“I was headstrong, impulsive and romantic––and in many ways a bit of a savage. There are reasons for that.” So go the opening lines of Flora, a semi-fictional documentary by artist duo Teresa Hubbard / Alexander Birchler. These words are spoken by a young American woman, filmed in black and white, as she goes about arduous tasks in her studio, attempting to work. Her name is Flora Mayo, and she studied alongside her lover Alberto Giacometti at the Grande Chaumiere in Paris in the 1920s, before returning to the US and falling into obscurity.
“No one has ever contacted me wanting to know about my mother,” says an elderly man soon after. His full-colour recording plays simultaneously on the other side of one enormous screen. This is David, Flora’s son, who knew almost nothing of his mother’s former artistic practice, and even less about Giacometti. As the film unfolds, her early life is pieced together through dreamy, alluring monochrome visions of her time in Paris. She smokes cigarettes and labours over sculpture, as she narrates her complicated tryst, her artistic struggles and her scandalous divorce back in Denver. Meanwhile, David’s narrative is filled with snatches of long-forgotten memories.
This strange dual history was commissioned for the Swiss pavilion at the 57th edition of the Venice Biennale in 2017. Curator Philipp Kaiser invited Hubbard and Birchler to engage with Giacometti’s legacy as a way of addressing the fact that the country’s most famed twentieth-century artist had always refused invitations to exhibit in the pavilion, despite the fact it had been designed by his brother.
“The result is a film that is not only aesthetically and technically stunning, but an important commentary on the way historical narratives are solidified”
The pair began their search and were struck by a single photograph showing Mayo’s bust of Giacometti, long since destroyed. Intrigued by this mysterious woman, they conducted extensive research and met with her son, who was both astounded and excited that anyone was interested in uncovering her story. The result is a film that is not only aesthetically and technically stunning, but an important commentary on the way historical narratives are solidified.
Through their construction of the young artist’s voice and the actual testimony of her son, an intergenerational conversation is at play. On his side, David Mayo travels to the Kunsthaus Zurich to see Tête de Femme (Flora Mayo)––living proof of her intense relationship with Giacometti. The artists also uncovered his old collection of photographs, which offered invaluable insight into her life. Birchler recalls, “In our early conversations with David, we found out that he didn’t know that Giacometti was in the photographs,” says Birchler. “He’d just wondered who the man with the ‘funny-looking’ hair standing next his mother was.”
“We don’t want to present what we’ve found as the truth. We’re interested in varieties of truths”
In this strange straddling of reminiscence and fantasy the artists create a beautiful construction that considers how we view the “blind spots of history”. Hubbard explains, “We don’t want to present what we’ve found as the truth. We’re interested in varieties of truths.” These conjectures are arguably just as valid as the speculation that is all too often taken as gospel in the field of art history. Not to mention the fact that most mainstream narratives systematically erase figures like Mayo. “Often, women are represented as footnotes in the lives of historical men, predominantly white men,” says Hubbard.
The beauty of this film lies is in its ability to shed light on forgotten female history, without appearing revisionist or corrective. The pairing of semi-fictional and documentary-style narratives result in a wonderful web of threads that tangentially relate to the existence of a famous artist but ultimately remains wholly focused on Flora.