The works of noted Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, who was openly bisexual, and her painter husband Diego Rivera make for a fascinating exhibit currently at the High Museum of Art.
Atlanta is the only U.S. city hosting “Frida and Diego: Passion, Politics and Painting,” which opened a few weeks ago and runs through May 12. It’s a joint collaboration with the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto and the Museo Dolores Olmedo in Mexico City, featuring more than 130 works.
It’s the largest-ever collection of the two painters’ art. Atlanta was chosen not just for its reputation as a “vibrant, growing city,” but also for its large Latino-American community, according to Virginia Shearer, director of education at the High Museum of Art.
Known for surrealism and self-portraits, Kahlo’s appeal is based on what Shearer calls “the directness of images of herself.”
“She was elegant; you can’t look away,” says Shearer.
As a child, Kahlo suffered from polio which left her right leg thinner than her left. In 1925 she was in a bus that collided with a trolley car, which left her with a broken collarbone, spinal column and pelvis. The accident also left her unable to have children.
During Kahlo’s recovery, her hospital was an hour away from other people – leaving her isolated and bored, Shearer says. Highly intelligent, she gave up her aspirations of going into medicine and began expressing herself through art, teaching herself to paint, using herself as her subject.
Kahlo met Rivera two years later, wandering if he thought she could make it as a painter. Instead they fell in love, got married and Kahlo became part of what Shearer calls Rivera’s “bohemian circle.” Rivera was a member of the Mexican Communist party when they met. When they wed, Kahlo was 22 and Rivera was 43.
It’s well known that Frida was bisexual and had many lovers in her life, male and female. Rivera was never threatened by her affairs with other women — “Diego laughed at her bisexuality,” says Shearer — but did not like her relationships with other men.
“She was very loving,” says Shearer. “From what I read she was an early bloomer sexually. She was also in love with love.”
‘Neither could live without painting’
The exhibit works as a chronology of the two painters’ lives, separately and together. Frida had several signature pieces, says Shearer. Of her 143 paintings, more than 50 are self-portraits. One of the highlights of the exhibit is an entire wall of those self portraits.
Many of her pieces also reflect the pain in her life. After a miscarriage in 1932, Kahlo painted “Henry Ford Hospital” which finds her naked on a bed, a tear in one eye with bloody sheets underneath, the image of a baby attached to her via an umbilical cord above her body. She was also influenced by Mexican culture and often used monkeys in her work.
Androgyny also played a part in Kahlo’s style. In 1940 Kahlo painted “Self-Portrait With Cropped Hair.” It was painted shortly after she found that Rivera had been having an affair with her sister and the couple divorced. In the painting she is dressed in an oversized man’s suit, and her normally long hair is cut off, strands of it on the floor around her.
Ironically, during the time they were together, Rivera was the more prominent.
“He was getting U.S. commissions,” Shearer says. “Ten years in, she gets a solo exhibition — the Louvre takes her work — but she wasn’t that interested.”
Now, her star has eclipsed his.
“Now she is the person most people are aware of,” says Shearer. “Kids don’t really know Diego in Mexico.”
Shearer says that some people have visited the exhibit dressed as Frida, whether it’s flowers in their hair or in their attire.
Despite the volatile nature of their relationship, Kahlo and Rivera later remarried. They could not put the problems of their past behind them, but they influenced each other as people and artists.
“They challenged one another,” Shearer says. “There was a give and take. Diego writes so eloquently about her. He says that she was the first person to put so much pain in her painting. Neither could have lived without painting.”
Top photo: Above: Frida Kahlo (Mexican, 1907–1954), La Columna Rota (The Broken Column), 1944, oil on canvas, Collection of Museo Dolores Olmedo, Xochimilco, Mexico. © 2012 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D. F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Right, top to bottom: Imogen Cunningham (American, 1883–1976), Frida Kahlo Rivera, 1937, gelatin silver print, 12 1/2 x 9 1/2 inches. High Museum of Art, Atlanta, purchase with funds from a Friend of the Museum, 74.73. © The Imogen Cunningham Trust, 2012. Frida Kahlo (Mexican, 1907–1954), Retrato de Diego Rivera (Portrait of Diego Rivera), 1937, oil on masonite, The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of Mexican Art. © 2012 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D. F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Diego Rivera (Mexican, 1886 – 1957), La Canoa Enflorada (The Flowered Canoe), 1931, oil on canvas, Collection of Museo Dolores Olmedo, Xochimilco, Mexico. © 2012 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D. F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.