Visit the Largest Collection of Frida Kahlo’s Work Ever Assembled: 800 Artifacts from 33 Museums, All Free Online

Some films achieve the rare feat of being both colorful escapist fantasy and artful means of reconnecting us with our imperiled humanity. Pixar’s wonderful, animated Coco is such a film, “an exploration of values,” writes Jia Tolentino at The New Yorker, “a story of a multigenerational matriarchy, rooted in the past—whereas real life, these days, feels like an atemporal, structureless nightmare ruled by men.” Central to its fictionalized celebration of Mexican culture and history is a historical figure every grown-up viewer knows—that foremother of Mexican modernism, Frida Kahlo, an artist who seems as necessary to remember now as ever.

Not that Frida Kahlo is in danger of being forgotten. She is adored around the world, an icon for millions of people who see themselves in the various intersections of her identity: Mexican, mestiza, queer, disabled, feminist, uncompromisingly radical, etc….

Kahlo’s identities matter, and she made them matter. She would not be erased or let her edges be planed away and sanded down. Like other confessional artists to whom she is often compared, Kahlo turned her tragically painful, joyously vibrant life into enduring art. To crib Audre Lorde’s description of poetry, her work is a “revelatory distillation of experience.”

But the confessional understanding of Kahlo can present a critical problem, namely the emergence of what Stephanie Mencimer calls “the Kahlo Cult.”

…her fans are largely drawn by the story of her life, for which her paintings are often presented as simple illustration…. But, like a game of telephone, the more Kahlo’s story has been told, the more it has been distorted, omitting uncomfortable details that show her to be a far more complex and flawed figure than the movies and cookbooks suggest.

In any case, we may not need more hagiography of Frida. We find her life, flaws and all, in her work. From the ravages of childhood polio and a horrific traffic accident at 18 (depicted in the drawing below but never in a painting), from love affairs, a deep immersion in Mexican folk art, and a commitment to socialism and the Mexican Revolution, Kahlo created an autobiographical oeuvre like no other. That said, Kahlo herself is so undeniably fascinating a character that "no one need appreciate art to justify being a Kahlo fan or even a Kahlo cultist," as Peter Schjeldahl once wrote. "Why not? The world will have cults, and who better merits one?"

For the art appreciators and Kahlo cultists alike, Google Arts & Culture has created a project that brings together her life and work in ways that illuminate both, with biographical and critical essays, and a thorough exhibit of her work from museums all over the world, including many little-known pieces like her sketches, drawings, and early works; a look at her letters and many photographs of her throughout her life; an online exhibition of her famous wardrobe; several features of her influence on LGBTQ artists, musicians, fashion designers, and much, much more. It's "the largest Kahlo curation ever assembled," notes My Modern Met. "The best part? No need to pay a museum fee—it's available online for anyone to enjoy for free."

A collaboration "between the tech giant and a worldwide network of experts and 33 partner museums in seven countries," notes Hyperallergic, Faces of Frida contains 800 artifacts, "including 20 ultra-high resolution images... never digitized till now." Some of these artifacts are extremely rare, such as "early versions of her work, sketched and etched onto the backs of finished paintings, unseen by anyone without the ability to touch them." You can also see the places that most influenced her career through five Google Street view tours, "including the famous Blue House in Mexico City in which she was born and died."

This comprehensive online gallery seeks to encompass every part of Frida’s life, but rarely takes the focus from her work. “Of the 150 or so of her works that have survived,” notes Mencimer, “most are self-portraits. As she later said, ‘I paint myself because I am so often alone, because I am the subject I know best.’” Working outward from herself, she also painted the specific resonances of her time and place, and explored human experiences that transcend personality. “As with all the best artists,” says author Frances Borzello in one of the Google Arts features, “Kahlo’s art is not a diary ingeniously presented in paint but a recreation of personal beliefs, feelings and events through her particular lens into something unique and universal.”

Though a superstar in the land of the dead, during her life Kahlo’s work was greatly overshadowed by that of her famous husband Diego Rivera. She only had two shows in her lifetime, one of them arranged by surrealist Andre Breton, who called her painting “a ribbon around a bomb.” After her death in 1954, she “largely disappeared from the mainstream art world.” There is a certain irony in pointing out that fascination with Kahlo’s work sometimes reduces down to interest in her biography, since it took a 1983 biography by Hayden Herrera to bring her back into the public consciousness. “When it was published” Mercimer writes, “there wasn’t a single monograph of Kahlo’s work to show people what it looked like, but the biography, which could have been the basis for a Univision telenovela, sparked a Frida frenzy.”

How things have changed. No reader of Herrera’s book, or any of the many treatments of Kahlo’s life since then, will come to it sight unseen. Frida’s face—defiant, mustachioed, monobrowed—stares out at us from everywhere. The Google exhibit guides us through a comprehensive contextualization of that haunting, yet familiar gaze. The letters and biographical entries contain insight after insight into the artist’s private and public lives. But ultimately, it’s the paintings that speak. As Borzello puts it, when we really confront Frida’s work, we may be struck by “how helpless words are in the face of the strange richness of those images.” She invented new visual vocabularies of pain, pleasure, pride, and perseverance. Visit Faces of Frida here.

via Google's blog

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Visualizing Dante’s Hell: See Maps & Drawings of Dante’s Inferno from the Renaissance Through Today

The light was departing. The brown air drew down
     all the earth’s creatures, calling them to rest
     from their day-roving, as I, one man alone,

prepared myself to face the double war
     of the journey and the pity, which memory
     shall here set down, nor hesitate, nor err.

Reading Dante’s Inferno, and Divine Comedy generally, can seem a daunting task, what with the book’s wealth of allusion to 14th century Florentine politics and medieval Catholic theology. Much depends upon a good translation. Maybe it’s fitting that the proverb about translators as traitors comes from Italian. The first Dante that came my way—the unabridged Carlyle-Okey-Wicksteed English translation—renders the poet’s terza rima in leaden prose, which may well be a literary betrayal.

Gone is the rhyme scheme, self-contained stanzas, and poetic compression, replaced by wordiness, antiquated diction, and needless density. I labored through the text and did not much enjoy it. I’m far from an expert by any stretch, but was much relieved to later discover John Ciardi’s more faithful English rendering, which immediately impresses upon the senses and the memory, as in the description above in the first stanzas of Canto II.

The sole advantage, perhaps, of the translation I first encountered lies in its use of illustrations, maps, and diagrams. While readers can follow the poem’s vivid action without visual aids, these lend to the text a kind of imaginative materiality: saying yes, of course, this is a real place—see, it’s right here! We can suspend our disbelief, perhaps, in Catholic doctrine and, doubly, in Dante’s weirdly officious, comically bureaucratic, scheme of hell.

Indeed, readers of Dante have been inspired to map his Inferno for almost as long as they have been inspired to translate it into other languages—and we might consider these maps more-or-less-faithful visual translations of the Inferno’s descriptions. One of the first maps of Dante’s hell (top) appeared in Sandro Botticelli’s series of ninety illustrations, which the Renaissance great and fellow Florentine made on commission for Lorenzo de’Medici in the 1480s and 90s.

Botticelli’s “Chart of Hell,” writes Deborah Parker, “has long been lauded as one of the most compelling visual representations… a panoptic display of the descent made by Dante and Virgil through the ‘abysmal valley of pain.’” Below it, we see one of Antonio Manetti’s 1506 woodcut illustrations, a series of cross-sections and detailed views. Maps continued to proliferate: see printmaker Antonio Maretti’s 1529 diagram further up, Joannes Stradanus’ 1587 version, above, and, below, a 1612 illustration below by Jacques Callot.

Dante’s hell lends itself to any number of visual treatments, from the purely schematic to the broadly imaginative and interpretive. Michelangelo Caetani’s 1855 cross-section chart, below, lacks the illustrative detail of other maps, but its use of color and highly organized labeling system makes it far more legible that Callot’s beautiful but busy drawing above.

Though we are within our rights as readers to see Dante’s hell as purely metaphorical, there are historical reasons beyond religious belief for why more literal maps became popular in the 15th century, “including,” writes Atlas Obscura, “the general popularity of cartography at the time and the Renaissance obsession with proportions and measurement.”

Even after hundreds of years of cultural shifts and upheavals, the Inferno and its humorous and horrific scenes of torture still retain a fascination for modern readers and for illustrators like Daniel Heald, whose 1994 map, above, while lacking Botticelli’s gilded brilliance, presents us with a clear visual guide through that perplexing valley of pain, which remains—in the right translation or, doubtless, in its original language—a pleasure for readers who are willing to descend into its circular depths. Or, short of that, we can take a digital train and escalators into an 8-bit video game version.

See more maps of Dante’s Inferno here, here, and here.

via Atlas Obscura

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

David Bowie Memorialized in Traditional Japanese Woodblock Prints

The East beckons me — Japan — but I’m a bit worried that I’ll get too Zen there and my writing will dry up. - David Bowie, 1980

David Bowie’s longstanding fascination with Japan pervaded his work, becoming the gateway through which many of his fans began to explore that country’s cultural traditions and aesthetics.

Perhaps the entry point is designer Kansai Yamamoto’s Ziggy Stardust togs, Yukio Mishima’s 1963 novel The Sailor Who Fell from Grace from the Sea—one of Bowie’s top 100 books—or the 1000s of images photographer Masayoshi Sukita captured of the rocker over a period of four decades.

Maybe it was Aladdin Sane’s kabuki-like makeup or director Nagisa Oshima's World War II drama,  Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, in which Bowie played a British officer in a Japanese POW camp.

The recent release of two modern ukiyo-e woodblock prints featuring the rocker has caused such mass swooning among legions of Japanophile Bowie fans, the reverberations may well be powerful enough to ring temple bells in Kyoto.

For each print, artist Masumi Ishikawa casts Bowie as both himself and an iconic Japanese figure.

In the image at the top of the page, Bowie’s Aladdin Sane assumes the pose of the central character in Edo Period artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s Kidômaru and the Tengu, below.

The other print relocates the dashing Bowie from Terry O’Neill’s Diamond Dogs publicity photos to the realm of magician Takezawa Toji, whose spinning top performances had the power to summon dragons, at least as depicted by Kuniyoshi.

The prints were ordered by the Ukiyo-e Project, whose mission is to portray today’s artists and pop icons on traditional woodblock prints. (Bowie follows previous honorees Kiss and Iron Maiden.)

The prints and the blocks from which the impressions were made will be on display at BOOKMARC in Tokyo’s Omotesando neighborhood from June 23 to July 1.

via Spoon and Tamago

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker, Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and Bowie fan.  Her solo show Nurse!, in which one of Shakespeare’s best loved female characters hits the lecture circuit to set the record straight opens June 12 at The Tank in New York City. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Ralph Steadman Creates an Unorthodox Illustrated Biography of Sigmund Freud, the Father of Psychoanalysis (1979)

Sigmund Freud died in 1939, and the nearly eight decades since haven't been kind to his psychoanalytical theories, but in some sense he survives. "For many years, even as writers were discarding the more patently absurd elements of his theory — penis envy, or the death drive — they continued to pay homage to Freud’s unblinking insight into the human condition," writes the New Yorker's Louis Menand. He claims that Freud thus evolved, "in the popular imagination, from a scientist into a kind of poet of the mind. And the thing about poets is that they cannot be refuted. No one asks of 'Paradise Lost': But is it true? Freud and his concepts, now converted into metaphors, joined the legion of the undead."

The master of a legion of undead psychological metaphors — who, in the ranks of living illustrators, could be more suited to render such a figure than Ralph Steadman? And how many of us know that he actually did so in 1979, when he produced an "art-biography" of the "Father of Psychoanalysis"?

Sigmund Freud, which has spent long stretches out of print since its first publication, tells the story of Freud's life, beginning with his childhood in Austria to his death, not long after his emigration in flight from the Nazis, in London. It was there that he met Virginia Woolf, who in her diary describes him as "a screwed up shrunk very old man: with a monkey’s light eyes, paralyzed spasmodic movements, inarticulate: but alert."

There, again, Freud sounds like one of Steadman's drawings, sometimes outwardly unappealing but always possessed of an unignorable vitality generated by a solid core of perceptiveness. Earlier chapters of Freud's life, characterized by intellectual as well as physical vigorousness aided by the 19th-century "miracle drug" of cocaine, also give the illustrator rich material to work with. One can't help but think of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which forged a permanent cultural link between Steadman's art and Hunter S. Thompson's prose. How "true" is the drug-fueled desert odyssey that book recounts? More so, perhaps, than many of Freud's supposedly scientific discoveries. But as with the work of Freud, so with that of Thompson and Steadman: we return to it not because we want the truth, exactly, but because we can't turn away from the often grotesque versions of ourselves it shows us.

You can pick up a copy of Steadman's illustrated Sigmund Freud here.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Download 50,000 Art Books & Catalogs from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Digital Collections

If you’ve lived in or visited New York City, you must know the laughable futility of trying to “do the Met” in a day, or even a weekend. Not only is the museum enormous, but its permanent collections demand to be studied in detail, an activity one cannot rush through with any satisfaction. If you’re headed there for a special exhibit, be especially disciplined—make a beeline and do not stop to linger over elaborate Edo-period samurai armor or austere Shaker-made furniture.

I thought I’d learned my lesson after many years of residence in the city. When I returned last summer for a visit, family in tow, I vowed to head straight for the Rei Kawakubo exhibit, listing all other priorities beneath it. More fool me.

Immediate overwhelm overtook as we entered, on a weekend, in a crush of tourist noise. After hours spent admiring sarcophagi, neoclassical paintings, etc., etc., we had to nix the exhibit and push our way into Central Park for fresh air and recuperative ice cream.

Does an exhibition checklist, with photographs and descriptions of every piece on display, make up for missing the Kawakubo in person? Not exactly, but at least I can linger over it, virtually, in solitude and at my leisure. If you value this experience, cannot make it to the Met, or want to see several hundred past exhibitions from the comfort of your home, you can do so easily thanks to the wealth of catalogs the Met has uploaded to its Digital Collections.

These catalogs document special exhibits not only at the New York landmark, but also at galleries around the world from the past 100 years or so. In a recent blog post, the Met points to one such scanned catalog—out of almost a hundred from the Hungarian Gallery Nemzeti Szalon—from a 1957 exhibition of sculptor Miklós Borsos. The text is in Hungarian, but the artwork (further up), in detailed black and white photographs, speaks a universal visual language.

These catalogs join the thousands of books—50,000 titles in all—at the Met’s Digital Collections. There, you’ll find collections such as Rare Books Published in Imperial and Early Soviet Russia, with unusual treasures like the book Churches of Uglich, a survey of one Russian town’s churches, with photos, from the 1880s. “Interested in Dada?” asks the Met, and who isn’t? The museum has just added a 1917 issue of journal The Blind Man, edited by Marcel Duchamp and containing Alfred Stieglitz’s photograph of Duchamp’s found art prank Fountain.

If fashion’s your thing, the museum has added thousands of Bergdorf Goodman sketches from 1929 to 1952 (see a particularly elegant example above from the 1930s). Maybe you’re into the history of the Met itself? If so, check out this massive collection of historical images of the museum, inside and out, dating from its inception in 1870 to the present. There’s even a selection of photos of its iconic special exhibition banners from 1970 through 2004 (like that below from 1982).

If you’re headed to the Met to see one of these special exhibits, take my advice and don’t get distracted once you’re inside. But if you want to access a range of the museum’s cultural treasures from afar, you can’t do any better than browsing its Digital Collections, where you’re also likely to get lost for hours, maybe days.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Henrietta Lacks Gets Immortalized in a Portrait: It’s Now on Display at the National Portrait Gallery

In my childhood, I heard stories about Henrietta Lacks' miraculous cells. I heard these stories because she happened to have been my grandmother’s cousin. But this was just oral lore, I thought at first, legendary and implausible. Cells don’t just keep growing indefinitely. Nothing is immortal. That’s a safe assumption in most every other case, but millions of people now know what only a relatively self-contained community of researchers, doctors, biology students, and, eventually, the Lacks family once did: Henrietta’s cervical cancer cells continued to grow and multiply after her death in 1951. They may, indeed, do so forever.

The once anonymous cell line, called HeLa, has provided researchers worldwide with invaluable medical data. Henrietta herself went unrecognized and unremembered until fairly recently. That all changed after Rebecca Skloot’s book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, based on an earlier series of articles, appeared in 2010 to great acclaim. Since the publication of Skloot’s bestseller, the story of Henrietta and the Lacks family has further achieved renown in a 2017 film version starring Oprah Winfrey.

Suffice it say, seeing Henrietta arrive on the pop cultural stage has been a strange experience. (One made even weirder by other media moments, like indie band Yeasayer and former Dead Kennedys singer Jello Biafra releasing songs about her and her cells.) The injustices of Henrietta’s story are now well-known. She was poor and received substandard medical treatment. Her cells were harvested without her knowledge, and after her death, no one notified the family about the worldwide use of her cells for biomedical research. That is, until doctors did research on her children in the 70s, publishing family medical records without consent and gathering more data because the HeLa cells had contaminated other cell lines.

She has “become one of the most powerful symbols for informed consent in the history of science,” Nela Ulaby writes at NPR. She is also a symbol, says Bill Pretzer, senior curator at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), “that history can be remade, re-remembered.” To that end, Henrietta has been immortalized as a whole human being, not just the source of extraordinarily immortal cells. Her portrait, by African-American artist Kadir Nelson, now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, a representation of both the historical figure and her world-historical biological legacy.

Drawing on the photograph that adorns the cover of Skloot’s book, the portrait shows her “just like they said she was in life,” says her granddaughter Jeri Lacks-Whye, “happy, outgoing, giving,” and stylishly dressed. The two missing buttons on her dress represent the cells taken from her body, and the pattern behind her, which “almost looks like wallpaper,” says National Portrait Gallery curator Dorothy Moss, is “actually representative of her cells.” Other tributes, notes Ulaby, include a “high school for students interested in medicine” and "a minor planet whirling in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.” The cells have also generated billions of dollars in profit.

In life, she could never have imagined this strange kind of fame and fortune. The HeLa cells were instrumental in the development of the polio vaccine and research in cloning, gene mapping, and in vitro fertilization. They have traveled into space and around the world hundreds of times. The story of the person they came from, says Skloot in a 2010 interview, reminds us that “there are human beings behind every biological sample used in the laboratory… but they’re usually left out of the equation.” Making those lives an essential part of the conversation in medical research can help keep that research ethically honest, equitable, and, one hopes, based in serving human needs over corporate greed.

The portrait will remain at the National Portrait Gallery until November 4th, after which it will return to the NMAAHC.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Explore 7,600 Works of Art by Edvard Munch: They’re Now Digitized and Free Online

If there were ever an exhibition of artistic “one-hit-wonders,” surely Edvard Munch’s The Scream would occupy a central place, maybe hung adjacent to Grant Wood’s American Gothic. The ratio of those who know this single painting to those who know the artist's other works must be exponentially high, which is something of a shame. That’s not to say The Scream does not deserve its exalted place in popular culture—like Wood's stone-faced Midwest farmers, the wavy figure, clutching its screaming skull-like head, resonates at the deepest of psychic frequencies, an archetypal evocation of existential horror.

Not for nothing has Sue Prideaux subtitled her Munch biography Behind the Scream. “Rarely in the canon of Western art,” writes Tom Rosenthal at The Independent, “has there been so much anxiety, fear and deep psychological pain in one artist. That he lived to be 80 and spent only one period in an asylum is a tribute not only to Munch’s physical stamina but to his iron will and his innate, robust psychological strength.” Born in Norway in 1863, the sickly Edvard, whose mother died soon after his birth, was raised by a harsh disciplinarian father who read Poe and Dostoevsky to his children and, in addition to beating them “for minor infractions,” would “invoke the image of their blessed mother who saw them from heaven and grieved over their misbehavior.”

The trauma was compounded by the death of Munch’s sister and, later, his brother, and by the institutionalization of another sister, Laura, diagnosed with schizophrenia. Munch’s own childhood illness made his schooling erratic, though he did manage to receive some artistic training, briefly, at Oslo’s Art Association, an artist’s club where he “learnt by copying the works on display.”

From there the young Munch launched himself into an extraordinarily productive career, punctuated by legendary bouts of drinking and carousing and intense friendships with literary figures like August Strindberg.

If we count ourselves among those who know little of Munch’s work, a new initiative from the Munch Museum in Oslo aims to correct that by making over 7,600 of Munch’s drawings available online. “The online catalog, free to all,” notes Hyperallergic’s Sarah Rose Sharp, “represents a tremendous feat of logistics, and features drawings that go back as far as the artist’s childhood, sketchbooks, studies of tools, coins, and keys that demonstrate Munch’s dedication as a disciplined draftsman, and watercolors of buildings that were some of the first bodies of work developed by the artist in his youth.”

Over 90% of the drawings on digital display come from the Museum’s holdings, the rest from other public and private collections. “The goal is to make Munch’s art known and easily accessible to as many people as possible,” Magne Bruteig, Senior Curator for Prints and Drawings, tells Hyperallergic. “Since the majority of the drawings had never been exhibited or published in any way, it has been of special importance to reveal this ‘hidden treasure.’” The online collection, then, not only serves as an introduction for Munch novices but also for longtime admirers of the artist’s work, who have hitherto had little to no access to this huge collection of studies, preparatory sketches, watercolors, etc., which includes the miserable family grouping of Angst, at the top, the reprise of his infamous Scream figure, further up, from 1898, and The Sick Child, above, a portrait of his sister Sophie who died in childhood.

The drawings date back to 1873, when Munch was only ten years old and inserted a series of his own illustrations into a copy of Grimm’s Fairytales. The final works date from 1943, the year before the artist’s death, when he made the self-portrait above in pastel crayon. Munch’s work, writes Rosenthal, “is compulsively autobiographical.” Remaining a committed bachelor all of his life, he said that “his paintings were his children, even though he gave many of them a somewhat Spartan upbringing, deliberately leaving them not only unvarnished but exposed to the elements in his vast outdoor studio or hung on walls, unframed and with nails through them.” The several thousand drawings he fathered seem to have been treated with more care. Delve into the enormous collection at the Oslo Munch Museum site here, where you can also view many of the artist's paintings and learn much more about his life and work through articles and essays.

via Hyperallergic

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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