The Arty Semite

Friend and Photographer to Frida Kahlo

By Renee Ghert-Zand

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Lucienne Bloch

Many people are familiar with an iconic photograph of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo titled “Frida at the Barbizon Plaza Hotel, NYC 1933.” In the picture, Kahlo is seated, and a small painted self-portrait hangs above her and slightly to the left on the wall. Less known than the photograph itself is the name of the woman who took it. Her name was Lucienne Bloch, and she was Kahlo’s friend, and an artist in her own right.

The Jewish Community Library in San Francisco currently has an exhibition of photographs by Lucienne Bloch, along with some taken by her father, the famous Swiss-born Jewish musical composer Ernest Bloch (1880-1959). The show, titled “A Shared Eye,” highlights the father’s interest in artfully documenting nature, and the daughter’s preferred focus on people and what the camera can catch of their psychological make-up.

Some of Ernest’s photographs of life in the Swiss countryside grab the eye, including “The Mushroom Lady, 1912” featuring an elderly woman in a witch-like ensemble looking straight into the camera while holding a giant mushroom in each hand. Lucienne’s photos of social and political demonstrations in New York and Detroit in the mid-1930’s are well composed. Also of note is her rare photo of Albert Einstein playing violin in a musical group at Princeton.

However, it is Lucienne’s intimate portraits of her friend Kahlo in the 1930s that fascinate and steal this show. There are a few photos that include Kahlo’s husband, Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, but a group of seven images of Kahlo alone command the most attention. One photo has Kahlo with a doily on her head, another with her biting her necklace, and yet another with her by a window.

One titled, “Frida with Cinzano Bottle” was taken in 1935. “Frida caught Diego having an affair with her favorite sister, Cristina. To rebel against him, Frida cut off her long black hair. The Cinzano Bottle she holds represents the unborn child she could never give him,” Lucienne Bloch wrote in her diary about the image.

A photo taken in 1938 has Kahlo holding Lucienne Bloch’s first-born son. Apparently, when Bloch learned she was pregnant, the doctors thought she might be carrying twins. She had told Kahlo that she would give one baby to her, but in the end there was only one child, and Kahlo became his godmother.

The appeal of these images does not surprise the photographer’s granddaughter, Lucienne Allen. She worked together with her grandmother (who died in 1999 at age 90) to make prints of her photographs and organize an archive of Bloch family photographs and negatives. Allen continues to oversee and perpetuate her grandmother’s artistic legacy. (Ernest Bloch’s negatives are housed at the Center for Creative Photography in Arizona.)

“The Frida photos are very popular,” Allen said in regard to print purchases and information requests from researchers, scholars, and museums. “Figuring that they’d be the most popular, my grandmother and I printed 100 copies of each of them, which is the most we printed for any one image.”

People are also very interested in the photos Lucienne Bloch took of the creation of several of Diego Rivera’s murals, and the Library of Congress asked Allen for prints of all of her grandmother’s photos of artists at work in The Federal Art Project, the visual arts arm of the Depression-era Works Progress Administration. Bloch took the only extant photos of Rivera’s incomplete “Man at the Crossroads” fresco at Rockefeller Center, which Nelson Rockefeller ordered destroyed because it contained an image of Lenin and of a Soviet May Day parade.

Lucienne Bloch was born in Switzerland in 1909, the third and youngest child of Ernest Bloch and his wife Marguerite. The composer moved his family to the United States in 1917 because of threat of war and rising anti-Semitism. Lucienne became passionate about art from an early age, and studied at the Cleveland Institute of Art and the Ecole Nationale et Superieur des Beaux Arts. She also learned to design glass sculptures at the Royal Leerdam Glass Factory in Holland, and was invited by Frank Lloyd Wright to teach sculpture at his newly formed school and residence, Taliesin, in Spring Green, Wisconsin.

Bloch met the muralist Rivera at a banquet given in his honor in New York in 1931, and through him, she met Kahlo. At first, Kahlo, worried that Bloch was one of her husband’s lovers, told her, “I hate you.” But once the jealous Kahlo realized that she had misread the situation, the two women become very close friends. In the meantime, Bloch learned fresco painting from Rivera and assisted him with the creation of some of his murals in the U.S.

Bloch settled down and raised a family in California, and eventually lost touch with Kahlo and Rivera, but her time with them greatly influenced her sense of herself as an artist. She went on to have a long career in photography, sculpture (clay and glass), lithography, and fresco painting, often working on projects together with her husband, artist Stephen Pope Dimitroff.

“My grandmother created art every day,” Allen said.

“A Shared Eye” is on view at San Francisco’s Jewish Community Library through March 2 2014.

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