Her face is stern, as it is so often in her self-portraits. She stares out, inscrutable, from a merengue of lace that dwarfs her tiny head. You likely know who she is, of course. The unibrow. The hairline as definite as a border checkpoint. And in this image, the small portrait of her husband, Diego Rivera, on her forehead. She called it Diego on My Mind (Self-Portrait as a Tehuana) (1943).
Over the years, Frida Kahlo has evolved into a name and face recognized by lovers of art, as well as art avoiders. Her image fuels sales of magnets, posters, and canvas bags, coffee cups, scarves, socks, calendars, jewelry, and a lot more in museum shops and trinket spots all over the United States, and possibly the world. For many, it’s her life story that’s made her compelling — imagery that transformed this complicated woman into an icon of sorrow and pain, freedom and defiance from norms.
As an artist, though, Kahlo is not considered the most consequential modernist in her country at the time.
Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Mexican Modernism creates a window into the work of mainstream and critical art stars Kahlo and Rivera, as well as contemporaries like Lola Álvarez Bravo, María Izquierdo, José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Rufino Tamayo. In more than 7,000 square feet and 150 works, this traveling exhibition — drawn from the noted private collection of Jacques and Natasha Gelman — explores the movement, which coalesced around a central theme of Indigenism, if not any unifying style. The exhibit also includes photographs of Kahlo and Rivera taken by more than a dozen friends and contemporaries.
“When art is true, it is one with nature,” Rivera said in his 1991 autobiography with Gladys March. “This is the secret of primitive art and also of the art of the masters Michelangelo, Cézanne, Seurat, and Renoir. The secret of my best work is that it is Mexican.”
Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Mexican Modernism runs through May 2 at the Albuquerque Museum.
In 1910, a series of armed scuffles between insurrectionists and the Mexican army blossomed into what became known as the Mexican Revolution. At its center was a disdain for the 31-year regime of General and President Porfirio Díaz. That antipathy set the stage for an uprising by the people of the land: farmers revolted amid a power struggle between different elite factions. Roughly 10 years later, the effective dictatorship was quashed and a constitutional republic established. Embracing the ideals of the Revolution, the new government was dedicated to empowering (or, at least, honoring the spirit of) the working and agrarian classes.
A year after the end of the revolution, Siqueiros wrote a manifesto declaring art should belong to the people and should tell the stories of the Indigenous populations of Mexico. “Siqueiros advocated for ‘a monumental and heroic art, a human and public art, with the direct and living example of our great masters and the extraordinary cultures of pre-Hispanic America,’ ” states the website of the Denver Art Museum, the first exhibition stop in this tour.
In a seemingly disparate variety of art-making styles and mediums, Indigenism honored Native American themes, such as Mexican fiestas, Native dances, rituals such as Day of the Dead, and the traditional dress of Native peoples, says Khristaan Villela, an art historian and executive director of the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe. “Rivera was at the center of that movement.”
The artist was already considered a major figure in the international modernist movement before he returned to Mexico in 1921. “He was accepted into the Circle of Paris for the quality of his work,” says Becky Hart, who curated the DAM exhibit in fall 2020. “In the United States, the Museum of Modern Art hosted a one-person exhibition in 1931-1932, the year of the museum’s opening. Henri Matisse was the other artist so honored.”
Rivera spent the revolution in Paris, experimenting with modernist painting styles, including impressionism, post-impressionism, symbolism, and Cubism. Later, he gravitated to more political subject matter and joined a Mexican mural program, which was designed to generate support for its revolutionary ideals by highlighting themes that recalled Mexico’s early pre-Hispanic heritage.
“How did you get art to the people? You put it on buildings, in churches, in schools,” says Josie Lopez, curator of art at the Albuquerque Museum.
Rivera’s work shifted from encaustic murals to frescos. By the late 1920s, his painting style had evolved into one that was steeped in Indigenism. Hallmarks of his work include large, rounded figures and saturated color in scenes of miners, farmers, industrial laborers, and peasants.
Despite his prominent place among modernists, Villela says Rivera’s style was very different from that of his muralist peers, Siqueiros and Orozco.
“They took a much less sentimental view of Mexico’s Native peoples and Native American culture,” he says. “And they pushed the distortion of the human form way beyond what Rivera was ever willing to do. At the very end, I see Rivera’s painting really based in naturalism. He’s willing to distort human forms for effect, but if you look at some of the twisted and even tortured forms that you see in Siqueiros and Orozco, those tell you that they’re not playing with the same set of rules as Rivera.”
“As an artist, I have always tried to be faithful to my vision of life, and I have frequently been in conflict with those who wanted me to paint,” Rivera once said, “not what I saw but what they wished me to see.”
In addition to his government work in Mexico, Rivera had private commissions in the United States — including the Detroit Industry Murals, in that Michigan city, and Man at the Crossroads, at Rockefeller Plaza in New York City, the latter of which was never completed and subsequently destroyed. John D. Rockefeller objected to Rivera’s inclusion of former Soviet Union president Vladimir Lenin in the mural, and Rivera refused to remove him.
Rivera first met Kahlo in 1922, while the established painter was working on a mural called Creation, his first, at the National Preparatory School in Mexico City. She was 15 and he was 36.
The encaustic work inhabits more than 1,000 square feet and depicts Adam, Eve, the Holy Trinity, and the seven Christian virtues in classical Renaissance style. According to the oft-told story, Kahlo and her friends teased him while he worked.
They met again when she joined the Mexican Communist Party, in 1928, and they married a year later. Sadly, it wasn’t always a happy union. (“There have been two great accidents in my life. One was the trolley, and the other was Diego. Diego was by far the worst.”)
Like Rivera, Kahlo embraced the nationalist spirit of the day, often lying about her 1907 birthdate so that her birth would coincide with the start of the Mexican Revolution. She dressed in colorful Native apparel, which was a popular style of dress in the Indigenism era, Lopez says. Though she’d been politically outspoken since her high school days and her
radical politics often infused the subject matter of her paintings, she operated in a different aesthetic sphere than many of her contemporaries.
Kahlo created 143 paintings in her lifetime. Her work, perhaps especially her self-portraits, was often intensely personal mediations that included animals, architecture, and other people. It’s hard not to read some of her famous (and harrowing) life story in that imagery.
Kahlo contracted polio at age 6, which weakened her right leg. And at 18, she survived a bus crash, which left her permanently disabled. She underwent more than 30 corrective surgeries before her death from a pulmonary embolism in 1954, at 47. (Rivera died three years later, at age 70.)
Kahlo’s reputation for being the life of the party when she was well has some merit, though, Lopez says — and, certainly, she was experienced with men (including the Russian Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky) and women (including the singer Chavela Vargas).
“But,” Lopez says, “she spent a good deal of time alone, painting.”
In John Morrison’s biography of Kahlo, the artist speaks to her refuge from pain. “I am not sick. I am broken,” Kahlo says. “But I am happy to be alive as long as I can paint.”
Mexican writer and essayist Carlos Fuentes considers her work and her influences in the introduction to The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait (1995).
“Through her art, Kahlo seems to come to terms with her own reality: The horrible, the painful, can lead us to the truth of self-knowledge.”
Although Villela says that reducing Kahlo’s output to biographical art therapy oversimplifies her work, there’s no doubt that she grappled with her personal life in her paintings. “The imagery where she’s showing herself as a broken column, or as a dead person, or with some arrows shot into her — it’s very direct and speaks to you on an emotional level. She doesn’t totally deconstruct the form into a bunch of cubes or color fields, which is deeply alienating for a lot of art viewers.”
As for Kahlo outshining her husband in the art-historical record, DAM curator Becky Hart says that when she first started working as a curator in the early 1990s, “Diego was the star and Frida still lived in his shadow. … As the feminist movement matured, there was more acceptance of women and their modes of thinking and making. Further, Frida held her own with one of the most powerful artists of the 20th century. Her life narrative stood in distinct difference from the customary narrative of a woman overshadowed by her artist husband.”
“An artist is above all a human being, profoundly human to the core,” Rivera once said. “If the artist can’t feel everything that humanity feels, if the artist isn’t capable of loving until he forgets himself and sacrifices himself if necessary, if he won’t put down his magic brush and head the fight against the oppressor, then he isn’t a great artist.”
“I used to think I was the strangest person in the world but then I thought there are so many people in the world, there must be someone just like me who feels bizarre and flawed in the same ways I do. I would imagine her, and imagine that she must be out there thinking of me too. Well, I hope that if you are out there and read this and know that, yes, it’s true I’m here, and I’m just as strange as you.” ◀
OTHER NOTABLE ARTISTS FROM MEXICAN MODERNISM
LOLA ÁLVAREZ BRAVO (1907-1993)
Lola Álvarez Bravo met Frida Kahlo when they were students together at the National Preparatory School in Mexico City. She married another childhood friend, Manuel Álvarez Bravo, in 1925, and acted as his photography assistant for a decade while developing her own photography techniques. The couple separated in 1934, and she launched her dual careers as a teacher and as the first female photojournalist in Mexico. In 1935, Lola Álvarez Bravo moved into María Izquierdo’s home, which was known as a haven for intellectuals, artists, and politicians in post-revolutionary Mexico. As Kahlo’s lifelong friend, she took some of the most intimate and well-known photos of the artist, including Seated Frida in Her Hospital Room with Photographs (1940s) and Frida Kahlo’s Death Portrait (1954), both of which appear in the show.
MARÍA IZQUIERDO (1902-1955)
Another artist included in the alternative modernists section of the exhibit is María Izquierdo, a contemporary of Kahlo’s. They shared some aesthetic commonalities, as seen in the similarities between Kahlo’s The Bride Who Becomes Frightened When She Sees Life Opened (1943) and Izquierdo’s more sedately titled Living Still Life (1946). Both feature split watermelons. Kahlo’s still life is set on a wooden table. Izquierdo’s rests on a blanket under a dramatically cloudy sky.
“Izquierdo was considered one of the most influential women artists at the time. She [pushed] back against the idea that modernism had to be political, had to be murals,” Albuquerque Museum curator Josie Lopez says.
Among Izquierdo’s influences was Rufino Tamayo (1899-1991), whose work also appears in the exhibit.
JOSE CLEMENTE OROZCO (1883-1949)
Orozco shared some of Kahlo’s health struggles. He survived rheumatic fever when he was in high school, and in 1904, just as his art career was beginning to blossom, he injured his left arm and wrist while making fireworks. The injuries were so severe that doctors had to amputate his hand. He persevered, working as a caricaturist and painting Kewpie dolls even as he opened his first solo exhibition — paintings of sex workers. In general, his view of the Mexican Revolution was darker than Rivera’s. Orozco focused more on bloodshed than flowers.
DAVID ALFARO SIQUEIROS (1896-1974)
Siqueiros was a social realist who co-founded the Syndicate of Revolutionary Mexican Painters, Sculptors and Engravers in 1923. He met Rivera at the home of Jacques and Natasha Gelman, at an undated tea party that’s recalled by Natasha Gelman in the exhibit information: The men met in the afternoon and began talking. At 2 a.m., they were still “having tea.” The Gelmans were Eastern European immigrants who met and married in Mexico City. They became patrons of the arts and developed close friendships with many modernists, some of whom painted portraits of their wealthy benefactors to keep their bills paid. (A 1943 portrait of Natasha Gelman, painted by Kahlo, is included in the exhibit.)