“Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving” at The Brooklyn Museum

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Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait with Monkeys (1943), oil on canvas, 32 x 24-3/4″; courtesy of The Jack and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and the Vergel Foundation

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Saint Frida has landed in Brooklyn. “Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving” is an expanded version of “Making Her Self Up,” an exhibition mounted last year by the Victoria & Albert Museum. Culled from the Casa Azul, Kahlo’s home in Mexico City, the London exhibition was the first comprehensive showing of its contents outside the artist’s native country. “Comprehensive,” in the case of the Brooklyn exhibition, is all but commensurate with “obsessive.” Upon her death in 1954, Kahlo’s former husband, the painter and muralist Diego Rivera, sealed up her personal belongings at Casa Azul, stipulating that they remain untouched until fifteen years after his passing. It wasn’t until 2003—forty-six years after Rivera’s death—that access was granted; it took another four years to complete the inventory. And quite the inventory it is, including, as it does, family photographs, hand-painted plaster corsets, an array of Mexican and Central American garments known as huipils, a pre-Columbian pendant, a bottle of Chanel No. 5 perfume, and a prosthetic leg with a customized ankle boot. Did you know Kahlo favored Revlon products? The company’s ebony eyebrow pencil, ca. 1948–54, is on display for visitors to marvel at.

And marvel they will. My religious analogy above may seem snarky, but Kahlo is widely revered as a cultural icon. She is, in fact, one of the most recognizable artists on the face of the planet. Gone are the days when she was blithely referred to as “Señora Diego Rivera”— which is how Kahlo is listed in a photo spread from the October 1937 edition of Vogue, as seen in Brooklyn. History, fashion, and reputation have circled around to the point where Rivera, once a bulwark of twentieth-century art, is now obscured by Kahlo’s shadow. This shift, occurring over the last forty or so years, can be attributed to a number of factors, not least feminism and identity politics. Frida-philes are up-front about how neatly Kahlo’s biography, turbulent and tragic as it was, dovetails with contemporary notions of sexuality, ethnicity, disability, radicalism, and marketing as social phenomena and self-expression. Lost in this heady mélange is—what was that thing called again? Oh, yes: art. Those expecting light to be shed on Kahlo’s oeuvre will note that, among the three hundred–odd artifacts featured in “Appearances Can Be Deceiving,” only eleven are paintings.

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Nickolas Muray, Frida with Idol (1939), carbon print, 11-1/4 x 16-1/4″; courtesy Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

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Admittedly, one of them is definitive—that would be Self-Portrait with Monkeys (1943)— and two are of inescapable biographical interest: Self-Portrait as a Tehuana (Diego on My Mind) (1943) and Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair (1940), in which a freshly shorn Kahlo bends her gender. The remaining canvases range from inscrutable to obvious to mediocre, and they don’t do the legend proud. Not that the legend isn’t seen in abundance. Films and photographs carry “Appearances Can Be Deceiving” in ways that would have pleased an artist wise to the value of an expertly contrived image. From the brooding pre-teen pictured in a 1918 photo to the starkly handsome woman seen in Giselle Freund’s Hollywood-style tableau some thirty years later, Kahlo had a preternatural relationship with the camera. The pain and infirmity she suffered throughout life—the result, primarily, of a near-fatal bus crash at age eighteen—fostered abiding self-awareness, but also fierce determination. Kahlo knew that vulnerability can be girded, as well as made alluring, by bracing self-possession. A touch of exotica didn’t hurt either. Even photographers who didn’t have affairs with Kahlo, as the glamour portraitist Nickolas Muray did for over a decade, couldn’t help but valorize her authority and presence.

Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón (1907–54) was one of four daughters born to Guillermo Kahlo, a German photographer who immigrated to Mexico in 1891, and Matilde Calderón y González, a mestiza whose roots lay as much in Spain as in Oaxaca. Kahlo did not recall her childhood fondly, plagued as it was by economic hardship, illness (she contracted polio at the age of six), and the aforementioned crash in 1925. Given the catastrophe visited upon her body by the latter—which included broken bones, shifted vertebrae, and impalement—Kahlo thought it best to abandon plans for medical school. Instead she took up painting, employing a specialized easel that allowed her to work while on bed rest. It wasn’t until 1927 that she was able to get out and about, meeting up with school friends and, through them, becoming involved in politics. Kahlo joined the Mexican Communist Party, and it was through its offices that she met Rivera. The tempestuous nature of their relationship is the stuff of myth—Frida famously referred to Diego as “the other accident”—and both had numerous extramarital liaisons. The couple divorced after ten years of marriage, but they remained friendly and inseparable, remarrying only a year later.

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Frida Kahlo, The Bride Who Becomes Frightened at Seeing Life Opened (1943), oil on canvas; courtesy of The Jack and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and the Vergel Foundation

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Rivera’s fame helped edge Kahlo into the spotlight, but, in time, she achieved her own independent notoriety, earning the favor of luminaries like André Breton, Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso, the designer Elsa Schiaparelli, and the art dealer (and sometime paramour) Julian Levy, who gave Kahlo her first solo exhibition at his Fifty-seventh Street gallery. Kahlo’s health continued to deteriorate, and her death at the age of forty-seven is a matter of dispute: the official cause was pulmonary embolism, but a nurse claimed Kahlo had overdosed on painkillers. “Appearances Can Be Deceiving” touches upon these facets and more, and it does so with scholarly rigor. That the museum has installed items from its collection of Mesoamerican art as a means of providing national context is a generous fillip. But this is an exhibition that coasts on pop stardom, and, as such, it sells the artist short. There are no revelations to be had in Brooklyn. As it stands, the strongest Kahlo on view is The Bride Who Becomes Frightened at Seeing Life Opened (1943), a still life whose pictorial invention and painterly sensuality puts the narcissism powering the self-portraits into grim relief. It’s likely to be some time before the fog of celebrity dissipates to the extent to which we can gain a firm handle on Kahlo’s accomplishment. Given the fractious state of contemporary culture, it seems prudent not to hold one’s breath.

© 2019 Mario Naves

 

This review was originally published in the April 2019 edition of The New Criterion.

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