How so? Nothing (including my statement) can mean anything without a framework. Jokes are only funny in a context. Art—whether political, spiritual or personal –decodes with some reference to the magic moments in time from whence they arise. Whether you’re talking about Bach or the Beatles, Gaugin or Gatsby, our experience is enriched by placing creations within the background of a cultural time & place. I am grateful for the vision of Dot Tuer, OCAD University professor and cultural historian who guest-curated the show for AGO, bringing me into intimate contact with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. After going through the exhibit, I feel as though I am on a first-name basis with these two extraordinary individuals.
Walking into AGO’s spacious display of over 80 works accompanied by over 60 photographs of the artists, you encounter this fascinating pair, first separately then gradually more and more closely intertwined and inter-connected. You see pictures of them and their influences, and can’t help noticing where they come from creatively, and perhaps how they might influence or react to one another. As anyone who’s seen the film Frida (2002) noticed, this was a tumultuous relationship, a marriage full of drama. How could it be otherwise with these two giants?
I think it’s worth repeating that at the time of their passing in the 1950s, it was Diego Rivera rather than Frida Kahlo who was the famous artist of the couple. Whether it is due to sexism (that old assumption that the man is more important) or Kahlo’s frequent confinement to home due to her health issues (keeping her out of the public eye), or the slowness of the recognition of her unique voice (encompassing concepts new to the artworld, such as sexual & gender politics and the reappraisal of aboriginal and folk elements in her work previously dismissed by chauvinistic first world criticism), Rivera was recognized throughout his life, whereas the appreciation of Kahlo’s work has only begun in the past few decades, reversing the previous understanding of this couple.
The meteoric rise of Kahlo’s stock in the past few decades coincides with a colossal series of shifts in our own culture, each connected to this rare woman and her husband. In addition to the two I mentioned already (sexual & gender politics, and aboriginal vs first world cultures: if I dare reduce such colossal conversations to only “two”), I’d add at least three more:
- Fertility, disability and travesty
- Socialism & the worker’s utopia
- Their original voice, encompassing (Diego) symbolism, cubism, social realism, (Frida) surrealism & magic realism
These categories are not to be thought of as distinct, not when so many profound issues swirl in any one painting of either artist. There will be commentaries from art critics far more accomplished than I who’ll remark upon the significance of their work as artists. I’m more interested in their roles as revolutionary provocateurs, stirring up new and dangerous ideas in those encountering their work. I invite you to see these works in the context of Tuer’s marvellous exhibit, immersing you in their milieu and their preoccupations.
I will only add a few additional thoughts, mostly concerning Kahlo; but first a bit about Rivera.
Coming through the show, Rivera put me in mind of Hanns Eisler, the composer of the East German national anthem. I am a Hungarian, so please spare me your cynicism. Some communists –like Eisler, like Imre Nagy, like Rivera–believed in something more than thuggery and authoritarianism, a beautiful ideal, even if the sun has set on that dream. Some of Rivera’s works invoke a kind of workers utopia that seems especially poignant now that the official story is that the USSR’s demise proves that socialism & Marxism are wrong, that workers only work when they have bosses and capital involved. We’ve come a long way from the world these two artists departed in mid-century, when class-struggle was central to the lives of many people, at least in the Soviet-Communist sphere of influence. I was struck by echoes of much older influences. For example a painting such as The Cabbage Seller gives us the same iconic image of a faceless worker as in Millet’s The Gleaners. You’ll see an echo of the Soviet social-realist style of inspirational poster in Rivera’s posters, but also in smaller works such as the lithograph Fruits of Labor, a work of great dignity.
We see Rivera move through a series of stages, from neo-classical portraits before the First World War, through flirtations with symbolism (a word I use very carefully, to invoke European influences such as Gaugin & van Gogh) and cubism (especially in his Parisian encounter with Picasso, a fellow Hispanic after all), to a mature didactic style mostly void of stylization (except the sort dignifying the human form as in Fruits of Labor), likely in the interest of clarity of expression.
Kahlo speaks to me as a fellow traveller on the lonely road of disability. A painting such as The Broken Column is much more than just a self-portrait, verging on a kind of declaration. Even if one didn’t know about the bus accident in her youth that left her partially crippled, followed by several surgeries, the painting is one of a kind, a testimony to her suffering. The painting suggests her self-image as a kind of cyborg (a combination of a human and machine, such as what we see in Terminator), decades before anyone had coined the word. But unlike the film images with heroes such as Arnold Schwarzanegger, there’s nothing especially powerful or heroic in the image, which is closer to an invocation of the suffering of a holy martyr, complete with nails penetrating the skin.
Kahlo’s frequent use of mechanical imagery –and what is Henry Ford Hospital if not a kind of declaration of her mechanical- human symbiosis—is more than just ironic or alienating. She is in the foreground with the factory on the horizon, as if her bed were another assembly line, a body another place to produce products – for she was sadly unable to reproduce—like factory widgets floating above on the end of umbilical cords. I started to cry in front of this painting, especially when I watched a fellow traveler wince at the sight as if she’d been struck a body-blow.
I suppose she had. I read that Kahlo had one of her miscarriages in Detroit, so the personal mythology underlying this painting must have been extremely deep for her. This is only one of several images suggesting a fascination with the clinical & the anatomical, even if her use of gory reds are as likely to invoke terror & fear as compassion and empathy.
Let that scary interface between human and machine, between flesh and metal, be the departure point for Kahlo’s preoccupation with the organic & the living. The Portrait of Luther Burbank for example—every bit as utopian as Rivera’s images of workers & the Mexican peasantry—posits a continuum of life, a realm of polytheistic possibilities. Against the backdrop of bleakly ironic works such as Henry Ford Hospital or A Few Small Nips, Kahlo offers many more affirmations than negations, more encouraging pats on our collective back than body blows like the one I alluded to above.
Many discursive streams seem to originate or at least encompass Kahlo. Magic realism and surrealism seem to be naturally connected to her sensibility. Hers is a sophisticated art invoking simplicity without being simplistic. One doesn’t have to know the life-story to feel the complexities, the encoded pain & longing, the dream imagery.
If nothing else you have the opportunity to come face to face with The Face. Frida Kahlo’s face is often her subject in several self-portraits. Many of the best known are here. It’s quite extraordinary to stand before one of these iconic works, looking into her eyes.
The paintings, alongside so many photos and other artefacts of this exhibit lure you very deeply into the world of Kahlo and Rivera. Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics and Painting will be on view at the Art Gallery of Ontario from October 20th until January 20th 2013.