PARIS — Eva Perón, Argentina's near-mythical late first lady, was — and remains — an angel to some and a shameless demagogue to others, loved and hated in similar proportions. Was the woman known as "Evita" a revolutionary or another political myth?

Her life is on now display at the Madame Perón exhibition at the Argentine embassy in Paris.

Sixty-two years after her death, Evita has managed to accomplish something she never set out to do. She has crossed class lines. A new generation of Argentines and French familiar only with the "myth" will be able to access her life, her transformation as an artist and militant and her aesthetic and political mutations.

The exhibition showcases her in spectacular photographs, some seldom seen before, film footage, personal effects, images of trips to Europe and of her life to its painful end.

This is not a critical exhibition but an aesthetic homage, well mounted on black walls by an ardent admirer of Evita. Curator Eduardo Carballido dreamed for six years of an Evita Perón exhibit at Argentina's embassy in Paris. A string of Kirchner-appointed ambassadors rejected the proposal until it was finally approved recently by María del Carmen Squeff.

Included in it are some lesser known pictures of Evita's trip to Europe, with stops that included Portugal, Greece, Madrid, Paris and Monaco. She is seen with the socialist presidential family in Paris, in the Swiss Alps, in Madrid with an irked First Lady Carmen Polo de Franco, at a time when Spain desperately needed economic help. She is pictured in Rome with Monsignor Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII, who makes her kiss Christ's Crown of Thorns. It was a tour that changed Evita. She absorbed like a sponge everything she saw.

Carballido, the curator, explains his love for Madame Perón. "I am a supporter of Evita first, then a Peronist," he says, referring to the movement that broadly continues to determine Argentina's affairs. "It's because of my mother. When I was six or seven, she told me what happened. She had qualified as a teacher with a top-class diploma, and could not find work. So my mother, who was completely against the Perons, sent her a letter with her gold medal and diploma. Evita sent her back her diploma, the medal and a teacher's appointment, which served her the rest of her life. That is how I came to know and admire her."

Gathering a lifetime

It was no easy task collecting the pictures and items on exhibit, but everyone helped. The Argentine national archives sent photographs. Graphic designer Celeste Diez de los Ríos served a crucial role repairing photos so that giant copies could be made. Carballido donated his letters and everything else about her that he had collected over the years. France sent a copy of the Légion d'honneur presented to Evita. Argentina's former ambassador in Paris, Archibaldo Lanús, gave Evita's dress and hat, which her secretary had given him as a gift.

One family brought in the Christian Dior perfume she had used, and another donated a French edition of her memoirs, La raison de ma vie. The Evita museum in Buenos Aires asked for insurance sums that were prohibitive. That sparked the idea of creating a replica of the red dress Evita wore in 1945 for a magazine cover shoot. With deft hands and generosity, dressmaker Martina Moscariello made it. 

"I find the way she dressed incredible," Moscariello says. "Her hair was just so tightly bound."

Arriving in Madrid in 1947 — Photo: Iberia Airlines

Writer Alicia Dujovne Ortiz, author of a 1995 book on Perón, agreed to provide a video presentation. In her book, she elaborated on her theory of Evita's social revenge following a childhood of humiliations, bereft of paternal affection and recognition. Her mother, who had five children out of wedlock with a local landowner, "raised them all with the help of a sewing machine," Dujovne Ortiz says. 

Dujovne Ortiz believes Evita began to seethe inside the day of her father's funeral, when his legitimate wife and children would not let the mistress and her offspring into the family residence. "And Evita keeps this terrible picture inside here, where it burned her memory and justifies all her later desire to attain justice for herself and others," Dujovne Ortiz says.

Before what's known as her "renunciation" — when she declined to run for vice president — and her cancer and death, Evita was loved and hated in equal measure. Today, Argentine embassy is bringing together myth and the modern context of Evita's political legacy.