FROM PAIN TO PAS­SION

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Bi­sex­ual painter Frida Kahlo shines at new ex­hibit.

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 self­por­traits. 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.”

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