Few artists have captured the public’s imagination with the force of Frida Kahlo (1907–1954). In celebration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of this Mexican artist and to recognize her powerful influence on artists working today, the Walker Art Center (in association with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) is organizing a major exhibition of Kahlo’s paintings to premiere in Minneapolis October 27, 2007–January 20, 2008, before beginning a U.S. tour. Curated by art historian and world-renowned Kahlo biographer Hayden Herrera and Walker associate curator Elizabeth Carpenter, the presentation will include approximately 50 paintings from the beginning of Kahlo’s career in 1926 to the year of her death in 1954. Following its showing at the Walker, Frida Kahlo will travel to Philadelphia and San Francisco.
While concentrating on Kahlo’s hauntingly seductive and often brutal self-portraits, the exhibition will also include those particular portraits and still life paintings that amplify her own sense of identity. The peculiar tension between the intimacy of Kahlo’s subject matter and her insistence on a mask of reserve give Kahlo’s self-portraits the impact of icons. As the artist’s practice progressed, her images grew in confidence and complexity, reflecting both her private obsessions and political concerns. While struggling to gain visibility and recognition both as a woman and an artist, Kahlo was a central player in both the political and artistic revolutions occurring throughout the world.
A small gallery off the main exhibition space will feature selections from the Vicente Wolf Collection. Emblematic images of Kahlo and Diego Rivera by preeminent photographers of the period (Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Lola Alvarez Bravo, Gisele Freund, Tina Modotti, Nickolas Muray) will be on view alongside personal snapshots of the artist with family and friends, including such cultural and political luminaries as André Breton and Leon Trotsky. Many have never before been published or exhibited. These photographs—several of which Kahlo hand-inscribed with dedications, effaced with self-deprecating marks, and kissed leaving a lipstick trace—pose fascinating questions about an artist who was both the consummate manufacturer of her own image and a beguiling and willing photographic subject.
During her lifetime, Frida Kahlo was best known as the flamboyant wife of the celebrated muralist Diego Rivera. Today she has become one of the most celebrated and revered artists in the world. Between 1926, when she began to paint while recuperating from a near-fatal bus accident, and 1954, when she died at the age of 47, Kahlo painted some 66 self-portraits and about 80 paintings of other subjects, mostly still lifes and portraits of friends. “I paint my own reality,” she said. “The only thing I know is that I paint because I need to.” Her reality and her need to explore and confirm it by depicting her own image have given us some of the most powerful and original images of the 20th century. Paradoxically, her work allowed her to both express and continually fabricate her own subjectivity.
Frida Kahlo was born in 1907 in Coyoacán, then a southern suburb of Mexico City. Three years after the 1925 bus accident, she showed her paintings to Rivera. He admired the paintings and the painter and a year later they married. Theirs was a tumultuous relationship: Rivera once declared himself to be “unfit for fidelity,” and Kahlo largely withstood his promiscuity. As if to assuage her pain, Kahlo recorded the vicissitudes of her marriage in paint. She also recorded the misery of her deteriorating health—the orthopedic corsets that she was forced to wear, the numerous spinal surgeries, plus a number of miscarriages and therapeutic abortions. Her painful subject matter is distanced by an intentional primitivism, as well as by small scale. Kahlo’s sometimes grueling imagery is also mitigated by her sardonic humor and her extraordinary imagination. Her fantasy, fed by Mexican popular art and by pre-Columbian culture, was noted by the Surrealist poet and essayist André Breton when he came to Mexico in 1938 and claimed Frida for Surrealism. Kahlo rejected the designation, but clearly understood that under the Surrealist label, doors would open—Breton helped secure exhibitions in New York in 1938 and in Paris in 1939.
Soon after Kahlo returned from attending her Paris show, Rivera asked her for a divorce. They remarried a year later. In the second half of the 1940s her health worsened. Kahlo was hospitalized for a year between 1950 and 1951 and in 1953 her right leg was amputated at the knee due to gangrene. But her insistence on being strong and joyful in the face of pain sustained her, and in her journal she drew her severed limb and wrote “Feet, what do I need them for if I have wings to fly?” She was given her first exhibition in Mexico in 1953. Defying doctor’s orders, Kahlo attended the opening and received guests while reclining on her own four-poster bed. Because she could not sit up for long and the potent effects of the painkillers she was prescribed, her paintings from 1952 to 1954 lack the jewel-like refinement of her earlier works. Yet her late still lifes and self-portraits—many of them proclaiming Kahlo’s allegiance to the Communist faith—are testimony to her passion for life and her indomitable will.
Frida Kahlo brings together works such as Henry Ford Hospital (1932), depicting her miscarriage in Detroit (a first in terms of the iconography of Western art history), and The Broken Column (1944), painted after undergoing spinal surgery. It also will include self-portraits such as Me and My Doll (1937) and Self-Portrait with Monkeys (1943), both exploring the theme of childlessness. On view will be paintings that deal with her suffering over Rivera’s betrayals, including the artist’s undisputed masterpiece The Two Fridas (1939). Created during her separation and divorce from him, this magnificent double self-portrait is a powerful image of pain inflicted by love and an expression of Kahlo’s divided sense of self. Collectively these images suggest the extent to which, for Kahlo, painting served as both catharsis and an opportunity to redefine and critique modern bourgeois society.
Frida Kahlo Multimedia Tour
This in-depth tour offers rarely seen archival images and film footage as well as artist interviews and commentary from a wide range of Kahlo specialists. It is presented on a small hand-held player designed specifically for museums. The audio guide is available for a $6 rental fee. Produced by Antenna Audio in collaboration with the Walker Art Center and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.