For any number of reasons most North Americans have heard of Mexican artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, either as individuals or as a couple. Whether it is because of the uniqueness of their art or their larger-than-life personalities these two are firmly fixed in the folklore of contemporary art.
Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo are a study in contrasts. Diego was forty-three and Frida was twenty-two when they married in 1929. He was frumpy and overweight; she was slight and took great care in her appearance. He was an established artist by 1929 and she was just beginning to paint. He was an opportunistic socialist while she became a fervent and engaged communist. They were both frequently and very publicly unfaithful to one another (one affair Diego had was with Frida’s sister and one of her most notorious infidelity was with house guest, Leon Trotsky). Diego was famous for his large-scale, historically-referenced murals and Frida for her anguished self-portraits.
The curators of the recent Art Gallery of Ontario exhibition, Frida and Diego: Passion, Politics and Painting, may have taken on more than they could handle. When you consider the sheer volume and scale of Rivera’s work you had to come away disappointed at how limited in presentation and scale was the display of his most famous works (murals). It might have been more transparent if the show would have been simply billed “Frida and Diego: the Museo Dolores Olmedo Collection”. As the majority of pieces on view came from this collection it would explain the limited range of Rivera’s works on exhibit. For example, there are too many less than significant pieces of Rivera’s early European period (1907–1921) in the show. For the museum not to include Rivera’s seminal work, The Old Ones, 1912, boggles the mind.
Frida, on the other hand, received much better coverage of the range of her work from the Olmedo holdings but that collection lacks examples of her most anxiety-ridden and religious-themed work. The works I refer to and that are often seen in major shows include the ones that make a less than subtle allusion to her pain and suffering being on the same plane as that of Christ (her inclusion of the crown of thorns), e.g. Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, 1940.
My interest in the Mexican muralists, and later in Frida Kahlo, was stimulated and supported by a friend who grew up in Coyoacan, Mexico (the birth place of Kahlo). Over the course of six visits to Mexico City I came to learn about and appreciate the work of Rivera and Kahlo. My exposure included Rivera’s murals in Mexico City, Frida’s family home (Casa Azul, Coyoacan), their adjoining studio-houses in San Angel and the Museo Dolores Olmedo.
The sheer size and power, and the compelling stories are what hooked me on Rivera after seeing his murals on the walls of the three floors of the interior courtyard of the Ministry of Education in Mexico City. Starting in 1923, he spent four years completing 128 panels (separate murals) covering a total of about 17,000 square feet. The murals, representing a pictorial history of Mexico, begin with scenes from the 1810 revolution and the liberation of Mexico from Spain and conclude with an idealized vision of the workers and peasants marching to paradise under communism.
What is remarkable about Rivera is that 25 years later he returned to the mural format and created Dream of Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park, 1947-48. Most critics agree that this monumental creation is a masterpiece.
It is interesting how the artist places himself, as a small boy, in a middle of this lively panorama of Mexican history. He has a small frog in his pocket (an allusion to his hometown, Guanajuato – “hill of frogs”) and is holding the hand of an image of death with Frida Kahlo as a grown woman behind him (a mother figure perhaps). This is a wonderfully lively and beautifully colored work and, while it tackles controversial political and religious subjects, it has escaped the revolutionary rhetoric of his earlier murals. This work embraces heroes and villains equally. It is a piece I have returned to several times and have discovered new enjoyment each time.
It was only as a result of visiting the Museo Dolores Olmedo (not far from Mexico City), that I became aware of the classical training Rivera received in the early 1900s and his skill as an easel painter. Before working on the murals and meeting Kahlo, Rivera had travelled and lived in Europe for fourteen years. While in Europe he clung to his classical roots even as he was exposed to, and absorbed the influence of, Georges Seurat’s pointillism, Paul Cezanne’s impressionism, the emerging practice of Pablo Picasso and George Braque’s cubism and the strong colors and geometric shapes of Robert Delaunay. Many writers claim that by 1912 Rivera was beginning to expand his color tones and to shed the rigidity of his academic training, as evidenced in The Old Ones 1912.
It seems to me that a critical context for the appreciation of Frida Kahlo’s art is awareness of the excruciating and debilitating physical pain she endured throughout her life. She was stricken with polio at the age of six and in 1925, at the age of 18, suffered a horrific, life-altering accident in a street car crash causing major damage to her body that haunted her for the rest of her life. Coupled with the physical challenges she faced with 35 major operations over her life time she seemed emotionally addicted to Rivera and suffered greatly from his repeated indiscretions. There are varying accounts of when Frida met Diego – the version I am working with has them meeting in 1928, the year Rivera returned from a trip to the Soviet Union and was finishing the Ministry of Education murals. Whatever version is accepted, Frida was on Diego’s radar as he was finishing the third floor murals. The female figure in the middle of Distributing Arms (see image below) is Frida.
I have written previously on how important it is for me to know a bit about the context in which an artist worked. I have visited Casa Azul, Frida’s parents’ home, and later the house where she and Diego lived for a time, and where she lived on her own to the end of her life. There were several aspects of the residences that resonated with me and have helped in appreciating her art. One such element is the “ex-votos” pieces that Frida and Diego collected and which lined the walls of a two-story interior stairwell.
It has been explained to me that these Catholic-based, folk-art pieces, usually painted on tin, were popular in Mexico in the 19th century. They are always signed and dated by an individual, telling a very personal story. The influence of the ex-voto style is evident in several of Frida’s smaller paintings where she depicts her physical and/or emotional trauma using written texts and scrolls to document the action.
The pain endured by Kahlo was evident in many of her works. Of particular note was the 1944 piece, The Broken Column. While the physical deformities and resulting pain are evident you have to wonder if the multiple nail-piercings are an allusion to the emotional pain inflicted by Rivera. It is important to note as well her appropriation of the symbolism of the Madonna of Sorrows through the trademark tears glistening on her cheeks.
In my opinion, the best Kahlo self-portrait in the AGO exhibition is the only painting she did in 1948, Self-Portrait, 1948. This work was created late in her career (she died in 1954). It demonstrates a high level of skill as a painter in the delicate detail of the costume. The picture presents a beautiful and tranquil persona and yet provides unusually subtle messages – an admission of her submission to Rivera’s emotional control (the straight-jacket impression of the traditional Tehuana headdress – a favourite style of his) and an indication of her pain through the use of the stylized tears of the Madonna of Sorrows.
For me the most striking Rivera painting in the show is Calla Lily Vendor, 1943. This large easel work demonstrates the skilled image-making of a master muralist (reminding us of images he created in the 1920s), the compositional skill of a story teller and the subject matter reflects his affection for the indigenous people of Mexico and the beauty of the simple tasks of everyday life.
No matter which of the two artists you prefer, they were each unique, and I am a huge fan of both. Viva Diego and Frida!