Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera review – romance, heartbreak and a must-see exhibition

frida and monkey


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera review – romance, heartbreak and a must-see exhibition” was written by Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 28th June 2016 02.22 UTC

Frida Kahlo was 18 years old when the bus she was travelling on crashed in Mexico City. The teenager was impaled, breaking her spinal column, pelvis, collarbone and ribs. The force of the collision ripped off her clothes, leaving her bleeding and naked. And, in a twist somehow prescient of Kahlo’s colourful, tragic life, a packet of powdered gold carried by another passenger exploded, showering her broken body in flakes of the precious metal.

That was Kahlo’s first serious accident. “The other accident,” as she once said, “is Diego.”

Diego On My Mind (Self-portrait as Tehuana) by Frida Kahlo, 1943
Diego On My Mind (Self-portrait as Tehuana) by Frida Kahlo, 1943.

Kahlo met renowned muralist Diego Rivera just three years later. Although towering over her, corpulently rotund and two decades older, she fell for him immediately. Both events, as we are reminded in the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ winter blockbuster show Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, caused a lifetime of mental and physical anguish. But they also shaped Kahlo’s art, providing her paintings with an obsessive ferocity that have cemented her place as a Mexican icon.

Although small in scale and scope, the exhibition – from the Jacques and Natasha Gelman collection – is significant, not least because neither artist’s work has graced the shores of Australia in any meaningful way for the last 10 years (an absence compounded by the fact no Australian museum owns pieces by either Kahlo or Rivera).

Already sold out on its opening weekend, 33 works span Kahlo’s self-portraits, sketches and letters, to canvases by Rivera, and more than 50 photographs of the pair, which date from 1911 to the 1950s.

Diego on My Mind kicks off the show, setting its tone. Created in 1940, after Kahlo and Rivera divorced, and finished in 1943, following their remarriage, in no other work is Kahlo’s all-consuming romance with the philandering Diego more explicit.

The painting shows Kahlo, lips painted red, monobrow carefully arched, her raven hair peeking from underneath a halo of pink flowers, with Diego’s image imprinted on her forehead. She wears the traditional Tehuana costume; its headpiece seems to snake outwards like a spider’s web, ready to entrap her love. Diego, as she once intoned in her diary, was her everything: “Diego = my husband / Diego = my friend / Diego = my mother / Diego = my father / Diego = my son / Diego = me / Diego = Universe.”

The subsequent pieces tell the story of their lives, each unveiling a little more. One portrait shows Kahlo’s younger sister Cristina, with whom he betrayed her (the bisexual Kahlo also had numerous affairs with both men and women). Another shows the pair’s benefactor, Natasha Gelman, an eastern European immigrant to Mexico City who, with her powerful husband Jacques, put together the most important collection of Mexican art post second world war.

Frida Kahlo On White Bench, a photograph by Nickolas Muray taken in 1938
Frida Kahlo On White Bench, a photograph by Nickolas Muray, taken in 1938.

Rivera’s Portrait of Natasha Gelman (1943) shows the elegant society wife lounging on a chaise. The polar opposite of Kahlo’s dark charms, her eyebrows are carefully plucked, her hair is a waxen red, and her long cream gown is open seductively at the knee, mirroring the calla lilies clustered behind her.

Most famous are Kahlo’s self-portraits (of 150 works she painted in her lifetime, 65 were images of herself). Here, that includes Self-portrait With Monkeys (1943) – an early depiction of Fridamania, with the regal Kahlo staring coolly at the viewer as a cluster of monkeys cling adoringly to her neck and chest.

But it is the smaller sketches and photographs that moved me most. These include Kahlo’s 1932 lithograph The Miscarriage, created after she lost a pregnancy. A naked Kahlo is attached by an umbilical cord to an oversized male foetus, as blood drips, drips, drips down one leg. Two plump tears course down her face and even the moon weeps.

The mostly black and white photos, too, are revealing. One shows Kahlo in a hospital bed painting her plaster corset, another clutching her Itzcuintli dog, a hairless breed considered sacred by the Aztecs. In a third, she is dead in her funeral casket after taking her own life at the age of 47. It is worth watching the three silent films that finish the exhibition to witness Kahlo’s magnetic radiance, first with Leon Trotsky (who she would have a dalliance with), and also, in a tender depiction of smiles and kisses, with her husband.

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera with monkey Fulang Chung in 1937
Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera with monkey Fulang-Chang in 1937.

In Mexico, Kahlo is known as la heroína del dolor, or “the heroine of pain”. For those already familiar with her work, this exhibition might seem too small a selection to showcase the range of her talent and pull. For others, though, it is a chance to see Kahlo’s works in the flesh. To understand why even now, as her biographer Hayden Herrera once told Vanity Fair, “her paintings demand – fiercely – that you look at her”.

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera: from the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection is at the Art Gallery of New South Wales until 9 October 2016

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