Mexico celebrates Kahlo

Times Staff Writer

Among the dozens of spooky, iconic images made by Mexico’s most spookily iconic artist, few pack more potent symbolism than the 1939 double self-portrait “The Two Fridas.”

On the right side of the large oil painting, Frida Kahlo depicted herself in traditional Mexican garb, her heart hovering outside her body like a phantasm, while in one hand she cradles a small portrait of her then ex-husband, Diego Rivera, rendered as a little boy. On the left side, Kahlo portrayed herself in a lacy white gown, her heart cleaved in two, blood leaking from a severed artery.

At the time the painting was made, Kahlo and Rivera were divorced (though soon to be remarried), and this famous work expresses the Sturm und Drang of the artists’ tempestuous union. It also conveys the lifelong struggles within Kahlo’s twin-chambered soul: European and Mexican, white and mestizo, artist and woman.


As this capital city braces for a months-long fiesta of all things Frida to mark the 100th anniversary of her birth on July 6, 1907, it’s evident that there were not two Fridas but many. But her native land appears to be making an unusually concerted effort this season to reclaim its enigmatic daughter as, first and foremost, a distinctly Mexican artist, deeply rooted in the history, culture and politics of her own time and place.

Mexico’s treatment of Kahlo hasn’t been without ambiguity. During her lifetime, her genius wasn’t always fully recognized at home, especially compared with the worshipful attitude accorded Rivera. Kahlo’s small-scale, achingly introspective portraits didn’t fit the country’s post-revolutionary, socialist-realist public art agenda the way that Rivera’s Marxist-themed murals did. Since her death at 47 in 1954, however, Kahlo has been embraced not only by platoons of art critics, scholars and curators but also by those who have found validation in her life and work for their own personal struggles and aspirations

“Frida has been an icon for many groups, for incapacitated people, for lesbians, for foreigners, for mestizos. And this is always the focus that has been given,” says Juan Coronel Rivera, grandson of Diego Rivera and co-curator of one of the largest exhibitions ever devoted to Kahlo, which opened here Wednesday at the Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes.

By contrast, “Frida Kahlo 1907-2007: National Homage” places Kahlo and her work primarily in the context of Mexico’s turbulent history in the early- to mid-20th century, her family relationships, her stormy marriage to Rivera and the glittering personalities of the couple’s social circle. Coincidentally, the 50th anniversary of Rivera’s death falls on Nov. 24, an occasion that also is being marked with exhibitions, discussions and new publications, though with no major art show comparable to the one honoring his wife.

The massive Kahlo exhibition at Bellas Artes fills all eight galleries of the ornate beaux-arts edifice that is the country’s most prestigious cultural showcase. It encompasses nearly one-third of Kahlo’s total artistic output, including 65 oils (divided into self-portraits, portraits and still lifes), 45 drawings, 11 watercolors and five prints.

“Frida Kahlo” displays several works never seen publicly in Mexico, or not for decades, such as the stunning miniature “Girl With Skull Mask,” a 1938 oil from the Art Museum of Nagoya, Japan. Nearly 70 institutions and private collections from around the world lent objects, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Other exhibition galleries are devoted to documenting Kahlo’s life, including 50 of her letters and 100 photographs. The latter include both private family snapshots and formal portraits by celebrity photographer friends such as Dolores and Manuel Alvarez Bravo and Nickolas Muray.

These artifacts are among the show’s most moving and humanizing offerings. They strip away the celebrity aura that has accrued to Kahlo over the years, as her life has been turned into a Hollywood movie, her paintings have fetched record sums at auction and her image has been fetishized into the commercial cult of “Fridamania.” Her photos and letters reveal a warm, humorous personality behind the inscrutable masks the artist often wore in her self-portraits.

The exhibition also attempts to reveal Kahlo as an “integral artist” who didn’t simply channel her subconscious demons and project them onto the canvas but carefully strategized her compositions. Further, the show demonstrates Kahlo’s desire to forge an artistic identity separate from her husband’s. A drawing she made for her famous portrait of the California botanist Luther Burbank makes clear that Kahlo subsequently altered her subject’s hands because they were too reminiscent of Rivera’s style.

Exhibition organizers put Kahlo’s leftist political leanings in the spotlight, as well. A number of objects, including her Mexican Communist Party registration card and photos of her with Leon Trotsky, the exiled Soviet leader with whom she is believed to have had an affair, testify to her strong ideological convictions. Proof of Kahlo’s enduring power as a political emblem emerged at Wednesday’s official opening, where a contingent of leftist protesters showed up to denounce the exhibition and the VIP attendees as “bourgeois,” while shouting, “Frida was a Communist!”

The exhibition’s focus on Kahlo’s Mexican pedigree goes against the tendency in recent decades to view her work through the interpretive lenses favored by many European and U.S. curators and researchers — Frida as a poster girl for feminism, queer studies, post-colonialism, multiculturalism and so on. Such perspectives have not always been welcomed by Mexican artists, scholars and others who knew Kahlo and Rivera personally, some of whom regard these views as largely U.S. and European cultural projections.

Coronel Rivera believes in a need to reexamine regional influence in the work of artists such as Kahlo — not in a parochial, nationalistic way, he says, but as a corrective to the globalized, “international” style of contemporary art, which he thinks can lead to homogeneity. “All young artists of this moment seem like one another,” he says. “Already there is no difference if they are Canadians or if they are Mexicans or if they are Costa Ricans or if they are Peruvians or if they are Bulgarians or if they are Czechs. When one goes to biennials and visits all these types of new propositions, what one is seeing is like there is a certain uniformity. The interesting thing about Frida is … she is painting the sense of the regional.”

“Frida is an intimate painter. The fundamental theme of Frida is introspection,” says Raquel Tibol, an art critic and author of the new biography “Diego Rivera, Luces y Sombras” (Diego Rivera, Lights and Shadows). Kahlo didn’t have her first major public art show in Mexico until 1953, the year before her death.

Though interest in Kahlo’s work was reviving in Mexico by the late 1960s, some scholars and critics maintain that it was European feminists who raised her worldwide profile. In recent years, some of the most acclaimed Kahlo retrospectives have been held not in Latin America but in Europe, including a large show in 2005 at the Tate Modern in London.

Artist Monica Mayer, who like many Mexican women of her generation was greatly influenced by Kahlo, says her art speaks to many constituencies. “She is from that generation of Mexican women who really opened things up after the revolution, that were the first wave of feminists, and she was interested in all the racial issues and class issues,” says Mayer, one of whose works is currently included in the “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution” show at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Geffen Contemporary in downtown Los Angeles.

At the same time, Mayer says, she can understand why Bellas Artes is stressing Kahlo’s local roots, given that Kahlo spent nearly her entire life here and was deeply influenced by pre-Columbian art and Mexican regional culture and politics. “I think it’s probably good for Mexico that this … approach is being taken,” she says. “But I also think that that was her [Kahlo’s] own approach. She was very nationalistic; her work was very political, and she was very interested in popular art.”

Officials estimate that 300,000 people will view the show here through Aug. 19. Much of its contents then will be regrouped into smaller exhibitions that will open over subsequent months at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Meanwhile, Mexico City residents and visitors will be able to ponder Kahlo’s many faces at a series of anniversary events this year. Bellas Artes will host a symposium on Kahlo during the second week of July. An exhibition documenting Kahlo and Rivera’s architectural projects is wrapping up a successful run here.

Then there’s the armoire in the lavatory.

The wardrobe in question was discovered two years ago, stashed away in a bathroom in the Casa Azul, Kahlo’s longtime home, in the capital’s Coyoacan district. Stuffed inside were dozens of her old clothes, including many of the colorful traditional Mexican outfits, complete with stains and cigarette burns, that she collected and fitted to her inimitable personal style.

It’s a testament to Kahlo’s saint-like stature that the newfound stash, about 280 pieces, is being carefully cleaned, restored and documented by a three-woman team that includes a professional anthropologist. A book, with photos by Graciela Iturbide, also is in the works.