Frida Kahlo, the Mexican portrait artist most known for her vivid colors and intensity of her self-portraits became a feminist icon. Past exhibitions of her work exposed Kahlo’s physical and demonstrative actions with an open yet challenging artistic approach. Retrospectives of her work have not illustrated the private aspects of her life candidly through photographic images until now. The Museum of Latin American Art presents Frida Kahlo, Her Photos, its only West Coast venue, until June 8, 2014.
The Long Beach museum shows over 200 images from her personal archives at Casa Azul in Mexico City that had been sealed for 50 years by her husband and artist, Diego Rivera, after her death. It introduces a diverse selection of photographs taken by Kahlo, for Kahlo, or of Kahlo. The exhibit also incorporates images by Man Ray, Edward Weston, Lola and Manuel Alvarez, Tina Modotti among others.
In 1925, a bus that she was traveling on collided into a streetcar. Frida Kahlo was severely injured when a steel handrail impaled her hip. She began painting during her recovery, and finished her first self-portrait the following year.
Throughout her life, Kahlo faced personal challenges that she illustrated in her work. One example is her 1939 painting, The Two Fridas painted shortly after her divorce. The oil on canvas presents two separate personalities (unloved and loved), with Frida sitting side-by-side, in unity. Each version reveals her heart. On the left side, the artist portrays herself in a lacy, white Victorian-styled dress with an injured heart and spots of blood along the lower section of her dress. The right side depicts the artist dressed in a Tehuana costume, holding an amulet bearing a portrait of Diego Rivera, and an undamaged heart. A thin thread or vein, travels between the two hearts where it is snipped with a pair of scissors.
Another profound illustration that exemplified her anguish is her 1944 painting, The Broken Column, that renders Kahlo, practically nude, torn in half. Against a dark sky, she exposes her spine like a “shattered decorative column.” Wearing a surgical brace that keeps her body bound together, her face and flesh is studded with nails. One nail appears larger than the rest to reveal her emotional pain.
In her work, Frida Kahlo commonly shares her pain, her struggles, and her artistic flair. This latest exhibit, however, is an exceptional opportunity to survey the candid side of her life through a vast collection of photographic images. Her Life in Photos is presented as groupings and includes the house that she grew up in, La Casa Azul, Her Parents: Guillermo and Matilde, her life after the accident, The Broken Body, Amores, Photography, and her on-again-off-again husband, Diego’s Gaze.
Guillermo Kahlo, Frida’s father was a professional photographer who documented landscapes and architecture for Mexican Dictator Porfirio Diaz. It was Guillermo who taught Frida to develop her talents in the arts. Therefore, it is only fitting that he took a number of the images on view.
The journey into Kahlo’s personal life begins with her as a child, before she had polio. It displays photographs of Kahlo as a teen and then as a young woman.
There are photographs taken after her tragic accident, as she lay in traction in the hospital, before and after her surgery. Kahlo and Diego Rivera entertained many distinguished guests including Trotsky, and a series of images shows a more uninhibited side of Kahlo, with family and friends in informal groupings. These “unstudied” images demonstrate Kahlo, not as a painter but as a daughter, sister, companion, patient and friend.
Frida Kahlo’s life, whether private or public, continues to captivate viewers just as much as her portraiture. Her art and photographic images boldly express the creative, philosophical and even radical characteristics of her life. Moreover, while onlookers identify her mainly for her vibrant and tumultuous life, there was another side to the artist. This “snapshot” of Frida Kahlo’s life reveals how the Mexican artist managed to take her emotional and physical pain, and transform it into both public art and personal admiration that has been regarded by many as a symbol of female creativity.
By: Dawn Levesque
Museum of Latin American Art
Throckmorton Fine Art Gallery