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  • Writer's pictureCait McQuade

History exhibit or art exhibit?

What's the difference between a history exhibit and an art exhibit? After seeing Teresa Hubbard / Alexander Birchler’s Flora, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver, I'm tempted to say, "The only difference is that one's in a history museum and the other's in an art museum."

Hubbard / Birchler discovered traces of Flora Mayo while learning about Alberto Giacometti. She appears in a biography of the sculptor, in a single photo. The biographer dismissed her as a pathetic character, a hanger-on, destined for nothing. These two film artists reacted by unearthing her story, resurrecting both her and her art.

At first, evidence portrayed her sketchily: she was from Denver, daughter to a department store owner, married young to a department store manager and quickly divorced. Her husband kept custody of their only daughter. She landed in Paris, in art classes, in a photo with Giacometti and her own sculpted bust of him. Then documentary evidence trailed off.

But the filmmakers found her second child. A son, now in his eighties. And from him, stories about the rest of her life, and more documents: photos, legal papers, letters. These they put on display, in a room dominated by two wall-sized photos of young, elegant Flora. This archive is one product of the artists' work. Another is a recreation of her portrait of Giacometti, displayed in a room with only the source photograph for company.

A third result is an extraordinary "doubled-sided film." (I didn't know this was a thing!) Two separate visual narratives, projected on opposite sides of a large screen centered in a room, share a single soundtrack,

On one side, the filmmakers use documentary vocabulary. Flora's son, David, sits in his living room and tells stories about his mother. He admires and acknowledges her struggles to raise him. Her parents and ex-husband cut her off completely and she had no contact with her son's father, whom he never knew. We see interspersed shots of David's bright Los Angeles surroundings and of him paging through the paper leavings of his mother's life. We hear wind in the palm trees and children playing outside. At the very beginning, before David appears, we see people building supports for a Giacometti portrait bust of a woman and placing it in a shipping crate.

On the other side, a fictional Flora appears in Paris, in her studio, in black and white, working on her portrait bust, sometimes accompanied by Giacometti, whose face we barely glimpse. Behind David's voice talking about his mother, we hear sounds of young Flora filling the studio's stove with charcoal, lighting it. Between David's stories, we hear Flora, in a voiceover, describing her childhood, her sad marriage , the ache in leaving her daughter, her lover Giacometti, her feelings about him,

So, is this a history exhibit or an art exhibit? At a meta level, it explores storytelling, regardless of disciplinary frame. And here I have added my own layer in telling you Flora's story in another medium, filtered through Hubbard/Brichler's work.


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