Trio of treasures

While most of the attention these days at the temple on top of the former Fairmount Reservoir is focused on the blockbuster Elsa Schiaparelli show, the Philadelphia Museum of Art is not all imported riches.

The curators have reached into storage and put together at least three exhibitions that deserve examination not just to assess the permanent collection, but also to fully enjoy the art for itself. There is little connective tissue among the shows, except they can all be visited for the price of one admission.

"Eye on Mexico: Photographs from the Collection" is in the Julien Levy Galley of the Philadelphia Museum of Art through Dec. 7. The show once again demonstrates the depth of the museum’s holdings and includes some 27 artists with more than 60 photographs mostly taken during the Mexican Renaissance, from the Mexican Revolution of 1910-20 through the 1930s.

The exhibition features Manuel Alvarez Bravo, whose lengthy career (he died in 2002 at the age of 100) and masterful work made him the country’s foremost photographer and one of the greats of the 20th century. The show also includes work by his wife, Lola Alvarez Bravo; Emilio Amero, Graciela Iturbide and Mariana Yamplosy. For context, the show also features a number of foreign photographers who were inspired by Mexico’s landscape and culture, including Henri Cartier-Bresson, Helen Levitt and Paul Strand.

Many other American and European artists were drawn to Mexico during this time period. Edward Weston and the Italian expatriate Tina Modotti went together to Mexico seeking to set themselves up as portrait photographers. The artistic and intellectual circle also included muralist Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, who was photographed and painted often by friends and associates. One signature piece is a portrait of Kahlo by Levy, the galley namesake, an astute American collector and also a sometime photographer. In addition, the exhibit includes a number of contemporary photographers captivated by Mexico, including Philadelphia’s George Krause.

A second show on silkscreen printmaking traces the development of the medium in the ’60s and ’70s, when it was a favorite on both sides of the Atlantic. "Popular, Pop & Post-Pop: Color Screenprints 1930s to Now" will run through Jan. 25. The exhibition of more than 80 works by artists from around the world traces the development of the screenprint from a tool of the Depression-era Works in Progress to today’s multmedia artists. The artists include such names as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Ed Ruscha, Sylvia Wald and Takashi Murakami.

According to museum notes, the screenprint was ideal for the Depression as the materials were cheap and the equipment portable. It was adapted from the European pochoir, or stencil print. "In the pochoir method, cut-out stencils are employed as patterns for printing flat expanses of color, while the screenprint takes advantage of the ability of a finely meshed silk, mounted on a wooden frame, to support the stencil and transmit ink in built-up layers of color."

Finally, "Ladies Choice: American Women’s Fashions, 1950-1965" both supports the Schiaparelli exhibition and shows off the museum’s permanent collection of home-grown fashions. This was the era of the Donna Reed woman, the idealized mom who stays at home and appears in a party dress each evening to welcome Daddy. Part of the fun of this show is poking fun at the images of June Cleaver or Lucy Ricardo. There are, however, some engaging sections, such as millinery.

The calendar aspect of fashion is also noteworthy, as it explains felt and netting could be worn in all seasons, "straw was permissible only from February through August, velvet from August until February, and fur from October to March 1." In many respects such dictates are still with us, as the time for martinis is upon us and gin tonics are a thing of summer past.

A lecture titled "The Foundations of Fashion: A Brief History of Women’s Underwear" on Saturday goes with the show and will include "corsets and drawers, bustles and brassieres, stockings and shoulder pads." A wise man will go no further here other than to quote the museum: "The history of underwear, especially during the last three centuries, reflects changing ideals of women’s figures and societal roles, and reveals that ideas of beauty, hygiene, modesty and respectability are both remarkably transitory and amazingly enlightening."

Eye on Mexico: Photographs from the Collection

Popular, Pop & Post-Pop: Color Screenprints 1930s to Now

Ladies Choice: American Women’s Fashions, 1950-1965

Philadelphia Museum of Art

26th Street and Benjamin Franklin Parkway


Adults, $10; seniors (62+), $7; students with valid ID, $7; ages 13-18, $7; 12 and under, free; Sundays, pay what you wish