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Frida Kahlo
Frida Kahlo, Self Portrait as Tehuana or
Diego in My Thoughts
, 1943
Oil on masonite © 2011 Banco de México
Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust
Mexico, D.F. / DACS

Kahlo and Rivera – a ‘ribbon wrapped around a bomb’

A new exhibition in Chichester helps in understanding the tempestuous relationship between Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Corinna Lotz reports

During the 1920s and 1930s , the artist Diego Rivera won international recognition as the leader of the Mexican muralist movement, creating some of the most monumental public art of the last century.

He worked on commissions for the post-revolutionary Mexican state as well as American millionaires such as the Rockefeller and the Ford families. Rivera married the 22-year-old Frida Kahlo, an aspiring artist, in Coyoacán in August 1929.

To his eternal credit, Rivera secured Mexican President General Lázaro Cárdenas’ agreement to grant political asylum to Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky, who had become the target of Stalin’s assassins following his forced removal from the Soviet Union in 1929.

It was Kahlo who first welcomed Trotsky on his arrival. She dedicated a self-portrait to him on his birthday in 1937, the year that Rivera co-signed with French Surrealist André Breton A Manifesto for an Independent Revolutionary Art (Trotsky wrote it with them).

Championed by feminists from the late 1960s, Kahlo became a global icon. Fearless in her depiction of female suffering and loss, she exploited and battled her personal traumas in equal measure. Early in the 21st century her star reached its zenith as she achieved a modern sainthood.

Hayden Herrera’s 1983 book was turned into the 2002 biopic, starring Selma Hayek. Hugely popular Kahlo shows toured the world, reaching Britain’s Tate Modern in 2007, the centenary of her birth. There is even a “Frida Kahlo Corporation” which has trademarked her name and claims her as a brand.

The nature of the couple’s relationship remains hotly contested, however. US artist Judy Chicago has attacked the very concept of a joint exhibition. It is the first in the UK to show both artists together and has come here via the Irish Museum of Modern Art. Chicago believes, like others, that it is wrong to show Kahlo's alongside that of her husband.

In Chichester, a number of women visitors voiced the same distaste, saying Diego had been a “terrible misogynist”. On BBC’s Woman’s Hour, art historian Frances Borzello thought that Kahlo’s work “comes up miles better” than Rivera’s.

The show is tiny in the light of both artists’ prodigious output and it undoubtedly gives Kahlo more pieces, so that she appears more versatile and psychologically gifted. On this viewing it could be forgotten that Rivera’s greatest artistic contribution was in the vast murals he executed which adorn public spaces in his native country and which do not feature here even as photographs.

Kahlo Rivera
Detail of Diego and Frida by Martin Munkácsi
1934, Gelatin sliver print

Regarding their relationship, though, there is irrefutable evidence visual and otherwise, that they were the loves of each other’s lives and whilst often tempestuous, their relationship was also symbiotic. Breton’s description of them as “a ribbon wrapped around a bomb” was apt.

Rivera did his utmost to promote Kahlo’s career before and after their marriage. Her style and range blossomed over time, encouraged by Rivera who said that her paintings “shine like clear, hard, precious and hard diamonds in the centre of a great piece of jewellery”. They shared a powerful bond of love and were both inspired by the ancient Indian cultures and folklore of their native country, especially its largely peasant population.

At the beginning of their relationship, Rivera was – quite naturally – her senior partner in years, artistic and political experience. Widely travelled, he became an accomplished Cubist painter during his early years in Paris, meeting Picasso, Matisse, Modigliani, Cocteau and Juan Gris. But in 1917 he broke with Cubist abstraction to go on to develop his own Mexican Modernist style. 

Rivera

Diego Rivera, Calla Lily Vendors 1943
oil on Masonite, 150 x 120 cm
© 2011 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo
Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / DACS

A seductive lithograph made shortly after their marriage shows Kahlo sitting on a bed wearing a chunky necklace and not much else. She looks downwards with a kind of faux naïveté while displaying her trim body, which tapers down to a tiny waist and petite feet in pointy high heeled slippers. Rivera’s gift for flattery and optimism is shown in his society portrait of Natasha Gelman, in which the sitter looks like a movie star, reclining in elegant curves on a sofa, echoed by enormous bouquets of calla lilies. The same luxurious flowers shine in a glorious white in the great classic Mexican image, Calla Lily Vendors, framed by two young girls in plaits, their triangular shawls and barefoot feet mirroring each other in a satisfying symmetry.

The sense of calm and balance in Rivera’s canvases is many miles away from the nervous tension in Kahlo’s countless self-portraits – many in the frontal style of Catholic religious icons. But the two works here which are directly about her Rivera and her, while strangely primeval, are not tortured in feeling.

Frida Kahlo
Frida Kahlo, The Love Embrace of the Universe,
the Earth (Mexico), Diego, Me and Señor Xólotl
, 1949,
oil on canvas © 2011 Banco de México
Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust,
Mexico, D.F. / DACS

In Tehuana - Diego in My Thoughts, she depicts herself as a Madonna figure, with a mini-portrait of Rivera emblazoned on her forehead. He is depicted as a naked child-figure cradled in her arms in The Love Embrace of the Universe. He is held by Kahlo who is in turn supported by Mother Earth-Mexico, emerging out of the gods of day and night. It is a remarkable feat of the imagination, both autobiographical and universal in its reach. 

It is not only in their depiction of each other, but  also through outsiders’ portrayal that we see their independent but connected spirits. Hungarian photographer Martin Munkácsi’s double portrait captures this superbly. Sadly, they both rejoined the Stalinist movement in the shape of the Mexican Communist Party which had expelled Rivera almost 30 years earlier. Kahlo died in 1954 followed by Rivera three years later.

Examining their relationships rather than viewing them as separate individuals through these canvases, drawings, photographs and scribblings, a more nuanced perspective shines through. And more widely this year in particular, we are gaining a deeper insight into how fiercely independent women have exercised a powerful effect on their sometimes older, more established partners in a mutually enriching process.

In this respect, another exhibition, Beyond the Moulin Rouge, presently at London’s Courtauld Institute reveals how close the French painter Toulouse Lautrec was to dancer Jane Avril and how they helped to shape each other’s personas. Another such investigation – into American photographer Lee Miller and her partner, the artist Man Ray – has just opened in Massachusetts.  

Just like Kahlo who was also born in 1907, Miller tracked her man down to introduce herself. Both women asserted their own talent and independence. Their partnerships were tempestuous – that between Miller and Ray being far more short-lived – but also full of deep and lasting affection and artistic respect. And, finally, peeling away the stereotypical image of Picasso as the ultimate male chauvinist, his granddaughter has put on record the way in which his muse and model Marie Therèse Walter was a powerful force in his creativity in a New York exhibition, L’Amour Fou – Crazy Love.

15 July 2011

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera – from the Gelman Collection, is at the Pallant House Gallery, Chichester until 2 October. It is accompanied by photographs by Kahlo’s father Guillermo Kahlo and by Manuel and Lola Álvarez Bravo. There are extensive talks and a film programme, including a double bill on 11 August.

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