After Frida Kahlo died in 1954, her husband, Diego Rivera, locked her belongings away in a closet in their home in Mexico City.
It wasn’t until 50 years later, after their house, known as La Casa Azul, had been turned into a museum, that this trove was discovered. Among the findings was a set of more than 600 black-and-white photographs — Kahlo’s personal collection — of the famed Mexican painter, her friends, family and surroundings.
A traveling exhibition that features 241 of these photographs, of and by the artist throughout her 47-year life, is now at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana. “Frida Kahlo – Her Photos” will be on display there until June 25.
“This exhibition really is kind of like a visual diary for Frida,” said Victoria Gerard, curator of collections and special exhibitions at the Bowers Museum. “It’s just as if someone today collected family or friends’ photos on Instagram.
“Of course her paintings were so autobiographical, but a snapshot photograph gives a different perspective than a painting does.”
Kahlo, who is best known for her surrealist self-portraits, is widely considered one of the most prominent artists of the 20th century.
As a teenager, Kahlo was involved in a near-fatal bus accident that left her bedridden for several years and in chronic pain the rest of her life. But it was this tragedy that fueled her artwork, said Jacqueline Hahn, who teaches art history in Newport Beach.
“She used drawing and painting to recover and to survive,” said Hahn, who delivered a lecture on Kahlo recently at the Bowers in conjunction with the exhibition. “Her brush was her Prozac. It was a way of getting out of her constant physical pain.”
Kahlo turned to self-portraits specifically because of the amount of time she spent alone in bed after the accident. As she once said, “I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best.”
The exhibition — which premiered in 2007 at the Frida Kahlo Museum in Mexico City — features images taken by Kahlo, her friends and family, and is divided into sections that represent different aspects of the painter’s life: her family, La Casa Azul, the house where she was born and died, her accident, her tumultuous marriage to the famed Mexican muralist Rivera, her political activism and involvement with the Communist Party, and her many lovers.
In conjunction with the exhibition, the Bowers is also hosting a series of lectures throughout March and April about Kahlo’s life and work.
For Hahn, the collection of photographs reveals important details about culture, fashion and politics during Kahlo’s life. But the black-and-white images of Kahlo are also an interesting contrast to her surrealist self-portraits, she said.
“In the photographs you see her beautiful jewelry and dresses,” said Hahn. “And in her paintings, you see the invisible — her insides, how she felt. She showed necklaces that were like a cage, that look like they want to strangle her. All of her paintings, compared to her photography, show her in prison, the prison of her anguish and discomfort.
“What she did was make visible the invisible.”
For Gerard, the photographs reveal intimate moments of Kahlo’s life that her art and biographies don’t capture.
“A photo speaks differently than a painted image does, or reading about someone, or even watching the movie [‘Frida’],” she said.
“There are pictures of some of her happiest moments, and some of her most vulnerable and dark moments,” Gerard said. “What you learn about is the emotional pull that her passionate life took on her. You can see it in the expressions on her face.”
Gerard’s favorite photograph in the exhibition is one of Rivera that has a pink lipstick mark on it.
“Frida Kahlo actually at one time kissed the photo,” she explained. “It is so evocative and really speaks to their relationship.”
This isn’t the only photograph with Kahlo’s imprint.
“You can see a lot of times in the exhibition that the photos are somewhat altered — either she wrote or someone else wrote something on the photos,” said Gerard.
“So it’s very personal. It’s her personal reaction to things.”
IF YOU GO
What: “Frida Kahlo – Her Photos”
Where: The Bowers Museum, 2002 North Main St., Santa Ana
When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays until June 25
Cost: Tickets for adults are $23 on weekdays and $25 on weekends; tickets for seniors and students are $20 on weekdays and $22 on weekends; tickets for members are $10.
Information: (714) 567-3600
Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil is a contributor to Times Community News.