Fridamania lives. The popularity of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), which peaked with the 2002 movie starring Salma Hayek, is cresting once again as museums mark the centennial of her birth. In Mexico City, the Palace of Fine Arts has just opened an extensive Kahlo exhibition, and the Casa Azul (Blue House), the artist’s family home-turned-museum, is now displaying some of the thousands of artifacts recently unearthed from a long-locked bathroom in the house. The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis has announced a show of 50 Kahlo paintings that will go on display in October and travel to Philadelphia in mid-February and to San Francisco next summer.
In Washington, the National Museum of Women in the Arts is doing its bit to commemorate the centenary with a tiny show of photographs and letters that merely plays into the Kahlo celebrity cult. The only painting on display is “Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky,” created by the artist in 1937 for the Russian revolutionary as a remembrance of their brief love affair. The canvas was purchased by writer and political luminary Clare Boothe Luce in 1940 and donated to the women’s museum in 1988.
Dwarfed by two blown-up photographs of Miss Kahlo (which are shown in their smaller, original sizes in the next room), its demure portrayal of the artist only serves to contrast the naive modesty of her art with the Hollywood-style hype surrounding her life. This small figure clutching a bouquet of flowers recalls Mexican folk art and religious icons called retablos, which Miss Kahlo collected. The image is personal and intimate, which in part explains the current appeal of her work, as opposed to the heroic murals of toil and struggle painted by Miss Kahlo’s husband, Diego Rivera, that are now considered unfashionable.
The rest of the Janus-like exhibit is devoted to the seductive beauty Miss Kahlo wanted us to see and the disfiguring ailments she hid. The artist suffered from polio and spinal injuries from a bus accident that required medical treatments and operations throughout her life. This physical pain, in addition to the overshadowing of her career by her husband, infidelities in their marriage and embrace of leftist causes, is why Miss Kahlo is held up as a saint by feminists. It is a compelling story to be sure but one that has come to eclipse her art.
This show carries on that reverence with few revelations. In the first gallery, 23 photographs trace the arc of Miss Kahlo’s life, from a formal teenage portrait to snapshots of her corpse at her funeral. Her father and grandfather were both professional photographers, and the artist obviously learned the tricks of that trade and exploited them throughout her life. She outfoxed even celebrity-obsessed Pablo Picasso in manipulating her image to appear both glamorous and ethnically authentic. Her colorful Mexican persona, however, was largely artificial; Miss Kahlo’s father was a Hungarian Jew from Germany, and the artist, who spoke fluent English, spent much of her time in international circles.
As evident in well-known photographs by Emmy Lou Packard, Juan Guzman and Imogen Cunningham, Miss Kahlo cultivated her unconventional image by dressing in men’s clothes and embroidered Tehuana Indian dresses. A 1940 head shot by Bernard Silberstein portrays the artist as a Hollywood movie star, reminiscent of Carmen Miranda with flowers piled atop her head. Photographs by Fritz Henle and Leo Matiz, capturing her in her Mexican milieu, show how self-possessed she was in seemingly candid shots.
Miss Kahlo often promoted her artwork by posing with it, as in “The Two Fridas,” a photograph revealing her famous painting of the same name, completed during her divorce from Mr. Rivera before she remarried him. The image is one of several by Nickolas Muray, a Hungarian-born New York photographer whose celebrity shots were published in Harper’s Bazaar and Vanity Fair. He was Miss Kahlo’s suitor and helped her plan exhibitions and document her work, and promoted her in the popular press. In “Me and My Parrots,” another photo showing one of her paintings, the dashing Mr. Muray looks adoringly at the seated artist. Miss Kahlo does not return the gaze, and one gets the feeling that the cunning artist only had an affair with the photographer to take advantage of his publicity skills.
The second part of the exhibit turns out to be the more interesting if only to show us Miss Kahlo’s unvarnished terrain. It focuses on 12 black-and-white images shot earlier this year by Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide of the therapeutic devices found at Casa Azul, the home the artist shared with Mr. Rivera. When Miss Kahlo died, many of her belongings were sealed up in her bathroom, with the instructions that the room not be opened until years after her death. In 2004, the chamber was unlocked, and curators discovered thousands of documents and personal artifacts, some of which are now on display at the house museum in suburban Mexico City.
Ms. Iturbide focuses on the medical equipment that helped to ease Miss Kahlo’s pain — corsets, crutches, hot water bottles. Shot within the tiled backdrop of the bathroom, these isolated objects are presented as relics to St. Frida’s martyrdom. They convey a neediness not often evident in the familiar Kahlo portraits. A box of painkilling Demerol, shot in front of a poster of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, unintentionally presents a touch of dark humor. Miss Kahlo, like her husband, was a Communist who initially renounced Stalin but then came to support him. Her politics, like her Mexican garb and faint moustache, served to enhance her image as an outcast, while, in reality, she partied with capitalists like Henry Ford and Nelson A. Rockefeller.
Along with these photographs is a glass case full of correspondence from Miss Kahlo and her family and friends that was donated to the museum earlier this year. Most are in Spanish with no accompanying translation. One of the few in English is from the sculptor Isamu Noguchi, another of Miss Kahlo’s paramours. A letter from architect Juan O’Gorman includes a small drawing of his modernist alterations to the Casa Azul.
Framing all the Fridaphilia is a garish backdrop of blue and lime green walls and red doorways that is meant to recall the Kahlo-Rivera home but overwhelms the archival material. Leaving one of the brightly painted rooms, one visitor was overheard asking the security guard, “Is that all there is?” The question sums up this exhibit’s paucity of material and willingness to play up the Frida myth.
WHAT: “Frida Kahlo: Public Image, Private Life. A Selection of Photographs and Letters”
WHERE: National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW
WHEN: Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 5 p.m., through Oct. 14
TICKETS: $10 adults; $8 seniors and students; free admission the first Sunday of every monthView Entire Story
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