DETROIT — Art may be open to interpretation, but when the work in question is a reflection of an artist’s life, historians and museums tend to present their interpretations as fact. When I started researching the new exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit, I found a lot of inconsistencies in the ways that Frida Kahlo’s life story has been told. But it was during a visit to the exhibition, when I noticed a 1932 lithograph labeled “Untitled” and a sign warning visitors about potentially graphic imagery, that I really started to question the way we receive information in museums and more specifically the way autobiographical art is presented.
Up until then, all of my research had shown that this lithograph was titled “El Aborto,” but had also come to be known as “Frida and the Abortion,” “Frida and the Miscarriage,” or “The Abortion.” In Hayden Herrera’s Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo she recounted the process of making the lithograph:
Finally, they produced a few prints that seemed technically satisfactory, and Rivera suggested they send some of them to George Muller, a New York lithography expert, in order to get his advice. He sent Frida back her print with his comments: “These proofs are not good and not bad considering your experience. Work hard and you will get better results.” It was a message as bland as an aphorism in a fortune cookie. Frida, who in any case preferred the directness, immediacy, and privacy of oil painting, returned to her easel. But the lithograph — called “Frida and the Abortion” — remains, a powerful and heart-rendering image.
Human error and inaccuracy within museums is not unheard of. In 2012 a seventh grader noticed and corrected an error in the Metropolitan Museum’s map of the Byzantine Empire, which was missing Spain and part of Africa. When I contacted the DIA about the Kahlo lithograph I received an email response from Megan DiRienzo, the institution’s interpretive planner, who wrote the information on that placard.
“Untitled is not an error. Frida Kahlo actually never titled the lithograph, but it is often referred to by scholars as ‘The Abortion’ or ‘The Miscarriage,’” DiRienzo wrote. “Because of the interpretation that Solomon Grimberg presents in the catalogue essay (he asserts that Kahlo had an abortion rather than a miscarriage), the interpretive team landed on ‘Untitled’ to avoid confusion or make a judgment about what caused Kahlo’s pregnancy loss.”
In addition to its different titles, descriptions and interpretations of the work vary enormously. The wall text in the gallery at the DIA reads:
Kahlo depicted herself mourning with tears rolling down her cheeks. At the bottom left, she drew a healthy fetus attached to her by an umbilical cord, suggesting her unfulfilled role as a mother. On the right, an arm holding a heart-shaped palette for paint emerges from behind her body, as if to assert her role as an artist.
In her biography, Herrera wrote:
Frida’s body is divided into light and dark halves, as if to reveal the light and dark halves of her psyche, the presence within her of life and death. On her dark side is a weeping moon, and a third arm which holds a palette shaped rather like a fetus, implying, perhaps, that painting is an antidote to maternal failure, that for Frida, making art must take the place of making children.
This type of divergent reading is not uncommon in the gospel of Frida. Even Kahlo’s motivations for changing her name have been written about in very different ways. According to Suzanne Bilek in Great Female Artists of Detroit, it was Kahlo’s role as a new bride and the patriarchal standards of the time that caused her to sign her name “Frida Rivera” while in Detroit. But in Malka Drucker’s Frida Kahlo: Torment and Triumph in Her Life and Art, it was because of a ban on Jewish patrons at the hotel where she and Rivera stayed. Both Rivera and Kahlo had Jewish fathers, they insisted the ban be lifted immediately, and it was. Nevertheless, to further distance herself from her German heritage (this was 1932, after all) Frida dropped the “e” from her first name, started going by Carmen (her middle name), and occasionally signed with her husband’s last name.
“There are no guidelines that I am aware of,” Lillian Wilson, a PhD student in the history department at Wayne State University, told me when I asked if there has ever been a kind of code of ethics regarding such issues among historians or museums. Wilson’s research focuses on the art collecting practices of industrialists during the gilded age. “The big question here is, why is it acceptable to show a woman’s body without censorship in some instances but not in others? Why are idealized, nude female bodies bathing or in repose on wide-open display but a naked female body, bloody and in pain, prefaced with a warning? The controversial matter of the abortion — whether she had one in 1932 or whether it was a miscarriage, and whether or not to censor the subject in 2015 — is certainly part of the answer here; but the matter of Kahlo upsetting the dominant model of idealized and hyper-sexualized female bodies on display is an important piece of the puzzle.”
The Achenbach Foundation at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF) has one of these lithographs in its collection, with the title “El Aborto (Frida and the Miscarriage).” According to the foundation’s records there are six known versions of this work. In 2007 the FAMSF’s lithograph was displayed in Mexico and Modern Printmaking: A Revolution in the Graphic Arts, 1912–50 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA). According to Mark Castro, project assistant curator at the PMA, it was exhibited as “Frida and the Miscarriage.” Forget “Untitled” — even the connotations of “miscarriage” and “abortion” imply vastly different interpretations. Does calling a choice miscarriage a “miscarriage” take away the woman’s choice associated with the word “abortion,” or normalize it?
“I think a title is a significant piece of a work,” art and cultural heritage law specialist Leila A. Amineddoleh, a partner and co-founder of Galluzzo and Amineddoleh, told me. “I was thinking about a couple examples on the significance of titles, and one of the things I thought of is Duchamp’s ‘Fountain.’ He took a urinal and named it a fountain, and then said it was a piece of art. It was just because he gave it a title and put it in a different context that changed the work in itself, and titles do have the ability to transform a work … which brings me into the rights of the heirs.”
According to Amineddoleh, this all relates to a concept in US and international law referred to as moral rights. It stems from French legal philosophy, and the US was fairly late to incorporate it into copyright law in 1990, in the form of the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA). Mexico also has moral rights, Amineddoleh noted, which were first enacted in 1948, during Kahlo’s lifetime. Even so, a crucial difference in how these rights are applied in the US and in Mexico is that in Mexico moral rights pass to heirs, but in the US moral rights only apply during the artist’s lifetime. Moral rights generally covers two rights: the right to attribution, and the right to integrity.
“The right of integrity basically just protects the work from any mutilation, any type of distortion, of misrepresentation,” Amineddoleh explained. “If a title was a significant part of that work, and Frida Kahlo did provide that title as part of that work, then I’d say that there’s a possibility that mistitling the work, wrongly attributing it, or wrongly labeling it could go into the integrity of the work.”
In her review of the exhibition for the New York Times Roberta Smith wrote that the show is “riven with dumbed-down labels that emphasize the artists’ relationship, presenting a much simpler view of their artistic efforts than [curator Mark Rosenthal] does in the catalog.” Journalists receive criticism all the time for incorrectly presenting “facts.” It’s interesting that similar standards are so rarely applied to the texts in museum exhibitions.
When I spoke with Graham Beal, the director of the DIA, he said that when he was working as a curator he often felt like he was writing exhibition texts for other curators. At the DIA, the curators try to make their wall texts accessible to the public.
“The New York Times opted not to publish my response to Roberta Smith, but … 15 years of research and field work drawn from the public, all the responses …. strongly suggest that our public loves what we do,” Beal said. “What was it Mark Twain said? ‘I’m sorry this letter is so long, I didn’t have enough time to write a shorter one.’ That’s very much what it’s like writing straightforward labels. That you’re trying to convey quite complicated ideas … I understand why ‘sophisticated’ people find them to be dumbed-down. But that’s a price I’m more than willing to pay. Especially in the bubble in New York, they just have no idea what the public needs.”
Beal and Smith have strong ideas about what the public needs, and yet here is another case of information that can be interpreted in multiple ways. Smith is right, information should be presented to the public with intellectual integrity, and it’s insulting to assume that writing things a certain way will make it too difficult for the general public to understand. Then again, to say that something has been “dumbed-down” is just as elitist. Beal is right that museums can often be intimidating and make certain people feel excluded. The DIA does a wonderful job of making art feel accessible to everyone, and by describing things more simply, I can see how it makes the museum more approachable.
“We know that people come to the museum,” Beal continued. “They come here to be enlightened and uplifted. To be challenged, usually in some modest way, but deep down they’re looking for an experience that will make them feel better, escape from the world, understand themselves more … Especially with families, you want to maintain their sense of control and their sense of comfort. So to walk into a gallery and see a picture of a naked woman lying on a bed with blood on the sheets and umbilical chords distending to weird objects, you want people to know for themselves, and for the children, what they’re about to hit.”
Warning signs aside, the situation still stands to question: if this lithograph is not in fact legally titled, why do scholars and museums still display it as titled? Are they doing a disservice to Kahlo by not presenting her work as she left it, “Untitled,” and then noting that it has since been given a variety of alternate titles? Did the DIA do a disservice to its visitors by not acknowledging those other titles in the accompanying wall text?
Part of the difficulty seems to be that language and historiography tends to present information as fixed, when in fact it is in constant flux. I wonder what would be a more effective strategy for doing right by artists while making their art seem as accessible as possible: presenting information in the simplest and clearest terms, or acknowledging all the realities — what we know, what we don’t know, and how we know it or don’t — of an artist’s work and experience? Unfortunately, only Kahlo could tell us if these conflicting analyses are an accurate reflection of her intention, or an erasure of her experience.