Life After Death


Fascinating, talented and tragic Frida Kahlo has maintained a stronghold on the imagination throughout the decades following her death in 1954. Today, she is the artist as rock star. The blazing self-portraits, the multilayered symbolism, the suffering and sheer originality of her art converge in the mega-retrospective "Frida Kahlo" at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through May 18.

The Kahlo story — maimed by polio and a horrific accident, twice married to muralist Diego Rivera, dedicated to European art and Mexican folklore and the lover of women and men, including Leon Trotsky — has all the ingredients of a Hollywood movie. In fact, it was one in 2002 with Selma Hayek as Kahlo. All of these life elements show themselves in Kahlo’s art.

Born in 1907, Kahlo began painting after a devastating bus accident in ’25 forced her into bed, where she sometimes painted straight up over her head. Her work is realistic, surrealist, highly accomplished, primitive and influenced strongly by Mexican folk arts. She came to the attention of Andr� Breton and Marcel Duchamp and, while Breton claimed Kahlo a surrealist who had invented the style herself, she denied it.

She was interested in the German artists of the New Objectivity, and some elements she incorporates seem to confirm that; however, the same could be said of her backgrounds with vegetation that came right out of Henri Rousseau’s work. Her paintings are small but dazzling and glow with vibrant color. While her compositions can be conservative and orthodox, the symbols, animals and plants Kahlo surrounds herself with are bold and original.

During the height of Rivera’s career, the United States was taken by Mexican art, culture and politics. The Mexican Revolution, with its colorful commanders such as Emiliano Zapata Salazar and Pancho Villa, and promise of equalitarian reform stirred the imagination. Rivera was often commissioned for murals in San Francisco, Detroit and New York. Other Mexican artists also were celebrated, including David Siqueiros and Rufino Tamayo.

Kahlo was recognized towards the end of her life with her first exhibition in Mexico in ’53, where she appeared in a four-poster bed despite doctor’s orders. It seems fair to think her art came to a wider audience because of her association with Rivera and the other cultural and political elite of Mexico City. Once on her own, however, her style captured many fans and her work was eagerly sought.

During their marriages, Rivera was constantly having affairs and she took up the habit as well. Rivera, a devoted Communist, assisted in the asylum of Trotsky. While the Riveras and Trotsky lived in close but separate quarters, Kahlo had an affair with the Bolshevik revolutionary. She also managed a 10-year affair with Nickolas Muray, a prominent photographer she collaborated with on a number of portraits. The Delaware Art Museum is showing a strong companion to the Art Museum’s retrospective: "Frida Kahlo: Through the Lens of Nickolas Muray," reviewed in the Feb. 7 artphile, runs through March 30.

Kahlo was interested in photography and, in addition to more than 40 paintings, the exhibition has assembled more than 100 snapshots from her personal collection. They include work by Carl Van Vechten, Gisele Freund, Tina Modotti and Muray, as well as some by her father, Guillermo Kahlo. Guillermo was a professional photographer and instrumental in his daughter’s career. The photos show Kahlo with Rivera, family, friends and celebrities such as Trotsky and Breton.

This exhibition builds on the museum’s outstanding collections and past shows of Latin American and Mexican art. Two years ago, it organized "Treasures, Tesoros, Tesouros: the Fine Arts of Latin American 1492-1820" and "A Revolution in the Graphic Arts: Mexico and Modern Printmaking 1920-1950." Earlier, the museum mounted a wonderful photography show by Modotti. Sharing the space with Kahlo’s creations, examples of the museum’s other holdings in this vein are on display, giving context to Kahlo’s work.

As is the usual practice with such megashows, there are numerous public programs, lectures, classes, films and a special admission of $20. Notice should be given to the 320-page catalogue that accompanies the show. It provides lavish illustrations and a critical essay by Hayden Herrera, chief Kahlo biographer and show curator.