Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics and Painting
Sounding like an ambitious endeavor, I was somewhat skeptical when I heard about Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics and Painting, currently on view at the Art Gallery of Ontario. I was curious to see how Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera works could be brought together into a succinct exhibition without being overshadowed by their tumultuous lives and romantic entanglements. However, I was more than pleasantly surprised. Frida & Diego, curated by Dot Tuer, is an aesthetically beautiful, intellectually engaging and emotionally moving exhibition. It was a rare opportunity to see so many of the artists’ most iconic works side-by-side; the exhibition almost functioned as an intertwined retrospective of their careers, and in turn, their lives together.
Rivera spent nearly a decade in Europe early in his career, which is often forgotten; therefore, it was fantastic to see some of his earlier works from this time, which showed the undeniable stylistic influences of Cubism and Post-Impressionism. Included in the exhibition were also Rivera’s expressionistic paintings infused with idealized Mexican culture, works that he became renowned for, such as Flower Festival: Feast of Santa Anita and Calla Lily Vendor. I was interested to see how the exhibition would acknowledge Rivera’s murals, other than just displaying photographs of these large-scale, site-specific works. This logistical conundrum was cleverly dealt with by replicating across an entire wall his mural, The Arsenal, in which Kahlo is centrally situated distributing arms to the people of Mexico. Juxtaposed to Rivera’s larger canvases were Kahlo’s smaller, very personal, folk art style paintings on tin. Despite being diminutive in scale, these detailed and powerful paintings held their own, creating a sense of balance beside her counterpart’s works. Kahlo’s portraits were an integral aspect of her career, and this was evident in the exhibition with many of her best-known portraits hanging, such as Self-Portrait with Monkey and Self-Portrait as Tehuana (Diego in My Thoughts). Tying these diverse works together to form a seamless exhibition were photographs of Kahlo and Rivera, separately, and of course together.
Kahlo’s work is often too easily categorized as Surrealist. Unlike the Surrealists who were producing automatist dream-like representations, Kahlo was painting her own reality – a reality that included a terrible bus accident that would affect her for the rest of her life, devastating miscarriages and her tumultuous relationship with Rivera. In addition, Kahlo was producing her works far removed from the Surrealist avant-garde in France. The exhibition did not pigeonhole Kahlo as a Surrealist painter; rather it allowed her to be elusive. Paintings such as My Dress Hangs There display the various tensions in Kahlo’s work and life such as the tension between Mexican folk artist and Surrealism, the opposition of Socialism and Capitalism, and Kahlo’s internal conflict between living in the New York for Rivera and her desire to be back in Mexico. Rivera’s works, such as his murals, are more overtly political than his wife’s paintings, often dealing with themes of Socialism and Mexican Nationalism. Rivera’s canonic images of calla lilies can also be read as political works, representing a pre-conquest world of the Aztecs; Rivera would regularly speak of these flowers in relation to Socialism. Frida & Diego demonstrates how art and the avant-garde were able to reflect the social temperature of the time.
Frida & Diego is an emotional exhibition, enhanced by the ephemera and photographs of the artists carefully situated amongst the artworks. With Kahlo’s tiny little votive paintings, I was forced to move in closely and was literally confronted with Kahlo’s excruciating pain from her accident and devastation from her miscarriages. The plaster corset cast, hand painted with an image of an unborn baby, that Kahlo had worn during one of the times she was bedridden was on display. I was drawn to the object; drawn to the fact that the artist’s body and her pain had been present in that cast. Kahlo and Rivera’s passion for their artwork and social beliefs are evident in every brushstroke; but it was their passion, volatility and unquestionable love for each other that lingered in every corner of the exhibition. One of my favourite works on view is Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair, which depicts a portrait of Kahlo after she had cut off her hair and inscribed across the top of the painting are the words, “Look, if I loved you it was because of your hair. Now that you are without hair, I don’t love you anymore.” The work, painted in 1940, shortly after she and Rivera had divorced, is so raw that it is palpable.
Kahlo and Rivera are two of the great modernist artists of the twentieth century whose lives and artwork are inextricably linked, and yet, so rarely do we have the opportunity to view their work together. I would have liked to be able to walk through the exhibition a second time; however, viewers were not allowed to have a second entry into the exhibit due to its popularity. So if you do go see the exhibition, make sure you take your time to savour each work. I left the exhibition feeling that I had seen a visual feast of Kahlo and Rivera’s finest works, been intellectually challenged, and been emotionally awakened.
Kate Galicz finished her MA in Art History and diploma in curatorial studies from York University in 2007. She is currently the Director of Appraisal Services at Heffel Fine Art Auction House. Kate loves anything kitsch, fashion, and is crazy about her furry four-legged friend.