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Reclaiming Frida

Kahlo is celebrated in her homeland with an exhibition that defies the world's claims on the artist, defining her as distinctly Mexican.

June 18, 2007|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

Mexico City — AMONG the dozens of spooky, iconic images made by Mexico's most spookily iconic artist, few pack more potent symbolism than the 1939 double self-portrait "The Two Fridas."

On the right side of the large oil painting, Frida Kahlo depicted herself in traditional Mexican garb, her heart hovering outside her body like a phantasm, while in one hand she cradles a small portrait of her then ex-husband, Diego Rivera, rendered as a little boy. On the left side, Kahlo portrayed herself in a lacy white gown, her heart cleaved in two, blood leaking from a severed artery.

At the time the painting was made, Kahlo and Rivera were divorced (though soon to be remarried), and this famous work expresses the Sturm und Drang of the artists' tempestuous union. It also conveys the lifelong struggles within Kahlo's twin-chambered soul: European and Mexican, white and mestizo, artist and woman.

As this capital city braces for a months-long fiesta of all things Frida to mark the 100th anniversary of her birth on July 6, 1907, it's evident that there were not two Fridas but many. But her native land appears to be making an unusually concerted effort this season to reclaim its enigmatic daughter as, first and foremost, a distinctly Mexican artist, deeply rooted in the history, culture and politics of her own time and place.

Mexico's treatment of Kahlo hasn't been without ambiguity. During her lifetime, her genius wasn't always fully recognized at home, especially compared with the worshipful attitude accorded Rivera. Kahlo's small-scale, achingly introspective portraits didn't fit the country's post-revolutionary, socialist-realist public art agenda the way that Rivera's Marxist-themed murals did. Since her death at 47 in 1954, however, Kahlo has been embraced not only by platoons of art critics, scholars and curators but also by those who have found validation in her life and work for their own personal struggles and aspirations

"Frida has been an icon for many groups, for incapacitated people, for lesbians, for foreigners, for mestizos. And this is always the focus that has been given," says Juan Coronel Rivera, grandson of Diego Rivera and co-curator of one of the largest exhibitions ever devoted to Kahlo, which opened here Wednesday at the Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes.

By contrast, "Frida Kahlo 1907-2007: National Homage" places Kahlo and her work primarily in the context of Mexico's turbulent history in the early- to mid-20th century, her family relationships, her stormy marriage to Rivera and the glittering personalities of the couple's social circle. Coincidentally, the 50th anniversary of Rivera's death falls on Nov. 24, an occasion that also is being marked with exhibitions, discussions and new publications, though with no major art show comparable to the one honoring his wife.

The massive Kahlo exhibition at Bellas Artes fills all eight galleries of the ornate beaux-arts edifice that is the country's most prestigious cultural showcase. It encompasses nearly one-third of Kahlo's total artistic output, including 65 oils (divided into self-portraits, portraits and still lifes), 45 drawings, 11 watercolors and five prints.

"Frida Kahlo" displays several works never seen publicly in Mexico, or not for decades, such as the stunning miniature "Girl With Skull Mask," a 1938 oil from the Art Museum of Nagoya, Japan. Nearly 70 institutions and private collections from around the world lent objects, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Other exhibition galleries are devoted to documenting Kahlo's life, including 50 of her letters and 100 photographs. The latter include both private family snapshots and formal portraits by celebrity photographer friends such as Dolores and Manuel Alvarez Bravo and Nickolas Muray.

These artifacts are among the show's most moving and humanizing offerings. They strip away the celebrity aura that has accrued to Kahlo over the years, as her life has been turned into a Hollywood movie, her paintings have fetched record sums at auction and her image has been fetishized into the commercial cult of "Fridamania." Her photos and letters reveal a warm, humorous personality behind the inscrutable masks the artist often wore in her self-portraits.

The exhibition also attempts to reveal Kahlo as an "integral artist" who didn't simply channel her subconscious demons and project them onto the canvas but carefully strategized her compositions. Further, the show demonstrates Kahlo's desire to forge an artistic identity separate from her husband's. A drawing she made for her famous portrait of the California botanist Luther Burbank makes clear that Kahlo subsequently altered her subject's hands because they were too reminiscent of Rivera's style.

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