“Plasticity, texture, weight.” These are some of the words used by Dr. Stefan Weppelmann to describe the use of colour by Olga Costa. Dr. Weppelmann is the director of the Museum of Fine Arts (MdbK) in Leipzig. The work of Leipzig-born artist Olga Costa is currently being exhibited in Europe for the first time. From 1 December to 26 March 2023, visitors to the museum are able to view works spanning 50 years of Costa’s career. This includes her most well-known piece, “La vendedora de frutas” (The fruit vendor). Dr. Weppelmann’s description perfectly captures Costa’s use of colour in the plethora of fruits. From the ripening of the bananas to the layers of the sugar cane.
The unveiling of “La vendedora de frutas” was likened by an attendee to opening the first present on Christmas morning.
There was a feeling of excitement and curiosity in the air. I asked Dr. Weppelmann how it felt to see the painting for the first time – and how it differs from reproductions. He commented that such detail can only be truly noted and appreciated in an original. He pointed out various aspects of the painting. Indicating the hues, tints, tones, and shading of the fruits and remarking on the transparency of their colour.
Costa’s fascination with colour began after moving to Mexico from Berlin when she was 12 years old. It was here that she became captivated by their vastness and intensity. Compared to Berlin, Mexico was awash with colour. The glow of the ocean, the blush of the tropical fruits and the intensity of the robes of the street vendors, selling their strange and exotic fruit. Costa recollected, “For me everything stood out: houses with wooden windows painted in green, the appearance of the people, the movement of air at dusk. The sky that sometimes became all black with vultures, the insects, the bread…”
Although she took some classes in painting, Costa was mostly self-taught. Some works can therefore be described as insecure or fragile. By the mid 1940’s, garnering confidence, Costa’s techniques began to change – especially her use of materials and colour. In the 1950’s, her use of colour was richer and more varied, as showcased in La vendora de frutas. By the 1960’s, taking influence from Expressionalism, Costa started using paler colours – pinks, greys and beiges, with little contrast. Her final works, created between 1978 and 1979, were the most diverse – marked by abstraction, slow changing colour tones and sophisticated depictions of textures.
Costa painted her experience and interpretation of Mexican culture at a time when art was dominated by men.
Women were represented through a male’s perspective of their experience. Costa used her art to provide a truer representation of women and their struggles, unmarred by social expectations and gender roles. She not only portrayed women from a women’s perspective, but she also aided in the deconstruction of the ideal of womanhood. We see an example of this in the diversity and independence of women displayed in “La vendedora de frutas”.
Costa painted costumbrista subjects, still lives, portraits and landscapes. Her style is marked by creating a subject matter without the rest impending its dominance. For example, she tended to paint landscapes more as a background from which to showcase the main idea. She had no interest in painting a piece faithfully – more as an impression of what she saw, which often led to distortion in her paintings. Costa’s portraits were mainly of the female form, especially indigenous women, and children.
In addition to painting, Costa worked extensively with the theatre.
She worked both in set- and wardrobe design, as well as on the creation of many museums. Towards the end of her life, she received many awards for her artistic and cultural work, individually and with her husband, artist José Chávez Morado.
It is an exciting time not only for the MdbK, but also for Brenda Judith Caro Cocotle, Chief Curator at the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City. This is where Costa’s works have been most prominently displayed. She explained that even though Costa was not born in Mexico, Mexicans feel a certain pride towards her. We discussed how she left her mark on the country through her fascination with the Mexican culture. An interest which is showcased so magnificently and vibrantly through her art.
Museum visitors will be able to embark on a vivid, flamboyant journey through Mexico – its landscapes, its people, and its customs. They will be able to see Costa’s work evolve. Her use of colour becoming richer and more varied and her depictions of textures becoming more sophisticated.
As both a painter and as a promoter of art, Olga Costa’s contribution to the MdbK is as invaluable as it is colourful.