“There have been two great accidents in my life. One was the trolley, and the other was Diego. Diego was by far the worst.” Frida Kahlo
I’ve always loved Frida Kahlo. I’m fascinated by her story and have spent hours poring over books and scouring websites for images and information on this remarkable character. Leading a life blighted by tragedy, Frida is probably the most famous Mexican artist of the 20th century, alongside her fellow artist and husband, the acclaimed Diego Rivera.
When I learned that The Art Gallery of NSW was holding an exhibition focused on Frida and Diego’s relationship, well, I made a pilgrimage to the gallery as soon as I could.
Featuring paintings, drawings, photographs, and letters from the Jacques and Natasha Gelman collection, the exhibition is illuminating and moving. The Gelman’s were avid collectors of Mexican art, and earlier this year I was lucky enough to see other paintings by Kahlo from their collection at the Met in New York.
There were fewer paintings on display than I’d anticipated, but what was there was incredible. The intense, introspective self-portraits by Frida were surrounded by hordes of people trying to get a closer look. Was Frida Kahlo the original selfie queen? Examples of Diego’s work included a stunning painting of Natasha Gelman which apparently threw Frida into a fit of jealousy when she saw it. Over 50 black and white photos adorned the walls, accompanied by a timeline outlining major events in both Frida and Diego’s lives. The images and text told every tragic, joyful and sorry tale.
Born to a German father and Mexican mother in Coyoacán, a borough of Mexico City, Frida lived most of her life in le Casa Azul, the house her father built. She contracted Polio as a small child, and was involved in a terrible bus accident at aged 18, where she sustained devastating damage to her back. The accident thwarted her plans to attend medical school and left her confined to bed for long periods of time. So, she decided to become an artist. I find it sad to think about Frida alone in her room, in pain and looking inwards.
Frida’s first encounter with Diego Rivera occurred when she was an art student and he her teacher. Diego was already a famous and respected artist, friendly with the likes of Picasso, and he gave Frida advice on pursuing a career in art. Although he was married with children and 20 years her senior, the relationship between teacher and student escalated quickly. After a messy divorce from his second wife, Diego and Frida married – much to the disappointment of her father. Their tempestuous relationship waxed and waned throughout the years, with each engaging in numerous extra-marital affairs.
Aside from art, the two were passionate about politics and were staunch anti-fascists. They were friends with Leon Trotsky (so much so that Frida allegedly had an affair with him. As well as with Josephine Baker if you can believe it!). In fact, after things went sour for old Leon, it was in Coyoacán that he met his grisly end at the hands of an angry KGB agent and an ice pick with his name on it.
Although respected by the Mexican public and art community, it wasn’t until the 1980’s that Frida’s popularity as an artist and cultural icon was sealed. Books on her life appeared, contemporary galleries wanted to exhibit her work, and an obsession with Mexican art and imagery boomed. Shops were filled with kitschy Day of the Dead merchandise, colourful prints, and copies of her self-portraits.
This carefully curated exhibition just made me even more obsessed with the artwork and story of this powerhouse couple. There was an intense energy in the room which befitted such giants of the art world. Upon exiting the exhibition, footage of Diego and Frida laughing in the garden of le Casa Azul was playing on large screens. It was a poignant touch to mark the end of a poignant exhibition.
Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera is on at the Art Gallery of NSW until until 9 October 2016.
P.S Did you know that this shot of Frida was the inspiration for the cover of Patti Smith’s Horses album? FRIDA IS SO COOL THAT PATTI SMITH COPIED HER LOOK!