Frida and Diego

July 22, 2016
Frida Kahlo Diego on my mind (Self-portrait as Tehuana) 1943 The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of Mexican Art © 2016 Banco de Mexico Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico DF
Frida Kahlo Diego on my mind (Self-portrait as Tehuana) 1943 The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of Mexican Art © 2016 Banco de Mexico Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico DF

When 22-year-old Frida Kahlo married 42-year-old Diego Rivera in August 1929, her parents described it as the union of a dove and an elephant. This may have been a fair description of the newlyweds’ physical attributes, but Diego was also an elephant in terms of his public profile while Frida seemed as quiet as a dove.

It would prove to be one of the most famous and tempestuous marriages in all art history. Frida and Diego even joined that select group of celebrities who were divorced and remarried – which puts them up there with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. It’s taken for granted nowadays that their relationship was a true love match, regardless of all the obstacles life put in their way.

The most obvious of these were Diego’s incorrigible philandering and Frida’s fragile health, which necessitated numerous operations, long periods in hospital and stints in a wheelchair. Her health and his infidelities seem to define the popular image of the marriage, although Frida had her own affairs – with Leon Trotsky; the sculptor, Isamu Noguchi; the photographer, Nikolas Muray; and even various women. Diego, for his part, suffered (and eventually died) from cancer of the penis, which should encourage those who believe in Divine retribution.

During Frida’s life-time (1907-54), the spotlight was firmly on Diego (1886-1957). He was one of the most famous painters in the world, known for his large-scale murals and his left-wing sympathies. He was only the second artist, after Henri Matisse, to be given a one-man show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Held in 1931 it broke box office records.

Frida was “Diego’s beautiful young wife” with a “charming, naïve talent”. She dazzled the journalists with her exotic Mexican outfits, but was viewed chiefly as an ornament for her husband’s gargantuan presence. It’s ironic that today, Diego plays a distant second-fiddle to Frida’s booming fame. He represents the ‘public man’, so prominent in a world of competing ideologies, whereas she speaks to our contemporary preoccupation with the self. He is all exteriority, right down to his bulging belly and high-riding pants. She is a study in interiority, her broken body concealed by long, colourful dresses. His paintings are vast, hers are small.

Frida has become one of the cult figures of the modern era, with an never-ending stream of publications devoted to her paintings, drawings, photographs, fashions, diaries, recipes and garden. There are Frida calendars, Frida sticker books, dress-up paper dolls, children’s books, fictionalised accounts of her life, a Hollywood biopic and several documentaries.

Every year there seems to be a show of Frida’s work in some part of the world. Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera at the Art Gallery of NSW is the third such exhibition we have seen in Australia since 1990, when Charles Merewether put together a group of 52 pictures for the Adelaide Festival. In 2001 the National Gallery of Australia hosted Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Mexican Modernism – The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection, which featured the same works by Frida and Diego that we see at the AGNSW, along with those of other Mexican artists.

Other Australian public galleries felt that this exhibition – which features only 32 paintings and works on paper, supplemented with 57 photographs – was simply too small for comfort. They could also argue that the works had been shown too recently to have much appeal for local audiences.

Here, it seems, they were wrong. Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera is packing ‘em in at the AGNSW, drawing crowds that stand transfixed in front of Frida’s paintings as if each were a holy relic. I’d wager that many viewers don’t even notice the size of the show, so engrossed are they in the story of the two artists.

It seems the AGNSW decided Frida was enough of a rock star that her name alone would pull audiences, and in this they have been vindicated, at least by the pre-bookings. But while it’s good to see the gallery full of people again, assisted by the annual drawcard of the Archibald Prize, the Frida and Diego show is yet another package while the true test of a public gallery is its ability to conceive and host complex, original exhibitions with works drawn from many sources. Over the past four years the only AGNSW show that fits this description has been 2014′s Pop to Popism, which was at best, a mixed bag.

It’s simply not true to complain that the AGNSW hasn’t got the space for holding major exhibitions, and therefore needs a massive new extension. It had enough space in the past, and the gallery doesn’t appear to have shrunk. In fact it has expanded with the addition of the Kaldor galleries. The problems are creative inertia, lack of leadership, bureaucratic constipation, and the brain drain that has seen so many talented staff depart. A big new building won’t fix these problems, it will only exacerbate them. In the meantime the gallery remains in a state of constant distraction, awaiting a miraculous shower of gold from a state government that seems more intent on making Sydney safe again for property developers.

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera is a holding operation, as shown by the catalogue which features only a small, tradesmanlike essay by curator, Nick Chambers, and reprinted (longwinded) statements by the artists. I acknowledge, though, that most people who visit the exhibition are coming to savour the legend of Frida, and stare into those intense, dark eyes under the distinctive monobrow.

Frida Kahlo, 'Self-portrait with monkeys' (1943)

Frida Kahlo, ‘Self-portrait with monkeys’ (1943)

There are a few classics here, notably Diego on my mind (Self-portrait as Tehuana) and Self-portrait with monkeys (both 1943). In the former, Frida’s face is framed by a traditional Tehuantepec costume that acts as a halo. She portrays herself as a saint – or, given her physical and emotional ordeals, a martyr – with Diego’s image embazoned on her forehead, like that of God. Fine lines radiate outwards in the manner of roots or spider webs, suggesting how closely bound up she is with her wayward husband.

The “monkeys” in the other portrait are said to be four devoted students who followed their teacher home when she was too ill to give classes at art school. The religious overtones are still present, but this time she makes herself the object of mock veneration.

Diego Rivera, 'Landscape with Cactus' (1931)

Diego Rivera, ‘Landscape with Cactus’ (1931)

It’s impossible to look at Frida’s work and not recognise her deep immersion in Mexico’s religious traditions, from the nature worship of the Indians, to the strident Catholicism of her mother’s family. She draws on these sources in a playful, sceptical fashion but understands myths and symbols as potent conveyors of meaning. Diego, by contrast, comes across as a materialist, intent on capturing the life of his society with complete directness. Yet paintings such as Landscape with cacti (1931) or The healer (1943) feel like picture-postcards alongside Frida’s mystical depths.

Diego Rivera, 'The Healer' (1943)

Diego Rivera, ‘The Healer’ (1943)

The defining event of Frida’s life was, of course, the tramcar accident that almost killed her at the age of 18. The description given by her biographer, Hayden Herrera, invites the most extreme mythologisation. In the collision that left her spine broken in three places, and her right leg with 11 fractures, she had her clothing torn off and was showered in gold dust from a bag held by another passenger. She lost her virginity from within, as a metal rail pierced her body and exited through her vagina. In a final twist, her naked body, covered in blood and gold was placed on a billiard table in a nearby shop, awaiting medical care.

No-one could make up such a story, neither Hollywood nor the authors of the Lives of the Saints. It’s the incident that allegedly “made her a painter”, but it’s more accurately the reason she could no longer pursue her dream of studying to be a doctor. It’s hardly possible to think of curing others’ pain when your own is so acute and omnipresent.

Frida’s self-portraits are studies in private pain met with stoic resolve. No matter how small, they will always seem larger than life. She is one of those rare artists who allow us to look right through each elaborate masquerade and see the beating heart.

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera
from the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection
Art Gallery of NSW, until 9 October

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 23rd July, 2016