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Frida Kahlo: Art From Agony

January 20, 1987|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Times Art Writer

If ever an artist's life and work had the power to burn itself off the pages of dry art history and into popular mythology, it is that of Frida Kahlo. The Mexican artist (1907-1954) exemplified a stunning balance of artistic sophistication and naivete, joie de vivre and physical agony. Married to muralist Diego Rivera, a famous man twice her size, she also merged the roles of dutiful wife and independent personality.

Stricken by polio at age 6 and nearly killed in a bus accident that, at 18, left her with multiple fractures and a future of 30 operations including a leg amputation, Kahlo gave up plans for medical school and reinvented herself as an artist. Self-taught and intrepid, she moved quickly from serene portraiture to a symbolic realism that expressed her mental and physical pain in such a bizarre fashion that it was often mistaken for Surrealism.

"She was not a Surrealist," said Dolores Olmedo Patino, whose collection of 25 works by Kahlo is on exhibition through March 29 at Plaza de la Raza in Lincoln Park. By other people's standards, Kahlo's life in hospital beds, braces and trusses and her endurance of surgery, miscarriages and a stormy marriage to a charismatic man whose alleged infidelities were a source of gossip might seem the stuff of melodrama or hysterical fantasy.

But Olmedo Patino, who owns the largest private collections of work by both Kahlo and Rivera, insists that it was Kahlo's life, not her art, that was Surreal. The collector agrees with Rivera's written assessment: "Frida is the unique example in the history of art who tore open the breast and heart in order to speak the biological truth of what is felt within them."

"I was not a close friend of Frida Kahlo," the elegantly dressed and jeweled collector said during an interview in Los Angeles, explaining that she met Kahlo when the artist was a young teen-ager and resumed contact after Kahlo married Rivera. A longtime friend, model and patron of Rivera, Olmedo Patino collected his work over the years, but she acquired her holding of Kahlo's art in one purchase.

"I bought it in 1955 from Eduardo Morillo Zafa (an engineer who was Kahlo's major collector during her life)," she said. "At that time, the highest price ever paid for one of her paintings was 5,000 pesos (about $400)," Olmedo Patino added, raising her eyebrows but declining to speculate on the worth of her collection on today's market. "People were interested in her work then, but not nearly so much as now," she said.

Kahlo's biographer, Hayden Herrera, has suggested that the artist chose to wear native Mexican costumes because they disguised her physical deformities and to work in a primitive style because it allowed her to deal with painful subjects. Much of her mature work emulates retablos (popular paintings often depicting near-disasters).

Despite dramatic accounts of the artist's life, Olmedo Patino said that Kahlo did not appear sickly or pathetic. "She had a very tragic life, but she was very happy. She had many friends and was greatly admired. She was very attractive, with a gay personality and she was a strong person," the collector said. "And remember it was a very different situation then. Women were supposed to be having babies, working in the kitchen or waiting for their husbands to come home."

Upon her death, at 47, Kahlo left a body of about 150 finished paintings and drawings. Olmedo Patino said her Kahlo collection contains 18 paintings, six drawings and the only lithograph the artist ever did, a "gruesome" 1932 work called "The Abortion."

"The exhibition in the gallery covers various periods, beginning with the first painting she ever did, the 1927 academic 'Portrait of Alicia Galant.' " Later works show "Diego's influence" and how Kahlo "became her own self," according to the collector. A display of photographs of the artist provides an accompanying show in the lobby of Plaza's theater. Screenings of a short film on Kahlo will be scheduled in February.

Olmedo Patino said she was persuaded to loan her Kahlo collection to Plaza de la Raza after a year of cajoling by independent curator Antonio Gonzalez Reynoso, who also organized another artistic coup for the East Los Angeles community center--the 1985 exhibition of paintings by David Alfaro Siqueiros. "He kept calling and calling, so I finally gave in," she said.

It isn't the first time. Many works from her Kahlo collection traveled in a 1978 exhibition organized by Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art (which came to UC San Diego) and the major retrospective of Diego Rivera's work currently on an international tour draws heavily on her holding.

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