Thursday, August 28, 2008

Frida Kahlo Centennial Exhibition

by Shannon J. Effinger

June 18, 2008

On Sunday, May 18th, I eagerly waited with bated breath on one of two very long lines to see Frida Kahlo, an exhibition of Kahlo's personal photos, her still life, and her signature portraiture on canvas, at the
Philadelphia Museum of Art. The day was gloomy with a dark, overcast sky and cool winds, and yet somehow, it set the perfect mood for this particular exhibition. Organized by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, it is a year long celebration of the 100th anniversary of Kahlo's birth. It began last October in Minneapolis then headed east to Philadelphia, and on Saturday, June 14th, it will journey west to San Francisco and conclude its run. Taking as many pictures as I could outside of the museum, I was a little distressed that cameras were prohibited during the exhibit. I couldn't somehow put her work into a capsule and take her home with me, but the impact of Kahlo's paintings will always remain in my mind.

Having been a fan of Kahlo's work for as long as I can remember, I jump at the chance each time there's an opportunity to see her art up close. I've always said that I hope to someday write as Kahlo painted—honestly, unabashed, without discretion. She would often say, "I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality." What makes her work so innovative is not only her unconventional technique and brush strokes, but also her ability to put the human condition onto canvas. Kahlo is almost always the subject in her portraits, and yet they each tell vastly different stories with themes that range from overflowing love of self and humanity to betrayal to a deep, unspeakable physical pain and heartache. Very few painters have been able to capture that sort of intimacy in their work. Each of Kahlo's paintings are like chapters in the autobiography of her short, fascinating life.

I was very pleased to see one of my favorite Kahlo paintings on display as part of the exhibit. "The Two Fridas," I think, best personifies the female experience. When I first encountered this enormous oil on canvas, I looked at it objectively. On the surface, it shows two Frida Kahlos: one dressed in the European style, a traditional, white lace dress considered to be "proper" society fashion for a "lady." The other Frida is dressed in Tehuana fashion, in hues of deep sea blue and earthy brown, which was traditional dress for Aztec and Mexican women. The first word that came to my mind when I saw this painting was 'feminist.' It was a theme that would stay with me for years, but it wasn't the first time it had appeared. I also encountered this theme once before after reading Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. Many consider this work to be a feminist manifesto—the struggle between the white, quiet mannered woman of society (Jane Eyre) and the Creole woman, Bertha Mason, who is kept secretly locked away by Edward Rochester, Jane's paramour and Mason's husband, in the attic because of her violent fits and rage. A lot like Bronte's Jane Eyre, "The Two Fridas" goes a lot deeper than that.

During the exhibit, I learned that Kahlo painted this work in 1939. I then realized that had to be around the time when her marriage to renowned Mexican muralist Diego Rivera was coming to an end. After 10 years of marriage, Rivera asked Kahlo for a divorce. This, needless to say, devastated her. When looking closely at "The Two Fridas," you start to really notice some of the other details in the work. The European Frida uses tiny scissors to cut out her heart and its main vessels and gives it to the Mexican Frida. She is holding the scissors on her lap and there are drops of blood falling on the white lace dress that almost blend in with the little red flowers on the bottom of the dress, until you see some of the blood drops splatter. Some might interpret this as nationalistic pride, a deep pride and love for her native country of Mexico in her native dress. Others may interpret this work to mean that Kahlo subconsciously resented her rising fame and attention in the art world and wanted to live only for Rivera, as a dutiful Mexican wife. I think that almost any deep interpretation of this painting has valid points to them, for the one theme that definitely comes across is her constant self-examination.

If you're in the mood for some introspection and can't afford the trip to Mexico this summer, check out this amazing exhibit during its final months at the
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.


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