Frida and Diego, Art Gallery of Ontario

Dec 26, 2012

Frida and Diego, and First Thursdays at the Art Gallery of Ontario

Last week we went to the “First Thursday” for December, an evening event on the first Thursday of the month that has just begun at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO).  This particular event was based around the AGO’s show, “Frida and Diego: Passion, Politics and Painting” and since I love Frida Kahlo’s paintings I was happy to go.  As well, because the Art Gallery of Ontario does not normally host evening events for the public, I was looking forward to seeing whether this kind of event would work to draw in younger clients in Toronto, as it seems to have succeeded at art museums in other North American cities.

In an attempt to market the museum to younger patrons, both the Art Gallery and the Royal Ontario Museum (Toronto’s history and natural history museum) are hosting events which allow visitors to eat, drink (alcohol) and wander about the galleries, drink in hand.  The events include staged live events, life drawing classes, and a generally relaxed atmosphere that encourages interaction with other patrons, as well as with the art (or artifacts in the case of the ROM).  The events are reasonably priced (I paid $20 plus a $2 surcharge online for booking), and the pop-up bar seemed to be doing a roaring business.  The food was also themed for the exhibit – tacos and churros in the main court, and chocolate served in the galleria.

From what I saw on Thursday (the third such event at the AGO) it seems to work.  There was a queue to get in at the door, and another to check coats.  Most of the people in the queue were dressed up to go out, and most were under 30.  Most of them were also young women, some with boyfriends attached, but many in groups of three or four (pay attention guys!).  There was an excited buzz that one doesn’t usually get at the Art Gallery – actually it felt more like the buzz one does get at a rock concert for a popular local group.  Since part of the event was a concert by local group Yamantaka/Sonic Titan perhaps it was, or perhaps it was simply that young women don’t go to august institutions like the Art Gallery of Ontario very often, and especially not in crowds.

The show itself is wonderful – small paintings by both Frida and Diego are displayed in three galleries, interspersed with photographs, large reproductions of Diego’s murals, audiovisual interpretive stations, and informative text panels.  The slogans for the show, “He painted for the people. She painted to survive” sum up both the intimacy of the paintings and photographs, many of which portray the artists together in their domestic setting, and the larger themes that emerge as one makes one’s way through the galleries.  Both were clearly very political people, as well-known members of the Communist Party for many years, they literally lived their convictions, and painted them.  A poignant example of this is a body-cast, displayed in a vitrine in one of the galleries.  It has a hammer and sickle painted on it, but these are linked to a painting of a fetus, floating in a sea of white.   A photo of Frida, wearing the body-cast, is displayed beside the vitrine.

At the end of the exhibit (through the pop-up shop selling photos of Frida on everything, Day of the Dead paraphernalia, and Mexican culinary goods) there are several diablos and an ofrenda – dedicated to Frida – as well as a very amusing tableau of Frida and Diego as huge paper mache figures (catrinas), paintbrushes in hand, wearing their trademark clothing, and joined together with a heart-shaped palette.

As we wandered away from the exhibit through the galleries and into the Henry Moore sculpture gallery we realized that we had come upon one of the event offerings of the evening.  Visitors stood in a semi-circle, fascinated (with horror?) as a nude woman, her head covered with a black veil, rode an exercycle attached to a computer screen that generated music as she pedaled, and while she pedaled, she also flagellated herself with a cat o’nine tails whip.  As we approached the tableau we realized that the woman was transsexual and as she raised the veil to uncover her hair and blacked-out eyes, we shivered.  Nina Arsenault is a performance artist who uses her own surgeries and transsexual transformation as content for her art.  In the context of this exhibit about Frida’s life I suppose it works, but we didn’t stay long – it was too painful to watch.

The exhibit and the main hall were the focus of the events for this show but in the Italian galleria at the front of the AGO a life-drawing class with a male nude model was also happening.  Chocolate was being served at the bar, and visitors were looking out at the streetlights and the dark skies of Dundas Street.  The galleria is one of my favourite parts of the new Frank Gehry re-designed AGO, the wood beams and tall glass windows provide a new perspective on the street, and a respite from the white gallery walls of the Canadian art exhibits.

We decided that the pop music in the galleria was too loud for relaxation so we eventually simply sat down in the education centre just outside the Canadian galleries.  This turned out to be a great place for people-watching, and visitors were taking advantage of the draw-your-own-portrait invitation offered by the low tables, comfy seats, mirrors, drawing pencils and paper.  Quite a lot of people had drawn pictures of what they had seen in the gallery (portraits of Frida with her trademark hairstyle and eyebrow, strong images from Diego’s murals) but a number had drawn their own portraits and had displayed them on wall in the open frames provided for the purpose.  People were clearly having fun.

The final offering of the night was Yamantaka/Sonic Titan, a Canadian experimental music and performance art collective.  Ruby Kato Attwood and Alaska B, former art students at Concordia University in Montreal, with supporting members, subvert the cultural signifiers of their shared Asian-Canadian heritage to create a music and performance art style which they call “Noh-Wave” a pun on Nôh theatre and the New Wave style of experimental underground music.   The band came onstage late (why does no music event ever begin on time in Toronto?) in Walker Court – we were watching from above on the staircase, which gave us a great view.  I enjoyed the two songs we managed to stay for, but the sound was much too loud for the small space.  The younger crowd milled about, chatting, drinking and taking in the spectacle so presumably they didn’t mind.

We left the AGO entertained and enlivened by both art and spectacle.

*Elka Weinstein, regular contributor to Masters in Museums.