Courtesy Museo EvitaYou know I love to stomp around in the intersection between populist socialism and fascism. And when you throw in a bona fide cult of personality—one that made Princess Di look as loved as a spotty teenage girl in a back brace—well, then I'm rolling and snuffling like a hog in the mud or a Young American for Freedom (same thing).
Enter "Evita: Up Close and Personal." Why the anti-Communists haven't yet picketed the Bowers Museum is beyond me: maybe the Argentine anti-Communist brigade just isn't as ceee-razy as the Vietnamese and Cuban sorts. Evita was one of those happy Reds who pretty well lived for the Worker (yes, with a capital W) when she wasn't living off their love.
The Bowers' Evita exhibit is modest, just filling the hallway leading to the museum's oddly depressing "Mummies." But it's everything a middlebrow American like me would want to see: her hats, her gowns, the smart traveling suits in which she visited children in the hospitals she built. The same American instinct that makes the Metropolitan Museum of Art's fashion exhibits more popular than its Raphaels (and that makes Jude Law's penis more important than any piddling war in Iraq) is at work here, and what we want is what we get.
What would an exhibit on Evita Perón be without saint's relics—in her case, small bottles of her perfume? What would it be without several feathered hats? It would just be some toys she handed out to the poor (one doll behind glass and a toy train and some building blocks—the first toys the children of the poor in Argentina had ever received). It would just be the sewing machine she distributed to poor women like a one-woman Argentine Works Progress Administration, so those women could sew small bags and become part of the economy. Nobody wants to see a sewing machine. Really.
"Evita" is a perfect confluence of the glamour and the social activism for which the first lady was so beloved by the lower classes in Argentina and the world. Yes, there are her natty suits and hats—but next to them are pictures of her in them, visiting with Labor (again, capitalized) and children and women and the ill. She wasn't just a do-gooding dilettante; she was an amazingly effective organizer of relief and social programs while her husband relied on her reflected glory. One suspects she might have been a model for "co-president" Hillary Clinton, except that Eleanor Roosevelt was a safer choice to admit.
One charming (and unintentionally funny) aspect of the small exhibit is the curators' attempts to at least look like they aren't canonizing Evita—at the end of the exhibit, they even specify that she was neither saint nor devil, but a human in between—but since all her relics came from the Museo Evita in Buenos Aires, the didactic texts are about as hagiographic as they could be, speaking of her one-woman drive to, in her singularly saintly manner, enfranchise the lower class from which she'd sprung. You'd have to search far and wide—or at least go to the Nixon Library—to find a similar story.
"EVITA: UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL" AT BOWERS MUSEUM OF CULTURAL ART, 2002 N. MAIN ST., SANTA ANA, (714) 567-3600. OPEN TUES.-SUN., 10 A.M.-4 P.M. THROUGH OCT. 16. $12-$19.