What’s in a name? As Romeo and Juliet knew, quite a lot. Called “the artist among architects,” Luis Barragán brought his eye-catching colorful Modernism to Mexico, becoming one of the country’s most renowned artists and cultural touchstones. His personal home in Mexico City is a UNESCO World Heritage site, requiring reservations weeks in advance to visit. Casa Luis Barragán houses his personal art collection, but his entire professional archive lives in Switzerland, where it is owned and strictly monitored by a single corporation. The Swiss design company Vitra controls the access and rights to all of Barragán’s work, including any photographs of his buildings. It also owns his name.
Jill Magid’s provocative new film “The Proposal” both uncovers this travesty and actively seeks to challenge it, with the ultimate goal being to return the Barragán archives to Mexico. The film is itself a provocation; a fascinating document of a years-long conceptual project as well as the final (or next) piece of the complicated puzzle. Magid appears in the film, though we mostly hear her in placid expository voiceover. The film is structured around her correspondence with Federica Zanco, an architectural historian whose husband, Vitra owner Rolf Fehlbaum, gifted her the archive upon proposing marriage. Magid crafts her crowning provocation (and the film’s title) from this rather tragic romantic tale — much like Shakespeare’s two teenagers separated by a name.
Whether by a cruel twist of fate or poetic justice, Vitra trademarked the name “Luis Barragan” without the accent, a stark reminder of who is being taken from and who is doing the taking. Mexican Barragán experts explain in the film that when Vitra bought the archive 22 years ago, they assumed it would be shared, as is common for artistic institutions to do. But Zanco has maintained a tight grip on the archive, severely limiting outside access and making Barragán her life’s work. As one man says, it amounts to “active censorship perpetuated by capitalism.”
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An internationally recognized conceptual artist who has exhibited at the Whitney and the Tate Modern, Magid was able to negotiate a stay at Casa Luis Barragán for the film — a once in a lifetime opportunity. Though she isn’t allowed to sleep in the bed where he died, she is assured that her room is where all of Barragán’s lovers slept. As she eats at his table and gently pours water over a collection of clay pots in the courtyard, she reminds the viewer that even these images are subject to Vitra’s copyright, and could easily result in a lawsuit. (Even images taken of his work before the sale of the archive are not safe.)
Because of this, admirers of Barragán will have to look elsewhere for a more thorough portrait of his work or even the man himself. Magid’s focus is singularly on the archive and her own project. “The Proposal” could have benefitted from even a short detour into Barragán’s personal history, architectural influences, and contributions, which surely could have been done without stoking Vitra’s ire. The film is not a conventional documentary in that way, which is no doubt one of its many strengths. But by centering herself a little too much, Magid obscures Barragán. This may be the point, that no one can learn anything substantial about this giant of the form as long as his work is locked up, but it does the film a disservice.
Magid makes the most of the visuals available to her, however limited they may be by the patent. As part of her grand plan, the details of which are a mystery until the final moment of reckoning with Federica, Magid convenes the Barragán family to excavate Barragán’s ashes. As men chip away at the plaque bearing his name, stripes of grey slate and chalky red clay are framed in close-up, bearing an uncanny resemblance to a Mark Rothko painting, much like one Barragán had in his house. The film’s climactic meeting with Federica is shot from outside a café, surreptitiously and sans audio out of necessity. Reflected greenery on the café’s glass windows obscure the figures in a shroud of mystery, just visible enough to read their dynamic facial expressions.
Throughout the film, Magid guides the viewer from a cool remove. (Part of this is due to her overly measured delivery of the script, an unfortunate side effect of directing yourself). It is only in the culminating scene that she reveals some emotion, describing the complex rush of feelings upon finally meeting Federica. Through their interactions, “The Proposal” becomes a film about two women’s quest to understand an artist who inspires them, though their methods are wildly different and diametrically opposed. The conflict makes for an extremely absorbing story — one we can all share.
Oscilloscope will release “The Proposal” in New York on May 24 at the IFC Center and in Los Angeles on May 31 at the Monica Film Center, with national rollout over the following weeks.