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Exhibit Review: Frida Kahlo at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

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Sometimes an art review needs a little context from the perspective of the reviewer's own historical involvement with the work being reviewed. In 1975, I visited Mexico City and discovered the works of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. Almost immediately, I developed an artistic obsession with Kahlo's image.

Over the years I have created hundreds of works on that subject, including dozens of art school assignments while a student. Although the vast majority of those works were sold over the years, a few years ago I had a solo show in Washington, DC that chronicled 27 years of preparatory drawings, etchings, oil paintings, watercolors, and sculptures about Kahlo.

In 1975 my parents took their first vacation ever, at least in my memory. As Cuban exiles, the American tradition of yearly vacations was as removed from their routine as the Cuban tradition of Nochebuena is from American Christmas holiday customs. They decided to go to Mexico City for a week with another couple from New York, which is where my folks had been living since leaving Cuba as political refugees in the early '60s.

Also in 1975, I was finishing my first year in the US Navy, where I had enlisted right after high school, and was stationed aboard USS Saratoga, home ported in Mayport, Florida. I had turned down a New York State Regents Scholarship and a Boston University scholarship to satisfy my desire to see the world before I went to college.

Mexico City and its nightlife and food (and how far a dollar went) made such an impression upon my parents and their friends that the one-week trip became two, and eventually they spent nearly a month in that huge, dirty city, enjoying the food, scenery, clubs, and markets. They also asked me if I'd like to join them for a few days. Since they were paying for it, I got a few days leave and flew to Mexico City for about five days of my own, unexpected vacation.

I hardly spent any time with them. As a 19-year-old, my interests were more focused on girls, cheap booze, and plenty of great things to do. It was while visiting a museum during the last few days of my visit that I accidentally discovered Frida Kahlo.

I remember walking into the museum salon where the “Two Fridas” hung. It was love, or more like witchcraft, at first sight. This large, spectacular painting swallowed my visual senses and attention as no work of art would do again until I first saw Velasquez's “Las Meninas” at the Prado in Madrid eight years later.

Frida Kahlo's Two Fridas

"Las Dos Fridas" by Frida Kahlo


At that first exposure, and the ones that followed over the years, as I tried to absorb as much of Frida Kahlo as I could in my remaining Mexico City days, I became an addict for the work and imagery of this Champagne Communist Mexican virago. I recall sitting down in the room where the “Two Fridas” was hung, and copying the painting through a pencil sketch done on gift wrapping vellum paper from an earlier touristy purchase of a huge, saucepan-sized solid silver belt buckle and brown cowboy etched leather belt that I wore for years and that thankfully has now been lost.

Kahlo left me gasping for knowledge about her and her work. Her imagery was like nothing I had seen before, even in my childhood's New York atmosphere that often included daylong trips to the Brooklyn Museum, the Met, MOMA, and many other New York museums. The more of her work I discovered, the more I became obsessed with learning about her. In 1975, and the first few years that followed, this wasn't exactly an easy task. In those years, at least in Mexico, Kahlo was still just Diego Rivera's wife – a wife who also happened to paint. Thus was my burning interest in visiting the massive Frida Kahlo exhibition that opened last month at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA).

PMA is the only East Coast venue for this major exhibition, the first in nearly 15 years to be devoted to Kahlo's work. It includes more than 40 of Kahlo's paintings, including many that have never been exhibited before, and others that have never been seen in the United States. The following video provides a walkthrough of the Kahlo exhibition:

The exhibition was organized by the Walker Art Center, working with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and curated by Kahlo biographer, Hayden Herrera, whose brilliant biography of Kahlo is a must-read for Kahlophiles worldwide, and by the Walker's associate curator Elizabeth Carpenter.

In addition to the Kahlo works, the curators have included over 100 photographs from Kahlo's personal collection, some of which have been annotated and drawn on by Kahlo. Among them are images by Tina Modotti, Nickolas Murray, Gisele Freund, and many others. They truly help to create a sense of place and time and aura around some of the most iconic imagery from 20th century art.

The PMA show also adds some additional materials from the museum's own collection. These works, mostly ex-votos works, really add a brilliant insight into Kahlo's influences. The PMA additions were curated by the PMA's Michael Taylor and Emily Hage (more on that later).

A proper Kahlo primer demands the reading of Hayden Herrera's biography, Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo, or at the very least the viewing of Salma Hayek's movie, Frida. The film was the most recent of a curious worldwide Kahlomania that shows little sign of slowing down. It is especially curious in the sense that the artist who now represents "Mexicanity" to its most profound depth was essentially ignored in her own country for many years, both during and after her lifetime (Kahlo died in 1954), and only had one exhibition of her works in Mexico (in 1953), just before she died.

Kahlo was born in 1907. In 1929 she married Diego Rivera. At the time, Rivera was perhaps Mexico's best-known artist and womanizer, and their relationship was turbulent, to say the least. It also provided the subject matter for some of Kahlo's best-known works.

Frieda and Diego

Frieda and Diego by Frida Kahlo


Almost upon entry we see "Frieda [sic] and Diego Rivera," painted in 1931. Painted while Kahlo and Rivera were living in San Francisco, this work was first exhibited at the 6th Annual Exhibition of the San Francisco Society of Women Artists. It's a rather sad double portrait, where Kahlo paints Rivera's profession as an artist, and depicts herself as a traditional Mexican wife, even taking Rivera's last name when she signs the work "Frieda [sic] Rivera." Their hands barely touch each other.

Kahlo was a woman of multiple identities, but this one is far from the Frida Kahlo who has become an unexpected icon to the world's feminist movement. This early work provides a seminal entry point to Kahlo's deep debt to Mexican folk art — what Herrera calls "Mexicanidad" (or Mexicanity) — a post-revolutionary idea formulated by Mexico's intelligentsia to carve out a Mexican identity based upon its own rich indigenous history and its mestizo culture.

Over the years a distinct and very Mexican icon would emerge: an artist who has also become a separate icon not only to the same Mexicans who mostly ignored her while she was alive, but also to the new culture of Mexican-Americans once known as Chicanos who have since adopted her as an iconic cultural leader of their re-discovered Mexicanity.

My Grandparents, My Parents, and I (Family Tree) by Frida Kahlo

My Grandparents, My Parents, and I (Family Tree) by Frida Kahlo


A genetic and iconic paradox emerges in this latter deification of Kahlo. In the 1936 painting, "My Grandparents, My Parents, and I (Family Tree)," Kahlo has depicted her own family tree, proudly reflecting her own mestizo heritage, exhibited by her maternal grandfather's indigenous blood. She also showcases her three Caucasian grandparents, and even depicts herself being sustained inside her mother. We also see the moment of creation as a European sperm enters her mother's mestizo egg. Kahlo shows herself as a small child in her Blue House, perhaps sadly stating the end of the line, as Kahlo was unable to bear children.

Kahlo's Mexicanity would grow and progress over the years, and she embraced the traditions of Mexican folk art and the colonial religious paintings known as "ex-voto" with a ferocity that is a perfect example of why the post-modernist war cry of "it's been done before" fails immediately, no matter how often repeated. "So what?" would have answered Frida Kahlo as she used the ex-votos as guides for some of her most successful works.

In "The Suicide of Dorothy Hale," we get to see what no one else got to see at the Walker or will see in SF: an opportunity to see, side-by-side, how Kahlo embraced an older tradition and brought it forward to her own painting dialogue. Commissioned by Clare Booth Luce in 1939 (while Kahlo was living in New York) to commemorate the suicide of her friend Dorothy Hale, I was told by Hayden Herrera that it "horrified" Luce when she saw it. It is a painting executed in the direct style of the ex-votos, and somehow the PMA has found in its own collection an ex-voto that almost matches the storyline of the Kahlo painting.

An ex-voto is a votive painting commissioned by someone to celebrate or record an event where someone has survived a dangerous event. In Mexico, it was generally painted on tin sheets. Often the ex-voto has a narrative style that shows the progression of the event, in a timeline, in the actual work.

In the Kahlo painting, we see Dorothy Hale jumping to her suicide, first as a small figure jumping off her apartment building, surrounded by clouds echoing El Greco. We then see Hale's body in a close up of her fall, and finally the broken and bloodied woman on the ground. A banner at the bottom of the painting tells the story in Spanish, and Kahlo has bloodied her signature and even the frame.

In the PMA's ex-voto titled "Fall from a Balcony," we see a Nanny and child falling through the floor of a balcony, which has given way under their weight. We also see them on the ground, having fallen and then having miraculously survived the fall. The banner at the bottom relates the story of the fall. It's a brilliant juxtaposition of two unrelated works that cement the powerful influence of ex-voto upon Kahlo's own work as no words can describe.

Brilliant artists borrow from all sources around. The Beatles' "A Day in the Life," borrowed from the morning newspaper headlines that Sir Paul was reading over his beans on toast:

I read the news today oh boy / Four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire / And though the holes were rather small / They had to count them all / Now they know how many holes it takes / to fill the Albert Hall

Kahlo's horrific "A Few Small Nips," painted in 1935, is a revelation in many ways. As Herrera tells the story, Kahlo was inspired to make this gruesome painting, which depicts a man in a bloodbath of an assault on a naked woman who has been stabbed many times, from a newspaper story relating the crime. The killer, while being reprimanded by the judge, was quoted as responding that he had only given the victim a "few small nips."

Kahlo's A few small nips

"A Few Small Nips" by Frida Kahlo


The work came at a difficult time in Kahlo's own life, when her marriage to Rivera was on the rocks, because Rivera had an affair with Kahlo's younger sister, Cristina. The painting is a visual bloodbath itself. Kahlo's misery is projected onto the victim lying naked on a bloodied bed. There's blood everywhere, including the frame, which Kahlo has used to extend the bloodstains.

There's something else that even a Kahlo expert such as Herrera first discovered when she saw this painting for the first time during this exhibition: Kahlo has also stabbed the frame repeatedly, extending her own anger onto the wood, giving it a few small nips of her own.

This is why sometimes even a familiar work of art yields new clues when examined for real. Those angry stabs on the frame had not been revealed in the countless reproductions of this work. This revelation alone is worth a trip to see this exhibition.

Video: Kahlo biographer, Hayden Herrera, discusses "A Few Small Nips"

Another incarnation of Frida Kahlo was her ability to paint her own pain. Starting with a horrific accident in her youth, which left her body broken and subject to pain throughout the rest of her life as well as countless operations, Kahlo borrowed from her own physical pain to deliver images that makes us wince from a different place than the images of a suicide or a stab victim.

Physical pain that comes from a deep, moist place inside us all, and which Kahlo has exposed via her painting many times. It's there in "The Broken Column," (c. 1944) and also in "Without Hope," and perhaps in one of her best-known paintings, "The Little Deer," where the pain becomes arrows on the deer's body.

There are surprises in this show as well — even for a Fridaphile like myself, and I suspect for most acolytes of Fridamania — such as "The Circle," a round work that is undated and looks nothing like any Kahlo work that I have ever seen.

"The Two Fridas" is just as I remember from my first exposure to it back in the mid 1970s. This is her largest work, painted in 1939, and occupying a place of honor in the exhibition: two gigantic Fridas sitting against an El Greco sky, holding hands and sharing a bloodline. One is a Mexican Frida in her Tehuana dress; the other Frida is bloodied, and the dripping vein paints small red flowers on her white dress, perhaps a contemporary European wedding dress of the times.

Kahlo curator, Elizabeth Spencer, discusses "The Two Fridas”

I hope this exhibition will kindle new interest not only from her legions of fans, but also from art scholars and researchers, as there are still many holes and gaps that need to be identified and expanded in this amazing life. Kahlo's influence on contemporary art also needs serious examination by art scholars and researchers. Kahlo's obsession with her own image has been reflected in the work of many important contemporary artists and photographers who use their body and image as the canvas for their work.

Even as Fridamania continues to expand and her images commodified into Chinese-made Mexican souvenirs of all kinds, Frida Kahlo is a major 20th century artist, perhaps even eclipsing her husband's place in art history. Like Picasso, Kahlo refused to be labeled and refused to produce one style or genre of work. “God is really only another artist," once said Picasso. "He invented the giraffe, the elephant, and the ant. He has no real style. He just goes on trying other things."

I suspect that as we discover more and more about Kahlo and her work, Kahlo will continue to evolve and reinvent herself in our eyes.

Frida Kahlo is at the PMA through May 18, 2008.

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About Lenny Campello

  • Jim Whalen

    lennie—what month in ’75 did you hitch a ride on SARA ?? What division ?? jim

    {Personal contact info deleted]

  • http://www.etherapistsonline.com/etherapists/mitchell.htm,buttonsadogsblog.blogspot.com Juliann Mitchell

    Mr. Campello, a wonderful,informative, well- written piece on Kahlo. Sharing your own personal experiences made for a great read. I planned to see the exhibit next month but after reading your article I will be going this weekend. I recently purchased her diary and have found it fascinating, especially her artwork. Thank you.

  • http://www.terenceclarke.org Terence Clarke

    Hello Lennie:

    Thank you for your piece on Frida Kahlo. I too am a Frida and Diego fan, and I especially appreciate your mention of Hayden Herrera’s biography of Frida. I’ve seldom read a serious biography that was so much of a page-turner. Excellent research, fine writing and a real look into the soul of a very fine artist.

    I too am a BC writer, by the way, and I hope you’ll look at some of my pieces on the graphic arts.

    Warm regards,
    Terence Clarke

  • http://blogs.epicindia.com/leapinthedark Richard Marcus

    Mr Campello

    Thank you for the tour through the Frida exhibt in Philly – it looks stunning. I’m amazed at the number of paintings that I was completly unfamiliar with; the still life’s and the minatures look like they are worth poring over for ages.

    Do you happen to know if the gallery has produced a catalogue of the show that and if it’s for sale? For those of us unable to see the show – and I doubt if it will be coming to Canada at any time in the near future – it would be a valuable addition to a collection.

    My wife and I recently purchased a new edition of her journals that has just been published, and I was struck again by the emotional honesty of her work. She’s able to comment on her personal pain without appearing self-indulgent. Making it a universal statement on what’s it’s like to suffer so that others can identify, and feel like somebody understands what they are going through.

    I speak from personal experience as I too suffer from acute chronic pain – I know in attempting to write about it, how thin the line between self-pity and explanation is, and I’ve always looked to Frida’s work for guidance.

    Thank you again for this piece – it’s the next best thing to being there.

    cheers

    Richard Marcus