When I first walked into the exhibition Khalo, Rivera + Mexican Modern Art at NSU Art Museum | Fort Lauderdale, I expected that the first thing I would see would be a self portrait of Frida Kahlo, instead I was confronted with a 1931 painting by José Orozco titled “Gente afortunada” (Successful People), this image of a snooty couple, noses in the air, set the crux of the exhibition.
Khalo, Rivera + Mexican Modern Art is an exhibition that brings together art works from the world-renowned collection of Jacques and Natasha Gelman and major works by Mexican modern artists collected by Stanley and Pearl Goodman of Fort Lauderdale.
The exhibit showcases Mexican modern art in an era of revolution and “Mexicanidad”, an attitude of Mexican loyalty and patriotism that includes the celebration of Mexico’s pre-Columbian past and it’s cultural heroes.
Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco dubbed “los tres grandes” (the three great ones) reigned at this time as the leading Mexican muralists of the government sponsored mural movement, merging art and politics.
There are seventy five works on display in this exhibition, fourteen are by Diego Rivera, representing the different themes that the artist explored throughout his lifetime, as well as preparatory drawings for his grand scale murals. His fellow muralists, David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco also have smaller works in the exhibition and there is a generous representation of Mexican modernists, including Rufino Tamayo, Alfredo Martinez Ramos and Francesco Toledo.
Many of the artists in this exhibition had lived or traveled to Europe to learn from and mingle with the European avante garde. Upon his return, Rivera and other artists embraced the Mexicanidad movement rejecting Western and European easel art of the aristocracy, yet the influences of European modernism are clearly apparent in many of the works on display. Carlos Mérida’s image of women and children in a painting titled “Fecundidad” shows strong influences of European avante garde painting.
“Zapatista” by Alfredo Martinez Ramos is a tempera and conte crayon drawing of a Mexican peasant sitting under his sombrero. Painted after the revolution, the image paints a picture of life’s realities, made even more poignant when it becomes evident that the image has been rendered on the help wanted pages of the LA Times.
So where does Frida Kahlo fit into this scenario? A woman born at the dawn of the Mexican revolution, living in an evolving era of inequality, sexuality and gender appropriation.
Of the 27 artists included in this exhibition 23 are male, there are only 4 women. Frida Kahlo is represented with 25 works, Leonora Carrington, Alice Rahon and Remedios Varo each have 1 work on exhibit. This tells us as much about art history as it does about the art of collecting art today.
Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington were surrealist artists known to have collaborated in exploring new notions of surrealism. Varo enjoyed turning the tables on her male counterparts, by placing women in the role of active subject, turning traditionally male mythical heroes into female characters as an alternative to mans catalytic muse. In the painting “El Minotauro”, a female minotaur in a wispy cloak stands in an empty room holding the key to a mysterious key hole.
Frida Kahlo was a self taught artist, working very much within her own turbulent world, her work was introspective and self examining but also reflected her Mexicanidad sentiments. She often painted on sheet metal in the style of the Mexican street artists. Her interest in ancient European religions and mysticism influenced her work later in her life.
Kahlo’s individual reputation has a habit of preceding the artist’s works, in some circles she has reached cult like status. It is often expected that you can’t understand her work if you don’t know her story.
Kahlo was born to a mother of indigenous and Spanish descent and a German father. She grew up in a household of women, the third of four daughters with an additional two older stepsisters. She was highly intelligent and motivated, she planned to study medicine and was one of only 35 girls out of two thousand students at the prestigious Escuela Nacional Preparatoria in 1922. It was there that she first encountered Diego Rivera for the first time, he was working on a commissioned mural at the school.
Kahlo suffered physical disabilities from an early age. She was afflicted with polio at the age of six, leaving her with a permanent limp. In 1925 she was struck with tragedy when a bus she was traveling on collided with a streetcar. Her injuries were so severe that they would plague her for the rest of her life, she would undergo countless surgeries and never be strong enough to bear children. While encased in plaster and recuperating Frida began to paint, it was during that time that she again met Rivera, they married in 1929.
Frida’s mother, unhappy with the choice of her daughters husband, who was 20 years older and 200 pounds heavier than her 98 pound daughter, referred to the couple as the Dove and the Elephant.
Frida and Diego wove a salacious story of love and betrayals throughout their lifetimes. They both carried on affairs, leading to divorce and then remarriage. Frida explored relationships with other women. Constant pain led to heavy drinking and drug addictions which plagued the artist in her later years. Throughout all of this, Diego remained her soulmate and the love of her life.
Frida spent many hours alone in recuperation with only herself as a model. More than one third of the paintings that Kahlo created in her lifetime are self portraits. many are on display in this exhibition including one of her most famous “Diego on my mind” today you might call her the pioneer of the selfie. Embracing her Mexican roots Frida often decorated herself in traditional costumes and heavy jewelry, this habit also served as a shield for her imperfect body.
Frida Kahlo was a pioneer in modern art. Her explorations into her own personal, sexual and psychological issues resonated with future feminist artist. Proud of her heritage Kahlo emphasized her heavy eyebrows and facial hair in her self portraits. She was unafraid of depicting graphic images of the physical and biological experiences of reproduction, abortion and miscarriage. “El aborto” and “Frida y el aborto” are two lithographs in the exhibition that reveal her anguish.
Many critics consider Frida Kahlo a surrealist painter, however Kahlo never considered herself a surrealist, she didn’t paint her dreams, she painted her reality, but then Kahlo’s reality was surreal.
Also on display throughout the exhibit are photographic images of both Frida and Diego, four of which are vibrant, theatrical portraits of Frida Kahlo dressed in traditional costume that were taken while she was living in New York, by her then lover, the Hungarian photographer Nickolas Muray. Several of the costumes themselves are also on display.
The exhibition runs through May 31 at the NSU Art Museum | Fort Lauderdale
Jami Nix Rahn 2015