Benjamin Britten and Frida Kahlo

Dave and I went to hear Britten’s War Requiem at Davies Hall on Friday night. I had suggested it just because a friend in the chorus had told me about it, but we were delighted to discover on buying the tickets that Marcelle Dronkers would be the soprano soloist. Marcelle is one of my favorite performers, who I’ve enjoyed tremendously in many roles; I think the first time I saw her was with Richard Goodman in Don Pasquale maybe 20 years ago, and it is to this day the only performance of that opera I have ever seen which worked for me, thanks largely to Marcelle and Richard’s lively performances in commedia dell’arte style.

I hadn’t heard the War Requiem before, nor had I read much of the poetry of Wilfred Owen, whose poems Britten used along with the Latin text of the requiem mass. Some of the requiem seemed dry and cerebral to me, as though Britten were keeping the emotions at arms’ length, but other parts were devastating and just about brought me to tears. I’m looking forward to listening to a couple of recordings and getting to know it better.

On Sunday afternoon we went to the Frida Kahlo exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art. I’d won a pair of tickets to the exhibit from We showed up around 2:15 pm and received tickets to enter at 4:00, so we looked at the other exhibits till then.

Very interesting to see so many Kahlo paintings at one time. I hadn’t realized before this how much she used symbols in her paintings rather in the manner of Renaissance painters. I also hadn’t realized what an intense and even sometimes frightening a woman she must have been — without knowing anything about her life than what I picked up yesterday afternoon from her paintings and the bits of biography on the walls, I’d make a somewhat wild guess that she may have been prone to histrionic personality disorder. Some aspects of the paintings seem very sophisticated to me — the mixing of styles in the same painting, for example, with elements of cubism and surrealism and Renaissance style all working together to create something that feels simple and whole — but then there’s a lot of what looks to me like childishness in her paintings, too.

I’d seen reproductions of the painting of herself with four parrots, but I had not noticed before that the two parrots on her shoulders are painted to look three-dimensional, while the two in front are painted to look flat, almost as though they were printed on her blouse. On looking closer, it seems to me that the two in front must certainly be the same birds as the two on her shoulders; too many of the markings are the same, and sometimes in subtle ways, for this not to be intentional. Why does each parrot appear twice? Was her intention that each parrot was not only a companion on her shoulder, but a part of her? In any case, it’s a more interesting and more touching painting than I’d realized from just seeing it in small reproductions.

One of the most striking paintings was one that I’d never seen before, about the suicide of someone she’d known who had thrown herself out the window of her tall apartment building. The woman is shown three times: at the start of her fall just outside the window; on the ground, broken and bleeding yet looking beautiful and peaceful; and in the middle of the frame, falling through blue sky and white clouds in a manner that makes her look almost like a graceful bird swooping down, and that suggests to me the sort of visual language that a Renaissance painter would use to show somebody ascending to heaven. Once that thought occurred to me, the whole middle image became ambiguous — is it of the woman falling toward her death, or of her spirit set free and soaring after she has fallen?

I bought the handsome catalog of the exhibit in the gift shop on the way out as a souvenir.

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