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Kahlo and Rivera: The intersection of art, pain and politics

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Conventional wisdom says it’s futile to try to figure out why a couple of seemingly ill-fit people stay together.

You can speculate, but unless you are one of the players, how can you possibly know for sure? And sometimes, even the people involved in the relationship can’t pinpoint their reasons for remaining a pair.

Yet from the moment Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera met in the late 1920s until now, many have tried to answer that question. Why did Kahlo and Rivera stay together? She was the petite, self-taught painter of some of the 20th century’s most riveting portraits of suffering, misery and vitality. He was the gargantuan, classically trained artist and titan of the 20th century’s muralist movement. And their 25-year marriage seemed the very definition of tumult, betrayal and grief.

Through a remarkable assemblage of nearly 140 paintings, lithographs, drawings and photographs spanning the couple’s lifetime, the High Museum of Art tries to answer that question in the exhibit, “Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics and Painting.” The show, which runs Feb. 14-May 12, is a collaboration between the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in Toronto, which first mounted the show last fall.

The High is the only United States venue for the dual retrospective.

Kahlo and Rivera: The intersection of art, pain and politics photo

The show’s central argument is a challenging one: While Kahlo’s and Rivera’s mutual intellect and admiration for the other’s artistic gifts tethered them with a hold neither could break, it was their staunch socialist beliefs and lifelong commitment to communist principles that was the true frame for their relationship.

“The driving force of the exhibit is to answer the question of why these two artists stayed together,” said Elliott King, consulting curator for the High’s show. “We know about the affairs that both of them had, the one-year divorce, then they got back together. But it’s hard to conceive of both Frida and Diego without that political dimension.”

King, an associate professor of art history at Washington and Lee University in Virginia, was also the guest curator for the High’s hugely successful 2010 Salvador Dali exhibit. He and Dot Tuer, guest curator for the AGO presentation, collaborated on the show’s catalog.

Kahlo and Rivera: The intersection of art, pain and politics photo

Each worked separately with the curatorial staffs of the respective institutions to organize shows that, for the most part, use the same pieces of art but stylistically and narratively present the case in different ways. Yet each show reaches for the same conclusion.

“I felt strongly that if you were going to do a Frida and Diego show, for it to be compelling and not repeat exhibitions elsewhere, one had to go to a premise that was not the usual premise,” said Tuer, a Latin American history scholar and professor at the Ontario College of Art and Design. “To retell the myth of the perpetrator and the victim would be a disservice to both artists, especially if you’re going to show them together.”

Art and socialism

That is how the show opens, the couple together in a haunting 1934 photograph by Martin Munkacsi. It is one of four photographs of Kahlo or Rivera owned by the High. It was taken during one of the couple’s most trying years, both professionally and personally. In it here is Kahlo, 20 years younger than her husband, her signature, thick eyebrows knit close together as she squints in thought. Behind her, in shadow, is the meaty face of Rivera, his bulging eyes trained at the camera. In his expression there is something of bitterness, if not defeat.

The choice of the image suggests this truly will be a show of equals.

In some ways accomplishing that is a difficult task for any exhibition of the pair’s art, given that Rivera’s best work is all but impossible to show audiences outside Mexico, and, perhaps, Detroit. That is because the issue of size. The monumental murals he painted that were the cause of his renown cannot travel. The best examples adorn the Ministry of Education in Mexico City (a depiction of the Mexican revolution) and the Detroit Institute of Arts (a series that exalts workers of the industrial revolution). So every decade since the mid-1980s, whenever an exhibit of Rivera’s work has been mounted outside Mexico, it has leaned heavily on the smaller, easel works he did throughout his career. This is the case with the High’s show, as well. But in this exhibition, with Rivera’s smaller pieces paired with his wife’s work,the case for the couples’ shared ideology is perhaps easier to make, said King.

Through loans from the Dolores Olmedo Museum in Mexico, the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of Mexican Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and other archives and private collections, here is how the case is made in this exhibition.

It begins with Rivera’s earliest work when he was a 21-year-old art student in Europe between 1907 and 1920. By the time Kahlo was born in 1907, Rivera was already considered a prodigy back in his native Mexico. In portraits such “The Bullfighter” and Rivera’s self-portrait from 1907, the influence of the Impressionist movement on him was clear, from Rivera’s choice of color and composition. For the next decade or so he tried various styles, searching for the right fit. “Young Man with a Fountain Pen,” was one of his many forays into Cubism, due in large-part from Rivera’s association with Pablo Picasso.

Those influences, combined with his study of frescoes in Italy and how they were used to further the narrative of the Catholic Church, form the foundation of Rivera’s career in public art furthering socialist ideals. He began that in earnest upon his return to Mexico at the close of the Mexican Revolution in the early 1920s.

Rivera was called upon by the Mexican government to paint that history onto the buildings that housed the nation’s power. Because he had been in Europe during Lenin’s rise to power, Communist ideals had begun to shape Rivera’s world view (and that of many artists of the period). So Rivera used his classical training to paint images glorifying the common Mexican worker and indigenous culture. That is rendered subtly in a work such as “Woman Grinding Corn,” or “Flower Festival: Feast of Santa Anita,” but leaps forward in a close up of “The Arsenal,” a 1928 mural where Kahlo is depicted at its center handing out arms to the people. Both the High and AGO use a large reproduction of that detail of Kahlo from a copy of the original mural in Mexico.

“The politics are a lot clearer in Rivera’s work,” said King. “When we think about his murals, they are just so rich with images of Mexican history and his association with the Mexican Revolution. When we think of Kahlo, her works are much more personal. But a lot of people don’t often think of Kahlo as being as politically committed as Rivera. And that is absolutely not the case.”

A life of pain

In a show of this breadth, viewers expect and are rewarded with nearly a quarter of Kahlo’s works, including “A Few Small Nips,” “The Broken Column,” “Self-Portrait With Cropped Hair,” “Henry Ford Hospital” and “Self Portrait with Monkey.” All of it was produced after a bus accident in her late teens that so damaged her spine, right leg (which had already been ravaged by polio) and pelvis, that her body essentially disintegrated year by year. Over the course of her lifetime she would have some 30 operations that some argue made her physical misery worse. And even though she knew Rivera’s failings before she married him, Rivera’s compulsive womanizing, including an affair with Kahlo’s younger sister, Christina, only served to exacerbate her pain. Frida could never bear children, the result of being impaled by a metal handrail loosened in the accident. The longing for children of her own was an ache that never went away.

The daughter of a German immigrant who was a photographer, and a Mexican mother, Kahlo learned how to retouch photographs early on. That skill of rendering fine detail in tiny brush strokes is evidenced in her paintings. She began painting during her recovery from the bus accident, and its horrible legacy and her reaction to Rivera’s disloyalty is a constant theme.

Even before her accident, Kahlo was involved with the popular Communist student movement of the era, which eventually paved the path to her introduction and marriage to Rivera in 1929. That Kahlo came of age during the Mexican Revolution and its exalting of the indigenous and the landless is apparent in Kahlo’s work, but subtly, Tuer and King said.

Her use of color and even the format in which she painted celebrated works such as “A Few Small Nips,” and “Henry Ford Hospital” pull from the folk art traditions of Mexico, both of her time and the pre-Colombian era.

“Usually just looking at them, (Kahlo’s and Rivera’s works) don’t look similar, so you really have to get into the spirit that’s behind them,” King said. “This is what ties the two together. They had a lot in common, both very proud of their Mexican heritage.”

Making statements

If there are two works in the High’s show that exemplify the couple’s rose-colored view of Communism’s potential, it is the room-sized reproduction of Rivera’s “Man at the Crossroads” mural and Kahlo’s painting, “My Dress Hangs Here.”

Rivera began the mural in 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression, at the RCA building in Rockefeller Center as a commission by Nelson Rockefeller. Years before Rivera had run afoul of the Mexican Communist party for accepting commissions from millionaires in the United States. This was one such project, but when Rivera inserted a picture of Vladimir Lenin in the mural and refused to remove it, Rockefeller had it destroyed. Rivera later painted it again in Mexico.

For her part, Kahlo painted “My Dress Hangs Here” in reaction to the economic disparity she witnessed in New York City while she and her husband lived there during his Rockefeller commission. Her disgust with the affectations of the city’s high society and its obsession with progress at seemingly any cost is as much a testament to her socialist principles, however reviled, as anything. In it, a traditional Mexican Tehuana dress of the sort that Kahlo was known to wear, hangs empty admist a swirl of skyscrapers, smokestacks and glittering symbols of celebrity and prosperity. At the bottom of the canvas scores of people stand in the bread and unemployment lines of the era. It seems to ask how can there be so much prosperity among such suffering?

Marxism seemed to her a solution to that disparity, and late in her life she turned to it in earnest, said her biographer Hayden Herrera in a lecture at AGO in December. It appears more overtly in her paintings during this period more than any other. But that ideology is always tied up with her pain. So by the time a visitor to the exhibit makes it to the body cast (there were dozens) that Kahlo was forced to wear after her many operations, they are not surprised by the images Kahlo painted onto it: an unborn baby, symbolizing one of the many pregnancies she could never bring to term, and a hammer and sickle above the heart. But then a small detail brings you back to the common narrative of Kahlo’s life. The plaster corset is propped up by a stainless steel support in such a way that one can’t help thinking about the handrail that impaled her as a young woman.

Mystery of chemistry

The premise of politics could be demanding for viewers who come to the show not knowing much more about Kahlo than the pop culture images prevalent since the late 1970s, when feminist scholarship helped vaunt her to near mythic status. In turn, making the ideological case to viewers less familiar with Rivera’s work presents its own issues, since his wife’s story long ago eclipsed his outside their native Mexico.

In Toronto, it was done chronologically following their lives from birth to death. From early mock-ups of the High’s exhibit, it appears the case is made more thematically. At AGO, Tuer alternated the paintings and lithographs with the photographs along walls painted in tones of warm gray meant to mimic the stones of the Ministry of Education. In this way the photos furthered the story line, guiding viewers through a complicated relationship. Against the High’s backdrop of brick red, deep blue and white, the case is made that the two were peers in a way that should be remembered beyond Kahlo’s seven greatest paintings, Rivera’s images of peasants and calla lilies, and the wreck that was their marriage. The final room punctuates that point, where the High’s curators have put all of the photographs together so the viewer sees them as they were from beginning to end.

But the question lingers: Did Frida and Diego really stay together because they were like-minded thinkers?

There may never be a satisfactory answer, but some will try to divine it each time they look at the worlds the couple created on canvas.

Event Preview

“Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics and Painting”

Feb. 14-May 12, Noon-5 p.m., Sunday; closed Monday; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday; 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursday. $16.50-$19.50. 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta; 404-733-4444, www.high.org.

Special events

A series of “Frida & Diego” events are schedule during the run of the show. Here are three to consider:

Party with a Passion. Celebrate opening night with live music, salsa dancing and Frida impersonators. 6-10 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 14. $25 singles, $40 couples.

Mexican film series. Nine classic and contemporary films, including a collection of shorts, a documentary on Rivera and “Maria Candelaria,” the 1946 Cannes Film Festival winner, screen 8 p.m. every Saturday, Feb. 23-April 27. $7; Rich Theatre.

Lecture. Consulting curator Elliott King discusses the artists and their work. 2 p.m., Feb. 23; Free

All events at the High Museum of Art, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, 404-733-4444, www.high.org

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