Thursday, December 13, 2012

(No.223) Frida Kahlo & Diego Rivera at the AGO

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera at the AGO:
a wonderful exhibition

by Alastair Rickard

The first time Pat and I saw an exhibition of paintings by the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo they were a part of a three person show that ended its 2002 North American tour at the Vancouver Art Gallery. It was billed as "Carr, O'Keeffe and Kahlo: Places of their own". Kahlo shared the stage with the Canadian Emily Carr and the American Georgia O'Keeffe. The exhibition had come to Vancouver from Washington's National Museum of Women in the Arts.

By the 1990s 'Fridamania' had begun to elevate Kahlo to feminist heroine complete with the moustache and unibrow Kahlo had made sure to include in her many self-portraits. Indeed, of the 150 or so of her paintings that survived her death in 1954 (age 47) most are self-portraits of one sort or another.

A major influence on Kahlo's life and her art was a near fatal bus accident when she was a young woman. It inflicted gruesome injuries on her, the effects of which were with her the rest of her life.

While the focus on Kahlo's life in recent decades has tended to omit inconvenient facts that are at odds with her current image as a long-suffering artist and wife or to which her enthusiasts might today object, it has reinforced the elevation of Frida Kahlo the artist over her art.

Pat and I were sufficiently interested by Kahlo and her work to make a point of attending the new exhibition brought to Toronto by the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), one of the several organizing institutions, of "Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics and Painting". (It runs at the AGO through Jan. 20, 2013.)

It is a fascinating exhibition on several levels and for several reasons, not all of them relating to the quality of the works on display. It brings together brilliantly a significant display of some of Kahlo's work with a selection of those painted by Diego Rivera, the Mexican muralist 20 years her senior, her husband (twice), philanderer and a self-described political revolutionary who shared with Kahlo a profound political naivete. They were both longtime Communists who came to admire Joseph Stalin and latterly dedicated themselves to him and his version of Communism and did so after the millions of deaths for which he was responsible had become more widely known.

During their often stormy lives together Rivera (who died at age 70 three years after Kahlo) achieved a fame as an artist not only in Mexico but internationally that far exceeded Kahlo's. Today it is the opposite. The beginning of the reversal dates from the publication of a 1983 biography by Hayden Herrera: "Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo (2003).

This book helped prompt and was followed by the taking up of Kahlo's work by celebrities like Madonna as well as by various American feminists -- indeed Kahlo has been called "Gender Studies' emblematic victim". The growing public recognition culminated in the making of the 2002 Hollywoood movie "Frida" starring Spanish actress Salma Hayek as Kahlo (but minus the moustache and unibrow) with the marvellous English actor Alfred Molina playing Rivera.

The effectiveness of the AGO exhibition has been enhanced by a wonderful collection of photographs (and even one silent video) of Kahlo and Rivera, together and separately, up to and including Kahlo on her "funeral bed".

When it came to his own life Rivera was not just a notorious womanizer (Kahlo had her share of extra-marital affairs) but an inventor of the narrative of his own life story. But he was certainly one of what were termed Mexico's leading "revolutionary painters". While he was perhaps most famous for the  murals he painted in Mexico and also in the U.S., often depciting aspects of the Mexican revolution or of workers rallying for various causes, Rivera also was known within Mexican political circles for betraying allies and political causes.

For example: Rivera and Kahlo helped get asylum for the Russian exile Leon Trotsky in Mexico in 1936. Trotsky and his wife stayed in Kahlo's family home where Kahlo seduced him as well as worshipped politically for a time at his feet.

However it seems that both Rivera and Kahlo decided to turn against Trotsky. Rivera is even suspected of assisting in a minor way Stalin's NKVD assassin of Trotsky in 1940. After Trotsky's murder both Kahlo and Rivera came out publicly against Trotsky apparently because (typical of the political  naives they were) they had become devout Stalinists.

You will not read such unflattering details in the notes and explanations accompanying the works in the exhibition at the AGO -- hardly surprising. But the art speaks for itself, even Frida's sometimes grotesque self-portraits like "Self-portrait with brace" (1941), "Without Hope" (1945) or the small paintings inspired by Mexican folk art like "My nurse and I" (1937).

The range of Rivera's talent can be measured by viewing not merely photographs of his murals but his paintings in this exhibiton such as "Portrait of Natasha Gelman"(1943) and "The Hammock" (1956).

The AGO exhibition puts on display the lives as well as the art of two people whose lives were not only joined and stormy but absorbed with each other and themselves in a  way that was obsessive.

For information on the Art gallery of Ontario exhibition "Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics and Painting" visit the AGO website:




blog archive: to access back numbers of RickardsRead, go to the blog
archive in the margin beside each column as it appears on the website and use the links

to set a "Google alert" for new columns as they are posted on, go to: