UT Professor and Colleague’s Work Sheds Light on Little-Known Artist at Venice Biennale Exhibition

 

A cursory Google search reveals a wealth of information on the mid-century Swiss sculptor and painter Alberto Giacometti. When studio art professor Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler, an affiliate research scholar at UT, were flipping through a biography of Giacometti and discovered a photo of him with another artist, Flora Mayo, they quickly learned that the same could not be said about her. Scouring the internet for her produced little results. Inspired by the fact that Flora Mayo has essentially been written out of history, Hubbard and Birchler began scrounging up as many details about her as they could, embarking on a cross-country investigation that would unite a son with his mother’s past and tell a story that’s never been told.

In their double-sided film installation, Flora (2017), at the 57th annual Venice Biennale, Hubbard and Birchler share the chronicles of Flora Mayo and her relationship with Giacometti. In Flora, each side of the screen portrays a different film, one in color and one in black and white, both synchronized to the same audio track. Located at the exhibition’s Swiss pavilion, the work is on display through Nov. 26.

The story of how Hubbard and Birchler got Flora into the prestigious art exhibition, featuring artists from 51 countries, is decades in the making. The Swiss pavilion, opened in 1952, was designed by Alberto Giacometti’s brother, Bruno Giacometti. Although he got several invitations to display his work there, Alberto Giacometti refused, wanting people to recognize him as an international artist, not only a Swiss one. Over the years, he showed work at the Venice Biennale, like his sculptures “Women of Venice” in 1956, but never at the Swiss pavilion.

When looking for work to exhibit in the 2017 Biennale, the sponsoring organization of the pavilion did something unique. Instead of choosing an artist, they chose a curator, Philipp Kaiser. Kaiser encouraged the Swiss artists he selected, including Hubbard and Birchler, to think about the idea of absence—like Giacometti’s absence from the Swiss pavilion—for the exhibition, which he would pointedly title Women of Venice. When Hubbard and Birchler began looking through an Alberto Giacometti biography by James Lord to get some ideas, the image of Flora Mayo and Giacometti grabbed their attention. It was a circa 1927 photo showing the pair sitting next to a bust Flora Mayo made of Giacometti. The two were students together at the Académie de la Grande Chaumiére in Paris in the 1920s and became lovers. Lord’s dismissive attitude toward Flora Mayo and declaration that she amounted to no more than ending “her days in demented solitude” inspired Hubbard and Birchler to dig deeper into her story.

“The photograph fascinated us on many levels,” Hubbard said in an email. “In that moment of the image being taken, Mayo is the artist and Giacometti is the model, and Lord’s sexist, dismissive, and very brief mention of Mayo compelled us. We wanted to try to find out about her. Who was Flora Mayo? What happened to her?”

Hubbard and Birchler started reading, making phone calls, researching ancestry logs and census records, and sifting through newspaper articles at archives around the country and in Paris. Though it had never been published that Mayo had children, they found that she had a daughter and later, a son. They located David Mayo, now 81 and living in California, and reached out.

“After several weeks of trial and error, it was an incredibly exciting moment when we first spoke to him on the telephone,” Hubbard said. “No one had ever contacted him wanting to know about his mother, Flora, and he was completely surprised and deeply moved by our interest.”

Hubbard and Birchler traveled to Los Angeles to meet David Mayo, who had kept a trunk full of photographs, letters, notes, and other documents from his mother. Not connected to the art world, David Mayo didn’t recognize the man with “funny-looking hair” that appeared in many of the photographs. It was Giacometti.

The information Hubbard and Birchler gathered, including these primary resources and David Mayo himself, became part of their project. Flora Mayo’s voiceover in the film installation is a composite of her letters and notes. They combine to tell the story of a woman who wanted to be an artist.

Flora Mayo grew up in Denver, where she married at 19 and had a daughter. She then left her husband and daughter to study art in New York and Paris. While at the academy in Paris from 1925 to 1933, she met Giacometti and the two fell in love. When her family cut her off financially, she came back to the U.S., but not before destroying all of her artwork. She moved to Los Angeles, where she had another child, David, and worked menial jobs, like a janitor in an office building, to keep her and her son afloat. The only remnant of her artwork is the photograph of the Giacometti bust. In another room of the pavilion, Hubbard and Birchler have the photo and a recreation of the bust on display.

The film installation is a blend of fiction and nonfiction. The black-and-white narrative takes place in a recreation of Flora Mayo’s 1926 Paris studio, in which she (played by Julia Zange) sculpts Giacometti (played by Jules Armana), who sits across the room. The two dance together and share a meal. The colorful side of the installation takes place in present day, featuring David Mayo talking about what he knew about his mother. He shares details about her as a single mom and shows photos of her throughout her life. Because the sound of the installation is shared by both screens, it seems as if the son is talking to his young mother.

The work has received several reviews praising the work. One reviewer from Hyperallergic deemed it the “best and most meaningful work in the exhibition.” Several mysteries still persist surrounding Flora Mayo—notably, why she left her daughter and destroyed all her artwork. The film installation doesn’t analyze whether or not Flora Mayo was a legitimate artist. For Hubbard and Birchler, that wasn’t the goal.

“I hope,” Hubbard said, “that people take away a number of questions about their families and how social, economic, political, and personal circumstances create frameworks of history.”

Photo top: Teresa Hubbard / Alexander Birchler at the Swiss Pavilion in Venice on May 7, 2017. 

Photo left: Teresa Hubbard / Alexander Birchler, Bust (2017), silver gelatin print and brass sculpture with concrete base, image: 88 x 72cm, sculpture: 154 x 47,9 x 53,3 cm. Installation view: Swiss Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2017. Photo by Ugo Carmeni.

Photo right: Teresa Hubbard / Alexander Birchler Flora 2017, film still, synchronized doublesided film installation with sound, 30 mins, loop. 

Photos courtesy of the artists, Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York and Lora Reynolds Gallery, Austin.

 

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