When Frida Kahlo died in 1954, she was an obscure artist known to most as the wife of Mexican painter Diego Rivera. Today, Rivera is the one known in popular culture more as the spouse of Kahlo, who is so posthumously famous that only her first name is needed for instant recognition. She has the most famous unibrow in history.
During her lifetime, though not famous, she was well known, admired, often loved within a large circle of fellow artists and intellectuals. We get a good feel for those tangled relationships in "Frida and Friends: The Life and Times of Frida Kahlo" at the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts. Sixty-one photographs capture Kahlo and her milieu, beginning in the early 1920s, before the crippling accident that should have killed her and before her involvement with Rivera.
Rivera (1886-1957) was the star of the post-Mexican Revolution art movement that focused on Mexico's indigenous peoples and history rather than the European-centric style favored by the old guard. Rivera was studying and traveling in Europe during the 10-year war but returned to his homeland in 1921 to participate in the new government's ambitious project to create hundreds of murals in public buildings. In the earliest photos — snapshots, really — we see photographers Edward Weston and Tina Modotti taken by painter Carlos Romero Orozco, all of whom were Rivera's friends and, in time, Kahlo's, too.
She approached Rivera in 1927, when she was 20 and he 40, asking him to critique some of her paintings. She had begun painting just two years earlier after a trolley car and the bus on which she was riding collided and left her with a broken spinal column, collarbone, ribs and pelvis, 11 fractures in her right leg, a crushed and dislocated right foot and a dislocated shoulder. An observer of the crash pulled out the metal handrail that had entered her abdomen. To everyone's surprise, she didn't die, but the convalescence was slow and painful. To distract herself, she taught herself to paint.
She would have health repercussions for the rest of her life, but by 1927 she had healed enough to resume the energetic social life she had enjoyed before the accident. She also wanted to know if she had artistic talent, so she introduced herself to Rivera while he was on a scaffold working on a mural. He climbed down, looked at her pictures and assured her she had the chops. By 1929, he had divorced his wife and married Kahlo.
Photographs from the early years of marriage show a luminous young woman. Between 1931 and 1933, she and Rivera traveled between Mexico and the United States as he painted mural commissions. They were photographed on a ship's deck, he holding her arm in a tender, protective way. They kissed passionately in New York City. In a documentary about Kahlo that accompanies the show, she is filmed sitting on the scaffolding while Rivera paints. They loved each other but couldn't be faithful. The breaking point for her was his affair with her younger sister.
They divorced in 1939. As she always did when she and Diego's relationship turned turbulent, she cut her long hair and wore men's clothes. (She often dressed as a boy in her youth.) Kahlo is known for her elaborate, braided hairdos and the colorful ethnic blouses and long skirts she wore to hide her disfigured leg and the body casts she often had to wear. In a 1941 photograph, she has raised her blouse to reveal one on which she has painted. But she also dressed to please Diego and she liked to irritate him by going androgynous, so we see several photographs of Kahlo in trousers with shorn hair.
Though they argued hard and often when together, they were still unhappy apart and remarried in 1940. In this second marriage, we see them in an embrace and him looking over her shoulder as she paints one of her now-celebrated self-portraits.
In the late 1930s, when the first marriage was nearing its end, Kahlo had an affair with photographer Nickolas Muray and his portraits of her reflect his love. Her iconoclastic style and the rich textural layers of her ensembles are seen best in his color-saturated works. She is, by turns, serene, seductive, pensive and playful.
As the 1940s progress, we see Kahlo looking older. She had endured bouts of extreme pain since her accident and had an estimated 32 operations. Now her body was failing. Two moving images are photographs from the 1950s of her in a hospital bed, painting. She looks wasted but still wears her jewelry and hair ribbons.
Kahlo wouldn't enter the public consciousness for 30 years. She was respected in the art world; important museums included her in group shows. She sold her paintings when they were exhibited but she didn't crave success. A popular biography in the 1970s started the Frida train rolling and more collectors began to take note. Celebrity purchases were publicized and prices for her paintings were on the rise. By the mid 1990s, she was mainstream.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.