pain and pride


rida Kahlo made her own face fa­mous by paint­ing a seem­ingly end­less se­ries of self-por­traits over the span of a 30-year ca­reer that of­ten dis­played an emo­tion­ally fraught — even flayed — psy­che. Mirror Mirror: Pho­to­graphs of Frida Kahlo, open­ing at the Mu­seum of Spanish Colo­nial Art on Satur­day, May 6, of­fers a rare op­por­tu­nity to view Kahlo as oth­ers saw her, with a col­lec­tion of more than 50 por­traits by fa­mous and lesser-known pho­tog­ra­phers, in­clud­ing Imo­gen Cun­ning­ham, Manuel and Lola Al­varez Bravo, and Lu­ci­enne Bloch. Mirror Mirror orig­i­nated at Throck­mor­ton Fine Art in New York City in 2015; the Spanish Colo­nial Arts ex­hibit is cu­rated by Pene­lope Hunter-Stiebel, a mu­seum board mem­ber.

Kahlo was born in Coyoacán, a small bor­ough of Mex­ico City, in 1907, but she usu­ally told peo­ple she was born in 1910. She did not do this in an ef­fort to lie about her age but be­cause she liked her birth­date to co­in­cide with the Mex­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion. Even as a child, she pushed her­self in­tel­lec­tu­ally, de­ter­mined to make a last­ing im­pres­sion on the world. A bout with po­lio at age six barely slowed her down — and then in 1925, when she was en­rolled at the Es­cuela Na­cional Prepara­to­ria, plan­ning to be­come a doc­tor, a bus she was rid­ing col­lided with a trol­ley. A steel handrail im­paled her through the hip, frac­tur­ing her spine and pelvis. She be­gan her artis­tic ca­reer while bedrid­den and re­cov­er­ing from her in­juries. The ear­li­est portrait in the ex­hibit, Frida Kahlo at 18, was taken in 1926, by her fa­ther Guillermo Kahlo, who ran a pho­tog­ra­phy stu­dio. In this photo, taken not long af­ter the ac­ci­dent, she is poised and stiff in her chair, star­ing di­rectly and un­smil­ingly at the cam­era, her se­ri­ous gaze un­wa­ver­ing. She took on this fa­cial ex­pres­sion as a child and honed it through­out her life when­ever she was pho­tographed, as well as in her self-por­traits. Look­ing at the works in Mirror Mirror, one can­not help but won­der how of­ten the ex­pres­sion re­flects pain, or the sto­icism re­quired to with­stand it.

Kahlo first met the painter Diego Rivera — whom she would marry in 1929 — when she was in high school, and al­ready a po­lit­i­cally rad­i­cal spit­fire. He was paint­ing a mu­ral on site, us­ing a nude model, and Kahlo and her friends spied on and taunted him. She dubbed him Panzón — Spanish for “fat-bel­lied” — a nick­name she also used for him dur­ing their mar­riage, which was some­thing of a soap opera. Both had nu­mer­ous af­fairs. Among other men — and women — Kahlo slept with Leon Trot­sky, the ex­iled Rus­sian rev­o­lu­tion­ary. Rivera slept with Cristina, Frida’s younger sis­ter, and the cou­ple di­vorced in 1939. Un­able to stay away from each other, Rivera and Kahlo re­mar­ried in 1940. They trav­eled fre­quently to the United States and Europe for Rivera’s com­mis­sions and later for Kahlo’s gallery open­ings. Pho­to­graphs show the cou­ple in San Francisco, New York City, and Laredo, Texas. Many images are posed, but some are more ca­sual, as in Lu­ci­enne Bloch’s Frida Eat­ing Ice Cream Cone and Diego Smok­ing a Ci­gar, Jones Beach, Long Is­land (1933). They are sit­ting on a bench by a din­ing pa­tio. Rivera, hat on his lap, smokes and looks off to his left.

Kahlo, hold­ing an empty cone, the ice cream al­ready eaten, might be giv­ing the cam­era her sig­na­ture level gaze — or the pho­tog­ra­pher may have caught her lost in thought.

In Frida With Diego and Gas Mask (1938) by Nick­o­las Mu­ray, Kahlo is cap­tured in an em­brace with her hus­band, a gas mask dan­gling from one hand. Rivera’s sto­ried sex­ual al­lure does not of­ten come across in pic­tures, but in this one — taken by a man with whom Kahlo en­gaged in a decade-long love af­fair — his charm is overt, com­plete with imp­ish grin and bed­room eyes. A circa-1941 Mu­ray pho­to­graph, Group Portrait of Frida, Diego, Nick, Emmy Lou Packard, and Iona Robin­son, shows Rivera seated with the oth­ers stand­ing be­hind him. In cu­rat­ing the show, Hunter-Stiebel re­searched each pho­to­graph in search of a back­ground story, and this one was taken in the ho­tel across from the twin stu­dios of Diego and Frida. Robin­son was Mu­ray’s first wife and Packard was an as­sis­tant of Rivera’s with whom he had an af­fair. Also pic­tured is Mu­ray and Robin­son’s daugh­ter, Arija, whose name is not in­cluded in the image’s ti­tle.

“Mu­ray’s daugh­ter in­sisted on go­ing deep into the wilds of Mex­ico, against all advice, and she caught some germ and died of it,” Hunter-Steibel said. “It looks like the most bor­ing pho­to­graph in the world, but there’s a lot go­ing on. This is the kind of ten­sion and dy­namic that was al­ways around these two. Frida would turn his as­sis­tants around. Diego would start flirt­ing with them, so she’d make them her friends.” In a photo by Packard, Frida Kahlo and Emmy Lou Packard Coyoa­can, Mex­ico 21/40 (1941), the two women, dressed in fash­ion­able yet slightly mas­cu­line at­tire, sit com­fort­ably en­twined, Packard’s arms around Kahlo, who squints into the sun.

In her dress and in her paint­ings, Kahlo fa­vored a pro­nounced Mex­i­can na­tional and cul­tural iden­tity — at least par­tially in re­sponse to the way Amer­i­can cul­ture was sweep­ing Mex­i­can cities as well as the in­flu­ences she faced dur­ing the times she lived in the United States. She wore long col­or­ful dresses and skirts and tra­di­tional re­bo­zos. She wove flow­ers into her hair, which she kept knot­ted in a tight bun. The skirts cov­ered her legs, mak­ing it eas­ier to hide her scars as well as pro­vide a vis­ual dis­trac­tion from the pain she was in, which in­creased as she grew older. She was un­able to bear a child be­cause of her in­juries, and she had nu­mer­ous surg­eries on her spine. Her right leg was am­pu­tated be­low the knee in 1953, a year be­fore her death. Mirror Mirror in­cludes pho­to­graphs of Kahlo pos­ing in front of her work, and one in which she wears a painted body cast; in an­other, she naps with a dog. In a Juan Guz­man pho­to­graph from circa 1950, the artist lies in a hos­pi­tal bed, over which some­one has made a pup­pet show for her to play with. There are also pho­to­graphs of Kahlo’s fu­neral — the pro­ces­sion, with Rivera as pall­bearer, and her body in the cas­ket, Rivera look­ing over her.

Though she meant her of­ten bru­tal images of pain and heart­break as lit­eral rep­re­sen­ta­tions of her own ex­pe­ri­ence, Kahlo fans iden­tify with her for their own rea­sons — some aes­thetic and some deeply per­sonal. But no mat­ter how dra­matic her life story or how many con­sumer prod­ucts bear her face, Kahlo’s work is the rea­son she is and will be re­mem­bered — and she did not wait un­til af­ter her death for that recog­ni­tion. “The ex­hibit re­ally shows how the cater­pil­lar has be­come a but­ter­fly in terms of in­ter­na­tional artist cir­cles,” Hunter-Stiebel said. “When Manuel Ál­varez Bravo pho­to­graphs her at the Pi­casso ex­hi­bi­tion in Mex­ico in 1944, she has had solo ex­hi­bi­tions in New York and she’s had an ex­hi­bi­tion with Bravo in Paris. Her work has been ad­mired by Pi­casso. She has ar­rived. She is part of all of this now.”

Nick­o­las Mu­ray: Frida With Diego and Gas Mask, 1938; Juan Guzmán: Frida Alone With Two Doves, 1946

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