MMoCA’s “Pitahayas” is part of a massive Google Arts & Culture undertaking.
Ever bitten into a pitahaya? The food, with pinkish skin and a flecked white interior, is actually several varieties of cactus fruit, and the taste can range from the sour (from the variety grown in Mexico) to the sweet (from the variety grown in tropical climes, more commonly referred to as dragon fruit).
It’s likely the sour variety of the fruit that inspired Frida Kahlo’s 1938 work Pitahayas, now on view at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. The exhibit consists of just the one painting, and it’s a colorful still life from the Mexican artist in the devotional folk art style of “ex voto,” or painting on tin. Pitahayas, which has been part of MMoCA’s permanent collection since 1969, is on view in a cozier-than-usual Imprint Gallery—currently a fake wall halves the size of the space, and it’s painted a nice deep red—through February 3, 2019.
Here’s the twist: The exhibit is part of an international collaborative project called Faces Of Frida, an initiative in which Google Arts and Culture is partnering with 33 museums for a richly researched digital exhibition on the colorful Mexican artist. It consists of Frida’s artworks, sure, but also intimate artifacts from her personal life, including pages from her diary, photographs of Kahlo and her husband, Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, entries on Kahlo’s clothing—hell, you can even take a digital tour of Kahlo’s bathroom inside her legendary Blue House.
It’s a serious undertaking from Google Arts and Culture, a project that’s best known for a similarly-interactive but sillier idea. MMoCA spokesperson Erika Monroe-Kane says she was originally a bit cautious about joining the project when Google first approached the museum, but was persuaded by the caliber of partner museums and research involved in the project.
And it was a perfect opportunity for MMoCA curator Mel Becker Solomon to research the painting’s origins and acquisition by the museum—a months-long project that resulted in several changes to Frida’s catalogue raisonné. Each portion of the painting is neatly unpacked in an interactive digital tour of the work itself, with accompanying explanations from Solomon’s research.
After spending day in and day out with the painting, Solomon argues that Pitahayas is a significant example of Kahlo’s maturation as an artist—separate and distinct from Rivera.
“It’s important to look seriously at the painting, as Kahlo is maturing as a serious artist, not just tied to Diego,” Solomon says.
Pitahayas also extends far beyond “still life” to serve as an interior portrait, with details that mirror significant parts of Kahlo’s life. For example, a sliced pitahaya in the painting suggests fertility and reproduction, mirroring a female ovum as drawn from a medical textbook. The detail points to a personal history—Kahlo suffered from multiple miscarriages throughout her life.
Perhaps the most exciting discovery from Solomon’s research has to do with the skeleton in the painting. An early photograph of Pitahayas shows the skeleton smiling, but in the current version, it’s frowning. Kahlo changed it, Solomon says, when she returned from an exhibition in France to learn that Diego wanted a divorce (though after a year apart, they would soon be remarried).
The full project, which promises a “closer look at the many faces of Frida Kahlo through her life, art and legacy,” is also fully viewable on your laptop, tablet, or phone. Visitors to the museum can also page through the project, and an essay on Pitahayas in particular, on an iPad installed in the Imprint gallery. I recommend installing it straight on your phone (it’s available both for iOS and for Android), though, because there seemed to be some technical glitches with the iPad both times I went, and it’s installed in a corner opposite the painting, resulting in an awkward crane-your-neck-and-squint if you, like me, would want to look back and forth between the app and the painting.
Then there’s the extra benefit of exploring the vast world of Faces Of Frida at your leisure, outside the museum. According to Monroe-Kane, it’s the first time MMoCA has integrated technology into viewing art in this particular way. Hopefully, these sorts of digital-meets-museum experiments continue to both facilitate collaborations between fine art museums and institutions, and push the limits of what’s free and accessible to the general population—two causes that are equally sweet.