Frida and Diego: Passion, Politics, and Painting is the largest exhibition combining the works of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera and celebrates their mutual romantic love and passion for Mexican culture. The exhibit has been featured in Mexico and Canada and recently debuted at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the final and only U.S. stop on the tour. I’ve been fortunate to see the exhibition twice so far since it opened on February 14, 2013.
The first time was last weekend when I briefly visited the museum with my mother who was visiting from Florida. We walked around the galleries but didn’t stay very long because we were both starving and the museum cafe was closed. That was fine because I knew I would return the following week and I’m so glad I did because it was an amazing visit.
Yesterday I took the day off work because the Georgia Museum of Art docents had planned an exciting trip to the High Museum of Art. We were greeted by some of the High’s docents who had a lovely spread of coffee and pastries prepared for us. We broke out into groups for tours: one group went to see the Thornton Dial exhibit and the other had a tour of the permanent collection. I opted for the permanent collection because, although I’m very familiar with the permanent collection and had seen it numerous times, I’d never been on a formal tour. After the tours, we learned more about the docent program at the High and had an introduction to the Frida and Diego exhibit.
The High Museum of Art was so kind to let us use the audio guides as part of our experience. The audio guides, which were basically iPods with accompanying visual features, are amazing and so worth it to get the full experience. They had an adult tour and a kid’s tour which often featured different works. I used the kid’s tour guide a few times and it was great! I especially loved that the audio guides were interactive – you could click on highlighted areas of the work for close-ups and extra information. The guide would sometimes tell you to look down at the screen to view a photograph, comparable work, or even a video (such as a tour of Frida’s home). I wasn’t able to find the audio guide as a podcast or app anywhere, unfortunately, but if I do I will definitely let you know! Another wonderful feature was that all the text in the exhibition – the description of the paintings and quotes – were in both English and Spanish.
The exhibition began with a wall of portraits of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. They aren’t very flattering, but that’s part of their charm. They embraced their physical flaws, with Frida affectionately calling Diego her “toad-frog” and Diego describing her characteristic unibrow as similar to raven wings. A nearby wall had a striking black and white photograph of Diego and Frida embracing which was fun to compare to the portraits.
Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Necklace, 1933
Frida Kahlo’s Portrait of Diego Rivera, 1937
A photo of Frida and Diego
The next two galleries highlighted Diego’s early works and education as an artist. Diego was a classically-trained artist who embarked upon the Grand Tour, the traditional education of artists who toured Europe for inspiration. He painted bullfighters in Spain and experimented with Cubism after meeting Picasso. He also explored post-Impressionism. But Diego found these artistic styles unfulfilling and detached from reality. He returned to Mexico and created his own unique style that celebrated Mexican culture. These paintings often featured calla lilies and ambiguous Mexican people – he didn’t paint particular individuals, but rather intended to celebrate the indigenous Mexican people as a whole. Diego also painted large-scale political murals. The exhibit featured two of the murals (reproduced on the wall) – one featuring the Mexican revolution and the other commissioned by the Rockefellers. The latter was actually destroyed because Rockefeller didn’t like his own depiction but Diego later re-painted it in another location.
Diego Rivera’s Young Man with a Fountain Pen, 1914
Diego Rivera’s Flower Day, 1925
Frida, on the other hand, was entirely self-made as an artist. She survived a horrible crash early in life that impaled her spine and often left her bed-ridden. Her father gave her paints to occupy her time and she was inspired to create self-portraits due to the mirror that hung above her bed. She also studied books about the history of art. She created portraits for friends and Picasso told Diego that “no one could paint a face like Frida.”
Frida Kahlo’s Portrait of Alicia Galant
The exhibition featured two rooms celebrating the colors of Frida: red and yellow. To be honest, even with the High docent’s description of the purpose of these rooms beforehand, I didn’t quite get this feature and I know other patrons were confused. The red room was entirely red and had a bed and the yellow room was entirely yellow with stacks of chairs. You could touch and sit on the chairs and bed, though, which was probably fun for kids.
One gallery featured the dark works of Frida. Diego was a ladies man (hard to believe based on his appearance but he must have had a captivating personality!) and had numerous affairs. Frida was aware of this and had a few affairs herself, but the ultimate betrayal came when Diego was caught in bed with her sister. They actually divorced but re-married a year later. Frida and Diego desperately wanted children but Frida suffered a miscarriage. It’s interesting that she always signed her works Frida Kahlo except the miscarriage paintings where she used the name Frida Rivera. Her body, with all its physical ailments, was never able to live up to her expectations. The works in this part of the exhibit highlighted her struggles and pain during this time. I was particularly struck by one work that featured a mutilated woman’s body. A man was convicted of killing his girlfriend and stabbed her body over and over again. When asked why he did it, he said he just gave her “a few small nips.” She painted a banner with the phrase “a few small nips” over the body. Frida carried the bloody affair over to the frame where she stabbed the wood several times with a knife and sprayed red paint on it. You can imagine her frustration and despair over Diego’s betrayal as she created this work.
Frida Kahlo’s A Few Small Nips
There was a gallery dedicated to Diego’s work after the death of Frida. These included a few examples of his sunset paintings which he usually painted and finished in one day. It also featured the last work he ever signed: a series of watermelons. Diego was asked by his long time friend and caretaker during his battle with cancer to paint watermelons. He refused at first, citing that he didn’t paint watermelons, but when told she would find someone else, he agreed to paint the watermelons. It is especially fitting because Frida’s last painting (not displayed in this exhibition) featured watermelons with the phrase “Long Live Life.”
Diego Rivera’s Watermelons
The exhibit continued with a comparison between Frida and Diego and their portrait styles. They both painted their friend Natasha Gelman but in very different ways. Personally, I preferred Frida’s style and her depiction of Natasha was so elegant and glamorous. There was a wall of Frida portraits, including those with her pet monkeys and dog. Perhaps the most telling portrait was that of Frida with a broken Greek ionic column as a spine.
Diego Rivera’s Portrait of Natasha Gelman
Frida Kahlo’s Portrait of Natasha Gelman
Frida Kahlo’s The Broken Column, 1944
The exhibition concluded with two walls of photographs. After several galleries of portraits, it was refreshing and fun to see actual photographs and note the very different physical appearances (as in different from one another) of Frida and Diego. The photographs also showed Frida and Diego in action at political rallies. The final paintings by Frida featured her and Diego and showed her love and devotion to her husband despite their tumultuous marriage and shortcomings.
Frida Kahlo’s Self Portrait as a Tehuana (traditional Mexican dress)
I immensely enjoyed a second and more thorough look at Frida and Diego and it strengthened my love for art history. Frida’s work in particular is characterized by themes and meaning that are not obvious at first glance. Art history is so important because it tells the background and importance of the artist, time period, culture, etc. Context is everything and crucial to fully appreciate art.
I highly recommend Frida and Diego: Passion, Politics, and Painting to anyone who is able to visit the High Museum before it ends on May 12.