Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics and Painting is on now at the Art Gallery of Ontario. The exhibit explores the complex relationship between painters Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, including their politics - personal and social - as well as their passions.
With more than eighty works on paper and more than sixty photographs, the exhibit is a fascinatingly insightful look at a complicated, if deeply creative connection. Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics And Painting runs October 20th to January 20th 2013. Part of its unique magic is that it simultaneously features the work of both artists. There's something poignant about seeing paintings by both Kahlo and Rivera in the same room; the works converse and relate in ways rarely seen in past exhibitions.
Diego Rivera was an established painter when he met Frida Kahlo, twenty-one years his junior, in 1927. The two enjoyed a long, tempestuous relationship, marrying, then divorcing, then remarrying, before Kahlo's death in 1954. She herself was raised one of four daughters to a Hungarian-German-Jewish father and a Spanish-native-Mexican mother. Surviving a horrific bus accident at the age of eighteen, she began painting as a way of passing time during her lengthy post-operation recuperations. Kahlo had as many as thirty-five operations over the course of her forty-seven years and frequently painted her experiences, once remarking that, "I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality." Of the nearly 150 works she painted during her lifetime, fifty-five are self-portraits.
An Acme Photo of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo from 1933 (courtesy Throckmorton Fine Arts Inc, New York). The photograph is part of the Art Gallery Of Ontario's Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics and Painting, on now through January 20th, 2013.
Although Rivera was the better-known of the two during his lifetime, his wife eventually became the greater celebrity, one that moved past its art-world restraints. Painting with a ferocious passion details of her troubled life -the bus accident, miscarriages, continuous health problems, heartbreak - Kahlo's works, even now, channel a sort of goddess-like volatility that expresses itself not only in content but in form; her exquisitely bright color use and rich integration of both European and native Mexican art traditions give her work a timelessness that few others can match. Kahlo's celebrity is, in one sense, a sort of interesting feminist reclamation, though perhaps not one Kahlo herself would have welcomed; for all his shortcomings, Kahlo deeply loved her philandering on-off partner, once describing him as "my child, my son, my mother, my father, my husband, my everything.”
This is reflected in the work "Autorretrato conmo tehuana (Diego en mi pensamiento)," 1943 (Self Portrait as a Tehuana (Diego on my Mind), painted in 1943 (pictured at top). Rivera is literally a part of Kahlo's forehead, a permanent imprint, a third eye, more intimate than an extra limb -even as Frida, dressed in traditional Tehuana attire, fiercely projects her unique identity with her trademark style-meets-substance flair. A photograph near the work portrays Frida at work on the painting, Rivera looming over her in a display of touching uxoriousness that is at odds with the more familiar "monstrous adulterer" narrative so prevalent in art history.
Banco de México Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D. F./A.R.S., New York
Diego Rivera (1886-1957), Self-Portrait 1941.
oil on canvas, 68 X 92 cm Collection of Michael Audain, Vancouver
As Carlos Phillips Olmedo, Director of the Museo Dolores Olmedo in Mexico (which loaned several pieces from its extensive collection) pointed out at the show preview earlier this week, Rivera was "very consciously publicly-oriented" toward causing a stir. That may be a polite way of saying he loved publicity, particularly the uproar created around his 1934 mural, Man at the Crossroads, done for the lobby of Rockefeller Center, which depicted Communist leader Vladimir Lenin amidst the faces in a May Day parade. It was later destroyed, though photographs of it -Lenin detail included -were taken.
"He was a great storyteller," Phillips Olmedo added, "and extremely political."
Detail from The Arsenal, 1928, by Diego Rivera. The work, painted for the Mexican Ministry Of Education in 1928 to promote national pride and culture, clearly reflects the artist's passion for politics. Frida Kahlo is depicted in the center of the work, handing out weapons to peasants. If Rivera was dedicated to the vision of Mexico enjoying a socialist future, then he found his equal in Frida Kahlo, whose background and education provided a solid grounding for political engagement.
Dot Tuer, who curated Frida And Diego, and is an OCAD University professor and cultural historian, said at the preview that Kahlo "represents what we understand as identity politics," adding that "it was central to both artistic identities that they had strong politics convictions. Her identity was about being a Communist. There's a long tradition in Latin America of artists having strong political convictions." Certainly, there are examples of the pair's political ethos present, but it's the intertwining of the political and the personal that makes the exhibit so compelling.
Plaster Corset With A Hammer And Sickle (An Unborn Baby) is a perfect example of the blend of political and personal which Friday Kahlo so whole-heartedly embraced. Here one sees how she painted the Communist symbol onto her own cast, connecting her healing to political ideology, and an unborn child as, perhaps, a symbol of political change.
As well as paintings are a diverse array of photographic works by a variety of talented photographers, including Kahlo's one-time lover Nikolas Muray, fellow Mexican Tina Modotti, and Lola Alvarez Bravo, one of Kahlo's closest lifelong friends. "Photography was essential to the way she created her (artistic) persona," Tuer said at the press preview, adding that the 1920s and 1930s was a time of image formation, when "cinema blossomed."
Kahlo's father was a professional photographer and as a girl she would help him with shooting and in the dark room; in the process, she learned about setting up, dressing, and posing for the camera. So it's hardly surprising when one sees, in the AGO exhibit, Kahlo very deliberately posing like a film star, whether she's staring intently into the lens, blithely holding a cigarette, or dreamily looking away, forearm carefully draped over eyes. Like Madonna (who reportedly owns three of Kahlo's works, and loaned two of them to the Tate for a 2005 exhibition), Kahlo knew a thing or two about consciously constructing a strong, memorable public image deeply tied to ideas of womanhood.
Cultural ties are reinforced within the exhibit through the inclusion of ancient Mexican ceramic figures on loan from the Royal Ontario Museum; they add a lovely dimension to the paintings deepening the viewer's sense of kinship between artist and subject. A sense of painterly-ness, thankfully, doesn't gets lost in the history-heavy mix. Rivera had a unique talent of blending his chief twin passions, sensuality and politics, in life and in art. Leon Trotsky lived with Rivera and Kahlo in the late 1930s, and he subsequently featured in both their works. And, in Flower Festival: Feast Of Santa Anita (done in 1931), we see the delightfully rounded, delicate toes of children as they kneel. Amidst the pomp and circumstance of Mexican tradition or the heavy tones of political rallies, Rivera slyly conveys his delight in the wondrous shapes and forms of the natural world; this comes to the fore later in the exhibit, when his smaller, more intimate works, done towards the end of his life, revel in this tendency.
Banco de México Diego Rivera & Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D. F. //A.R.S., New York
Diego Rivera (1886-1957), Flower Festival: Feast of Santa Anita, 1931, Collection Museum of Modern Art, New York. The presence of lilles at the top of the painting reflects Rivera's fascination with the Aztec people, and symbolizes the transitory nature of life.
Kahlo's works have resonance in 2012 because, according to Phillips Olmedo, she "represents the modern woman... she was a modern woman in the twenties." Modern, but deeply traditional at the same time; perhaps her equal embrace of both lends power to her particular expression of female identity. The famous portrait of her with freshly shorn hair, wearing a man's suit, Autorretrato con pelo cortado (Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair), from 1940 (and so cleverly depicted in the 2002 film) is a part of the AGO's comprehensive exhibit, along with the painful La columna rota (The Broken Column), from 1944, depicting the artist, scarred and in tears, intently staring at the viewer as her damaged spine (bearing a disturbing resemblance to the barrel of a gun) disintegrates.
Banco de México Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D. F./ A.R.S., New York
Frida Kahlo (1907-1954)
La columna rota, 1944 (The Broken Column, 1944), oil on canvas, 39.8 X 30.5 cm. Collection Museo Dolores Olmedo, Xochimilco, Mexico
One of the most riveting works here is Henry Ford Hospital, which Kahlo painted after her second miscarriage while the couple were in Detroit in 1932-33; Rivera had been commissioned to paint a series of industry-related murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Also known as The Flying Bed, the work has the style of a traditional retablo, a devotional oil painting done on tin. Kahlo calls on her experience as a former medical student in expressing her understanding of her body's tragic limitations, and includes umbilical lines to both anatomy and industry, with an ugly smokestacked skyline lining the horizon. Rivera said of his wife's work during this time, Frida began work on a series of masterpieces which had no precedent in the history of art - paintings which exalted the feminine quality of truth, reality, cruelty and suffering. Never before had a woman put such agonized poetry on canvas as Frida did at this time in Detroit.
Banco de México Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F./A.R.S., New York
Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), Hospital Henry Ford, 1932 (Henry Ford Hospital, 1932), oil on metal, 31 X 38.5 cm.
Collection Museo Dolores Olmedo, Xochimilco, Mexico
What's surprising is just how tiny many of her works are - the earlier ones stand in stark contrast to Rivera's grandiose murals. They are almost diary-sized -they are, in fact, Kahlo's diary, as Tuer pointed out - and reveal fascinating insights Kahlo's attitude to art, painting, her own body, and the relationships she shared. Wisely, Tuer has included quotes from each artist on the other's work. It's a loving tribute, and is a good start to illuminating a complex relationship that shapes and informs every aspect of their respective creative output.
Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics and Painting is a thoughtfully curated exhibit, divided into well-planned sections involving European influence, Mexican heritage, self-image, patronage, and yes, politics. The exhibit ends with photographs of both Kahlo and Rivera's funerals, and three famous photographs of the couple, including the Acme portrait from New York in 1933. Greeting visitors past the gift shop are huge paper mache figures (made by Shadowland Theatre, a Toronto-based troupe), including a touching final work that integrates the artists' likenesses with Day Of The Dead imagery; it's a clever ending for a couple whose work has defied the limits of time and decay. Timeless, spirited, defiant: three words that sum up these works, and indeed, the artists behind them.