahlo befriended in N.Y trip). André Breton, who'd met Kahlo in Me­x­ico, wrote her catalogue essay. Time mag­­azine reviewed the show well!

One work in the exhibition was a self-portrait The Frame (1938), acquired by France and now in The Centre Pom­p­idou. Other Ka­hlo works got into star collections eg New York’s Mus­eum Modern Art, SFMOMA, Mexico City’s Museo de Arte Moderno and National Museum of Women in the Arts.

When Kahlo returned from France, she found Rivera with another woman. So she left their marital home to go back to the Casa Azul. By late 1939 they agreed to divorce, prompt­ing her large canvas The Two Fridas. When Kahlo’s health suffered post-divorce, Dr Eloesser advised the couple recon­cile. They rem­ar­ried in San Francisco, Dec 1940.

Frida Kahlo, The Broken Column, 1944
Frida Kahlo.org

In Mexico City, Kahlo’s work was shown in group exhibitions in the 1940s, includ­ing C20th Port­r­aits at the Museum of Modern Art in 1942 and Exhib­it­ion by 31 Women at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art Gall­ery in 1943. She soon started teaching at Mexico City’s School of Painting & Sculpture, moving classes to the Casa Az­ul when her health declined.

Her 2nd solo show was in summer 1953 in Mexico City at Lola Álvarez Bravo’s Gallery of Con­temporary Art. Now in very poor health, Kahlo was delivered to the opening night festiv­it­ies on a stretcher and then placed in her bed IN the gallery. So crit­ics tended to react host­ile­ly, as if they res­ent­ed the at­mosph­ere of awe. The same year, Kahlo’s right leg was amputated and even then, Kahlo remained a dedicated leftist. She did port­raits of Marx and Stalin, and attended demonstrat­ions. And she changed her birth to 1910, coinciding with her be­lov­ed Mexican Revolution.

Kahlo was addicted to alcohol and painkillers. So when she died at Casa Azul  (47) in 1954, was it pulmonary em­bol­ism or suicide? Her casket was installed in Palacio de Bellas Artes. Casa Azul became her house-museum post-death. Now a pilgrimage site, it includes her own folk art, bed and art material,  and an easel from Nelson Rockefeller.

09 April 2024

Athens: ancient & modern Olympic Games

Greek royal family opening the 1896 Games
followed by British Prince of Wales and Russian Duchess Olga

The first Olympic Games in the Southern Hemisphere EVER were in Mel­bourne in 1956. These Games put our beautiful city on the map, got my father’s engineering career famous and led me to be an Olympics fanatic. But I knew very little about any Games before 1956.

Ancient Olympics The Games were a religious festival and a good excuse for Greeks to enjoy the festivities in Olympia in the NW Peloponnese. During the festival, animals were slaugh­t­ered in honour of Zeus, King of the Greek Gods. For the first 250 years, all the action (sports & religious ev­ents) took place in this sanctuary. Zeus’ sacred olive tree, from which the victory wreaths were cut, marked the finishing line for all races.

The Games took place every 4 years from 776BC to 393AD. All free Greek males were all­owed to take part, from farm hands to royal heirs, although the maj­ority of Olympians were soldiers. Women could not compete, or even attend.

The first arena was no more than the natural embankments of the surrounding hills. But by the mid C4th BC, a proper stadium was actually built. This spacious, more modern venue allowed spectator attend­ance to grow rapidly. The final version of the stadium came in the C1st, fuelled by the return of chariot racing to the programme. The popularity of the Games soared.

The ancient Games were initially a one-day event until 684 BC, when they were extended to three days. In the C5th BC, the Games were extended again to cover five days. 40,000 spectators pack­ed the stadium each day at the height of the Games’ popularity, with more selling their wares outside. Perhaps it was because all athletes competed naked.

The ancient Games included these events:
a]Pentathlon became an Olympic sport with the addition of wrestling in 708 BC, and included: stade foot race (200m); the diaulos (two stades - 400m) and dolichos (long distance).
b]Long Jumpers used lead weights to increase their jumps.
c]Discus was first made of stone and later of iron or lead
d]Wrestling was a military exercise without weapons.
e]Boxers wrapped straps around their hands, aiding the wrists. There were no time or weight limits.
f]Pankration was a martial art combining wrestling & boxing.
g]Equestrian events included horse races and chariot races.

Training also took place at Olympia, at first outdoors but during the Hellenistic period (323-31BC) the gymnasium was built. Home to practitioners of wrestling, boxing, pankration and the long jump, the gym’s main feature was a large, square inner-courtyard. And an extensive bathing system! The gymnasium was an elongated rectangle with space for both the javelin and discus throwers to practise. Both buildings were centres of intellectual debate and learning, with philosophers and teachers taking advantage of the young minds. Artists went there to put their skills on display.

The Olympic Games were the sporting, social, cultural and tourist highlight of the ancient Greek calendar for hundreds of years. The last of the ancient Games were held in 393 AD.

 100 metres sprint, 1896

Modern Olympics
Athens had been chosen to stage the inaugural modern Games during a congress organised by Baron Pierre de Coubertin in Paris in June 1894. The International Olympic Committee/IOC was also created then, specifically because Greece had held the Ancient Games.

In June 1894, Coubertin organised the Sorbonne congress, to present his plans to representatives of sports societies from 11 countries. Following his proposal's acceptance by the congress, a date for the first modern Olympic Games was chosen, 1896, and then they selected the host city: Athens.

Demetrius Vikelas was elected first President of the new Int­ernational Olympic Committee/IOC. Coubertin said that Crown Prince Constantine got great pleasure from the Games being inaugurated in Athens. The King and the Crown Prince would con­fer their patronage on the holding of these games, but the country was in financial and polit­ical turmoil.

With the prospect of reviving the Games in doubt, Coubertin and Vikelas announced that the Crown Prince would become President of the Organising Commit­tee. Prince Constant­ine's enthusiasm sparked a wave of patriotic cont­ributions from the Greek public and businessman George Averoff paid generously for the rest­oration of the Panathenaic Stadium.

The first regulation voted on by the new IOC in 1894 was to allow only amateur athletes to participate in the Games.

Thus the 1896 Summer Olympics Games were the first international Olympics held in modern history. The opening ceremony was held in the Panathenaic Stadium, during which most of the competing athletes were on the grass, grouped by nation. After a speech by Crown Prince Constantine, his father officially opened the Games. 9 bands and 150 choir singers performed.

Some of the athletes took part in the Games because they hap­pened to be in Athens at the time the Games were held, for work or hol­iday. And the athletes had to provide their own lodging. Women were not allowed to compete, although they were invited to Paris only four years later i.e 1900.

Fencing, 1896
Academy of Fencing

7 venues were used for the 1896 Summer Olympics, the main venue Panathenaic Stadium hosting 4 sports. The City of Marathon hosted the marathon and the individual road race events. Swimming was held in the Bay of Zea, a seaport in the Athens area. Fencing was at the Zappeion, shooting at Kall­ithea, and tennis at the Athens Lawn Tennis Club.

The 1896 Olympics were a great success. The Games had the largest international participation of any sporting event to that date, with huge crowds in watching the sports stars.  Competing national teams came from 14 countries - Australia, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria, Chile, Sweden, Italy, Greece, UK, France, Switzerland, USA, Germany and Denmark. Belgium and Russia originally submitted the names of competitors, but failed to send teams.

As of 2016, only 5 countries shared in every Summer Olympic Games – Australia, France, Greece, UK and Switzerland.

06 April 2024

Passion for Life: artist Dame Laura Knight

Knight, The Fishing Fleet, 1900  

Boston Museum & Art Gallery.

Knight, The Boys Newlyn Cornwall, 1909,  
Johannesburg Art Gallery.

Barbara Morden’s book dealt with the British artist born to the impov­erished Johnson fam­ily. Passion for Life: Dame Laura Knight (1877-1970) cov­er­ed Knight’s early years in Nott­ing­ham, her rel­at­ion­ship with husband Harold, life in art­ists col­on­­ies, her love of ballet, circ­us and theat­re, and travels in Eur­ope and US. It also ex­am­ined her role as the only female Offic­ial War Artist in WW2

R John Croft was the great-nephew of Laura Knight, and retold many of the tales directly from his aunt, sharing them with the author. As he did with the family photos. But, as well as retelling the fam­ily tales, Morden did thorough research into Knight’s history and leg­acy: correspondence, facts, events, parties, love affairs and art. Morden enhanced the book by describing the significant people who were influen­t­­ial in the development of the different styles in which Knight worked throughout her long career. The book all­owed the reader to see Knight’s vibrant pers­onality of course. And expl­or­ing the darker shades of her character gave this portrait depth.

Knight, Lamorna Birch and his daughters

Nottingham Uni, started in 1916


Knight, Spring, 1916-1920, 

Tate, London.


Born Laura Johnson, she started painting at 13 by enrolling in the Nottingham School of Art, and studied in France as well. She only stopped studying when her mother died, and she was forc­ed to start earn­ing money for the family. In fact, she unhappily took on her mother’s private art pupils.

Laura married artist Harold Knight in 1903 at 23, and they both joined artists’ colonies in Staithes Nth Yorkshire and Holland. They then joined Cornwall’s famous Newlyn School, socialising and shar­­ing artistic ideas with Walter Langley, Stanhope Forb­es and Alfred Mun­n­ings. Laura joined the wild social life but Harold was more cautious.

She loved painting the marginalised people on the edges of society, immersing her­self in the lives of circus performers and painted them from ob­servation. In fact in the 1930s, she travelled for several months with a tour­ing circus. Laura also spent several years drawing and painting Gypsies at Epsom races, then went to visit a Gypsy settle­ment in Iver Bucks. Over some months, she visited daily and painted a number of portraits in one family. And Knight loved to get behind the scenes of attractive car­eers. She painted scenes of actresses and ballet dancers, cap­t­uring performers backstage, resting and changing costumes.

With her own successful ventures Knight prom­ot­ed other wo­men in Brit­ish art who could ach­ieve their own goals eg she skilfully captured the heroism of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force offic­ers, showing the more workaday life of war-time lathe operators and munitions workers. She assisted with the war effort, creating propa­g­anda posters for the War Artists Advisory Committee. But there was a cost. Became she became a prominent public figure who wielded considerable influence in art circles, history portrayed Knight as an artist of the Establishment, a member of the boys' clubs. 

Knight, Elsie on Hassan, 1929, 

Nottingham City Museums and Galleries.

For another World War Two painting that focused on women's contributions, see Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech Ring  1943, displayed at the Imperial War Museums. Professionally operating an industrial lathe was something that would never have been expected from a young woman.
Rudy Loftus Screwing a Breech Ring, 1943
Commissioned by War Artists' Advisory Committee
Imperial War Museums

Knight was a core re­c­order of the crucial Nur­emberg Trials in 1946 when she was in her late 60s. In it she showed the Court, press box and the accused, and above the painting, see the devastation of a war-torn landscape.

Knight, The Nuremberg Trial, 1946,

Imperial War Museums London.

Barbara Morden specialised in art and literary history at Not­­t­ingham & Newcastle Universities. She was well known nationally and internat­ion­ally for her entertaining and scholarly lectures and for some years worked for the Open Uni as Arts Consul­tant and Lect­urer. Morden was a regular contributor to the English Review and has recently given lect­ures and gallery tours in New­castle, Sheffield, Nottingham & Norwich. Her book easily showed that Knight was one of the most notable wom­en ar­t­ists, at home and abroad, the first female artist to be made a Dame of the British Empire

The book prob­ed the myths that ap­p­eared after Knight’s death and continued to be woven around the art­ist. Knight had been a hard-working artist who longed to penetrate the mystery of form and colour. Thus she became one of Britain’s most pop­ular C20th Impres­s­ion­ist painters, but her brave colours eventually became unfashionable. She had been comfortable with the fig­urative, realist tradition but critics seemed to have wanted more Expressionism. Nonetheless during her long and fruitful career, she cont­in­ued to paint and exhibit and in 1965, becoming the first female artist to hold a solo retrospective at the RA.

These great images came from Daily Art Magazine.

02 April 2024

Krakow's world heritage Market Square

Kraków’s Market Square is the centre of the city’s medieval Old Town, designed in 1257 when Kraków won its charter. The grid-like layout of the Old Town and its central square has changed little in the following centuries. Always active, this 40,000 sq ms grouping of café’s, museums, clubs, pubs, music centres, historical landmarks, hotels, shows some of the best medieval architect­ure in the city. Because the med­ieval Rynek/market is surround­ed by elegant town­houses, all with their own names and histories, the import­ant histor­ical, cultural and social significance is largely intact.

The two towers of St Mary’s Basilica

Veit Stoss’ altarpiece
behind the C13th high altar of St. Mary’s Basilica 

In summer, umbrella shaded cafés sat along its sides, shaded from the sun by the looming gothic spires of St Mary’s C14th Basilica. The basilica had an imposing façade, flanked by 2 differently sized towers. Its crowning glory is Veit Stoss’ altarpiece. In snowy winter, the square is full of Christmas markets. Visit the square on each hour when St Mary’s Church bugle calls.

At its centre is the long medieval Sukiennice Cloth Hall, Kraków’s hist­or­ical hub of trade in Eastern Europe. Built in the C14th, this huge hall may have been one of the first shopping centres in the world, packed with market stands. The hall was later rebuilt in a Renais­sance style, housing the stalls of local merchants selling cloth products, handicrafts, amber, lace and woodwork like oriental imports.

 Sukiennice Cloth Hall

On the eastern side, the coffee shops are crowded with tourists enjoying a front row view of the Cloth Hall’s br­oadside and 70 m leaning Town Hall Tower. This tower is only remaining section of Krak­ów’s or­ig­inal C14th town hall, after fires and renovations. Visitors climb the sta­irs up to the 3rd floor through Gothic vaulted rooms which contain 1960s photos of Kraków and offer a grand panoramic view over the market. The tower is the only part of the former Town Hall that still stands. At the top is an observation deck from which visitors get a beautiful view of Kraków.

Gothic tower over
St Florian's Gate

St Florian's Gate is one of the best-known Polish Gothic towers, and a focal point of Kraków's Old Town. It was built about the C14th as a rectangular Gothic tower of wild stone, part of the city fortifications against Tatar attack. The gate became the main entryway to the Old Town.

The square’s eastern side is home to street entertainers that set up at the foot of the Basilica’s red towers. There is the small C10th Church of St Adalbert to the south, an old stone structure that is one of the few well preserved remaining examples of early Christian, Romanesque build­ings in Poland. It is next to the middle Gothic arches of the Cloth Hall. 

Town Hall Tower, leaning

Today many of the building façades that line the Main Square have Polish Baroque architecture, despite their med­ieval begin­nings. For example see the Krzysztofory Palace on the N.E corner, now home to the central divis­ion of the Historical Museum of Kraków.

Krzysztofory Palace
Now Historical Museum of Krakow

Enclosed by elegant townhouses and Medieval palaces, the square is one of the city’s main meeting points for both locals and tourists. It is bustling with life all day long. Apart from its picturesque terraces, the beautiful horse carriages await their next customers.

Directly next to the Sukiennice stands Poland’s most eminent scribe: Adam Mickiewicz, and a huge, striking bronze statue of Polish C19th romantic poet on the square's eastern side. Ironically this much loved bard never visited the city un­til after his death when his remains were transferred to the Wawel Cath­edral crypt, but this didn’t stop the statue from bec­om­ing one of Krak­ów’s best loved monuments.

Citizens used to witness many public events in the square, including royal cer­emonies and public executions. Even now grim tour­ists might enjoy the very grim set of metal neck chains dis­played on St Mary’s the side door, used to punish philand­ering women. But the worst was during German occup­ation when the square was renamed Adolf Hitler Platz and Nazi rallies attended by Der Führer himself took place.

Kraków’s medieval market square is one of the few places in the city that can chronicle Kraków’s history as concisely; from its medieval origins, through its dark C20th conflicts, to a vibrant modern European city. No wonder its beautiful buildings and history made the square a perfect choice for UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1978.