Many great artists gain the most recognition from their tortured lives and the abnormal events that fueled their creativity. The works they produce in reaction to these events are often overshadowed by the fabled stories that surround them.
Frida Kahlo’s life and work are no exception. The tragedies of her life have been the subject of countless films and books. But the Philadelphia Museum of Art decided to put a refreshingly direct focus on her art in their latest featured exhibit, Frida Kahlo.
The exhibit opened on Feb. 20 and runs through May 18, featuring 42 of the Mexican artist’s paintings and more than 100 photographs of Kahlo and those close to her, taken prior to her death in 1957.
The first painting on display, Self-Portrait with Monkey (1943), exhibits many of Kahlo’s trademark subjects and techniques. One of several self-portraits in the gallery, it features her distinctive unibrow and whisper of facial hair on the upper lip. Kahlo painted herself in front of a floral background with four monkeys clinging to her, perhaps representing the children she was never able to have.
The next painting exhibited is another self-portrait – a painting from 1931 that shows Kahlo with her longtime husband, the famed Mexican painter Diego Rivera. Here she is dwarfed by Rivera. She stands slightly behind him, her feet almost comically small in comparison to his. He holds the painter’s palette, not her.
These first two paintings show Kahlo’s artistic development in the years that separate them, even though they are displayed in reverse order. After showing just these two portraits, however, the gallery presents the 118 photographs from Kahlo’s life.
In many of them she wears the same stern expression that she dons in most of her self-portraits. Many of the photographs also show Kahlo and Rivera together. Famed communist Leon Trotsky, with whom Kahlo had an affair, is also present in many of the photos. The exhibit mixes candid shots with posed portraits, blurring the line between Kahlo’s public life with her infamous personal exploits.
While the photographs reveal a great deal about her life, their impact is lost by their early presentation in the progression of the exhibit. Visitors should be exposed to more of Kahlo’s works before seeing the motivations behind them. While I enjoyed looking at the photographs from a historical perspective, I pushed through them to get back to her paintings.
The rest of the exhibit exclusively features Kahlo’s art, with pieces grouped together in a loose chronological order that makes it easy to view Kahlo’s paintings through the framework of her life. A series of self-portraits from the late 1930s show her holding cigarettes with various inhuman companions, including a doll and an Itzcuintli dog, symbolizing her divorce from Rivera and feelings of isolation.
Her 1932 oil-on-metal painting, Henry Ford Hospital, shows Kahlo in a hospital bed shedding one large tear, which chronicles her multiple miscarriages. In a barren landscape with the bleak, industrial Henry Ford Automobile Plant in the background, bloody veins connect her to floating images, including an orchid, a snail and a misshapen fetus.
The painting, like others in the gallery, has a collaged feel to it, as if Kahlo painted each element separately, photographed them, then put them back together into one painting. The outward symbolism of the orchid’s sexuality and the snail’s representation of long, drawn-out pregnancies leave a lasting impact and beg for further interpretation.
The emotion and meaning of Kahlo’s work cannot be contained by canvas in a few literal cases. In A Few Small Nips, the small painting shows a man who has just stabbed a woman to death, the red paint violently spilling onto the frame. In The Suicide of Dorothy Hale, the blood trickles down past the edge of the canvas. In these paintings, as with Portrait of Luther Burbank, it is revitalizing to see Kahlo working on a deep and symbolic level with a subject other than herself.
The exhibit shows some of Kahlo’s most famous works, such as Two Fridas and Me and My Parrots and fuses these with other Latin American art forms from which Kahlo drew inspiration. With the exception of the photographs, the gallery flows well. Examining the similarities between Kahlo’s pieces reveals the intricate relationship between her tragic life and her work.
Alex Irwin can be reached at email@example.com.