Our thoughts about Latin American art have been molded largely by the big U.S. museum shows that featured male artists, among them the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden's 1993 "Crosscurrents of Modernism" and the Museum of Modern Art's 1994 "Latin American Artists of the 20th Century."
The Hirshhorn's was a men-only exhibit that included the monumentally large, exploding figures of Diego Rivera - along with paintings by surrealists Wilfredo Lam and Matta and constructivist works by Joaquin Torres-Garcia. The Museum of Modern Art's exhibit also emphasized male artists. Of the 94 included, only 15 were women.
Now "Latin American Women Artists, 1915-1995," at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, should help set the record straight.
This survey of 104 paintings, sculptures, fiber, works on paper and multimedia installations - by 34 women from nine countries and Puerto Rico - is the first major exhibit of its kind and was curated and organized for the Milwaukee Art Museum by Geraldine P. Biller.
Latin American female artists, many of them born elsewhere and many having studied in Europe and the United States, reflect not just a multiplicity of cultures, but also the variety of 20th-century international movements in art - expressionism, surrealism, conceptualism and abstraction.
Yet, these women bend these cultures and movements to their own particular visions - with fantastic imagery, elevation of the home and domestic occupations, interpretations of their particular culture and geography, love of children, portrait and self-portraits.
Organized to present three periods of modern art from the Southern Hemisphere (from 1915 to the end of World War II, 1945 to the 1970s and from the 1970s to today) the exhibit traces these preoccupations through the surrealist, cubist and expressionist paintings of the first period, the geometric abstraction of the second and the pluralist mixing of installations, pop and abstract expressionism and multimedia works of the third.
Most important, the exhibit shows what is both international and unique about these women artists.
Unfortunately, the museum has squeezed the exhibition into too small a space for the works to shine as they should. It also has painted the walls an unflattering dark green, which tends to deaden the paintings.
The biggest names in the show - Frida Kahlo (1907-54), Remedios Varo (1908-1963) and Leonora Carrington (born in 1917) are the best-known - paint surrealist, fantastic images that were unlike work being done in the United States and Europe at the time. They set the tone of the exhibit, as curator Biller has concentrated on showing individually interesting and extraordinary works.
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Kahlo of Mexico is the artist most familiar to U.S. audiences. She is best-known for her many haunting self-portraits, and "Autorretrato con mono" (Self-Portrait With Monkey) (1938) is typical in its riveting gaze, its bushy eyebrows that meet one another, its enormous eyes and sensuous lips.
Continuing Kahlo's fantastic, surrealist imagery, but in different ways, are Mexico's Miss Carrington and Varo. They both fled Europe with the advent of World War II.
Acquiring her taste for the supernatural and fantastic in art school in Florence and from medieval and Flemish art, the British-born Miss Carrington produced carefully crafted, Bosch-like oil paintings - such as "The Temptation of Saint Anthony" and "Grandmother Moorhead's Aromatic Kitchen." Mystical, elongated figures and animals preside over surrealist landscapes and imaginary ovens.
Varo, born in Spain, was interested in the occult, alchemy, magic and …