Set this in the context of the habitual disappointment I feel at the lack of attention paid to women artists—except for Frida Kahlo, who sometimes seems more acceptable because of her suffering.
Yet I loved our tour of architect Luis Barragán’s masterpiece, a great collection of brilliantly-colored walls, streams and pools that contained, almost as an afterthought, a stable and a house. There we were treated to a short documentary about something extraordinary that happened to the esteemed architect’s ashes.
A pinch of them became a diamond.
This is because an ambitious young woman was trying to find a way past the dragon at the gate—the authority that never granted access to Barragán’s papers. The young woman—lets’ call her A—was determined to find a way in so she could write the first and only biography of the architect, impossible without access to his records.
The dragon had already said no more than once, perhaps because A was young and unknown.
Then, through some magic with Barragán’s family, A was able to have his walled-in box of ashes in a columbarium opened. On black-and-white film, we watched workers carefully slicing the box out of the masonry. Hands opened it and spooned a small portion of ashes into a plastic bag, which A took. Through a chemical process that remains mysterious to me, she had the ashes transformed into a perfect diamond, set it in what was described as an engagement ring, and then presented the ring to the dragon who was at lunch with her husband.That scene didn’t make sense to me; it was not shown in the film. And yet how perfectly stereotypical it is that the diamond ring could only be described as an engagement ring—even in this unlikely context.
The dragon refused the ring, and in the last shot, A is dragging her roller bag through the Mexico City airport, on the way—I hope—to another adventure. But not to the writing of the biography.
I suppose most gatekeepers would react in the same way to what seemed to be a bribe. But how these restrictions on access limit the writing of biography! A joke among laborers in that field is that the worst enemy of the biographer is the widow, staunchly protecting her real or imagined right to her dead husband’s future acclaim—or lack of it. It sometimes seems that we grab hardest at the remains of men who went living made it their business to elude us.
So the mystery of the diamond ring remains, covering the greater mystery of why A chose to write about Barragán in the first place.
His place in the history of architecture is assured, his buildings and houses are preserved, and are known by many. That is not the case with his woman colleague, Clara Porset, a Cuban architect who for a while was close to Fidel Castro and expected to design one of his new schools. But the deal fell through, and Porset left Cuba for Mexico City where she became Barragán’s colleague, designeing among other things the curious slant-backed chair for which Barragán received the credit. They fell out over her radical political views, but she went on to a long successful career—as far as I know, never written about.
I doubt if any dragon is guarding her papers—but I may never know.