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Marisol, American (b. Paris), 1930-2016
Medium: Mixed media: Wood, plastic, neon, glass
Object: 88 x 56 x 65 in. (223.5 x 142.2 x 165.1 cm)
Credit Line: Commissioned for Brooks Memorial Art Gallery through a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and matching funds from the Memphis Arts Council, Brooks Fine Arts Foundation and Brooks Art Gallery League
Object Number: 69.5a-d
Copyright: © Estate of the artist / Licensed by VAGA, New York
In 1967, Robert McKnight, the director of the Brooks, wrote to Marisol asking her to create a nativity for the museum. It was a logical request as Marisol was internationally recognized for her figural groupings, as exemplified by the high-profile commissions from Time magazine for portraits of Hugh Hefner and Bob Hope. Born of Venezuelan parents in Paris, and raised in the United States and Venezuela, she was well versed in the history of art as well as South American popular culture. Originally envisioned as a complete nativity, the project ended with the three figures of the Holy Family.
Typical of Marisol’s work, the figures are composed of both abstract and representational elements and a variety of different media that combine here to create a playful yet moving image of a traditional art historical subject. Mary and Joseph are formed from block-like wooden boxes simply painted with flat color. Mary’s dress, covered with painted starbursts surrounded by collaged pieces of glass, places her within the tradition of highly decorative and ecstatic Latin American images of the Virgin. Both figures have cast plaster faces, hands, and feet. Marisol, who repeatedly used self-portraits in her work to explore the roles of women in society as well as her own identity, is the model for Mary. The Virgin’s holiness is conveyed through multiple means: she floats above the ground, has a dazzling neon sun for a halo, is dressed in her traditional blue mantle, and has two left hands bearing rings symbolizing her marriage to Joseph and God. Her womb is a door that opens to expose a mirror in which all viewers can see themselves reflected as a part of the Holy Family. The importance of Jesus, the smallest figure in the scene, is signaled through the elaborate neon manger; the simplicity of his unpainted body, almost completely carved of one piece of wood, stands out against the rest of the brightly colored scene. Marisol blends materials associated with advertising and commerce, such as neon and Astroturf, with fine art conventions to produce a complex work that explores the role of women and religion in contemporary society.