Frida Kahlo, et al., at El Museo del Barrio

Written by Christian Viveros-Faune on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

There are
at least three versions of the first encounter between Frida Kahlo and Diego
Rivera. In the one Kahlo biographers refer to most, Kahlo and Rivera met at
a party at the home of the photographer Tina Modotti. Displeased with the music
and eager to call attention to himself, Rivera drew a pistol and shot the phonograph
dead. Kahlo, impressed with his music criticism, fell for Diego on the spot.

From this
explosive encounter grew a tempestuous relationship that decanted into marriage,
divorce, remarriage and a string of affairs too tawdry and numerous to mention
(together they’re said to have managed some 200 infidelities, but apart
from anything else, the number seems suspiciously round). The art they made,
always separately (Diego built a famous house for them, which in fact turned
out to be two houses linked by a bridge), though complementary in many ways,
turned out to be a study in opposites. Rivera, the founder of muralism, fought
to portray all of Mexico in his painting. Kahlo, a revolutionary of the first-person-singular
subject, explored the female condition in self-portraits that acted as a mirror
of her own troubled and chronically infirm life.

The legend
created by these two titans of Mexican modernism has long threatened to eclipse
all other stories about this incredibly fertile period in Mexican history. But
bolstered by the reappraisals of feminist art historians, record auction prices,
a number of swooning biographies and two recent Hollywood screenplays, the story
of Frida and Diego has undergone an important elision that establishes Frida’s
singular story as Mexico’s preeminent creative tale. Driven as much by
the painter’s artistic genius (and her genius for self-promotion) as by
a marketing blitz that churns out products like Frida dorm-room posters, Frida
t-shirts and Frida museum tote bags, Kahlo’s story has since transcended
the confines of art history to become, like the life and death of Princess Di,
a cult phenomenon.

Take El
Museo del Barrio’s current exhibition. Titled "Frida Kahlo, Diego
Rivera, and Twentieth Century Mexican Art: The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection,"
the exhibition gives top billing to the one major artist of the era whose artistic
influence–when compared to that of other painters like Jose Clemente Orozco,
David Alfaro Siqueiros and Rufino Tamayo–was negligible. This would have
been unthinkable two decades ago. The idea remains a stretch in Mexico, for
reasons having less to do with patriarchy and sexual politics than with the
power exerted by muralism as a popular political and social force. Throughout
her life, Frida spent much of her time playing the colorful appendage to Rivera’s
recognized genius. In death, the tables seem to have turned–at least outside
her beloved Mexico.

Of course,
the crush around the 10 Kahlo works on view at El Museo del Barrio signals more
than a passing fad for things sensitive and female. They also confirm the force
of a painter whose canvases paradoxically set a new standard for allusive mystery
and autobiographical directness. The batwing eyebrows, the stern rose-like mouth,
the secretive sidelong glance, the torturously clinical details referencing
her crippling accident (she was impaled on the handrail of a public bus)–all
these became iconic features of Kahlo’s unsettling paintings. Utterly unconventional
by the standards of the day, exotic in their use of Mexican colors and motifs
and as psychologically complex as anything that has come before or after, Kahlo’s
paintings found their most lasting description in the words of one important
admirer, the surrealist poet and ideologue Andre Breton. "The art of Frida
Kahlo," he said with rare succinctness, "is a ribbon around a bomb."

In many
ways Frida Kahlo was the world’s first confessional painter, a visual precursor
and analogue to the poetry of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. Her relationship
with Rivera gave her plenty of grist for the disclosure mill, as evidenced in
the painting The Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth (Mexico), Diego,
Me and Señor Xolotl
, a mythopoetic work that depicts a literally
bleeding-heart Frida cradling a naked baby Diego (read Jesus). Another work,
the stunning Diego on My Mind, finds Kahlo in a witchier mood. A portrait
of the artist swathed in a lavender and cream wedding headdress, Frida’s
impassive face is enveloped in a weblike tangle of lines and Rivera’s likeness
is emblazoned on her forehead like a third eye. Obsessive and spiritually troubling,
the picture crackles with raw incantatory power. Its penchant for self-exposure
is matched only by its voodoo-inspired aperçu.

Rivera said
of Kahlo that she was "the first woman in the history of art to treat,
with absolute and uncompromising honesty, one might even say with impassive
cruelty, those general and specific themes which exclusively affect women."
A piece of artistic insight with a scorpion’s tail attached, Rivera’s
backhanded compliment speaks both to the muralist’s keen sense of competition
and to Kahlo’s rare gift for putting sharks’ teeth on her recurring
subject matter. A rare still-life on view at El Museo, The Bride Who Became
Frightened When She Saw Life Opened
, demonstrates Kahlo’s take on the
conventional genre picture. A riot of finely painted botanical details, the
artist’s tilting mustard-colored table disgorges a menacing collection
of fruits: Juicy slices of watermelon protrude like chefs’ knives, prickly
coconut fur hides sentry-like eyes, a cluster of overripe bananas pitch forward
like blackened udders. Lurking behind a piece of melon is the bride, a kewpie
doll Kahlo inserts with a clear view of making her a victim of the jagged fecundity
of nature.

note in Kahlo’s high-pitched repertoire is sounded in her portrait of Natasha
Gelman, the patroness who would eventually make this exhibition possible. Represented
elsewhere in the show in portraits by David Alfaro Siqueiros (a hieratic view
of an imposing and bejeweled neckline), Rufino Tamayo (an earth-toned sphinx
drawn in ruled lines), Gunther Gerszo (a lively abstract arrangement of straight
and sinuous curves) and Diego Rivera (a slinky Tinseltown number flanked by
an efflorescence of calla lilies), Kahlo’s pedestrian take on the dyed-blonde
Hungarian wife of a Russian film producer brings to mind the mollish, hard-luck
heroines of Jean Rhys novels. Kahlo portrays her sitter with none of the portraitist’s
flattering guff: sullen and self-absorbed, handsome without being distinguished.
Neither Rita Hayworth nor Pallas Athena, Gelman’s portrait in Kahlo’s
hands becomes something else entirely: a bust-length view of a perfectly ordinary
everywoman caught in deep midthought; a shopgirl covered in rabbit fur, perhaps,
being pushed unimportantly along the boulevard by the impersonal crowd.

Kahlo, Rivera
said of his wife on another occasion, "is the only example in the history
of art of an artist who tore open her chest and heart to reveal the biological
truth of her feelings." This exhibition, though it features another 90
works by artists as wonderful as José Clemente Orozco, María Izquierdo,
Carlos Mérida, Manuel Alvarez Bravo and Francisco Toledo, is really the
Frida Kahlo show. The crowds, Oprah feminists and product pitchmen call out
for her above all others. Ultimately, and wholly independently of fashion and
the pendulum swing of cultural politics, we have only her penetratingly subjective
vision and bristling talent to thank for responding.

Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Twentieth-Century Mexican Art: The Jacques and Natasha
Gelman Collection," through September at El Museo del Barrio, 1230 5th
Ave. (104th St.), 831-7272.