The enduring popularity of artist, Frida Kahlo, never ceases to amaze me. It seems we’re in the midst of a new wave of public fascination for her work and story. There’s yet another exhibition of her work (and Diego Rivera’s) at the Art Gallery of NSW showing right now in Sydney. Perhaps this resurgence is about a new generation discovering the legend that is Frida. Or something else at play.
I first saw an exhibition of Frida Kahlo’s work back in 1990 at the Art Gallery of Western Australia – The Art of Frida Kahlo. It was fascinating and delightful and moving and beautiful. Interestingly the exhibition only went to Perth and Adelaide – not the east coast of Australia. This was very contentious in the cultural world at the time but my young Perth-living (then) self was delighted that I (for once) was in the right place at the right time. I soaked up the exhibition like a giant art-loving sponge. I bought a book of Frida Kahlo postcards and still have them to this day. Over the years I have read several volumes about her life, seen the movie and bought the sound track to it, studied her paintings and photographs in the MET in NY, and even bought one of those colourful Frida bags that were doing the rounds a while ago.
But I haven’t (yet) been to Casa Azul in Mexico City.
So it was with some sense of ‘really, more Frida?’ that I approached the Sydney exhibition recently with a friend from Melbourne who’d come north especially for it. I wasn’t sure what I would make of it given the amount of Frida I have absorbed over the past 26 years. But it’s a lovely exhibition. It’s not big (I overheard other attendees being surprised that it’s not bigger – perhaps they were expecting something the size of an art ‘blockbuster’?) but it’s packed to the brim with works of both Frida and Diego. I found the photography component especially compelling and extensive. These were taken by people like Edward Weston, Lola Alvarez Bravo, and Frida’s father, Guillermo Kahlo. They bring a deeply personal and comanding element to the exhibition. Others clearly thought so too because the day I visited it was harder to see the photos through the crowd than it was to see the paintings and drawings on display. In the final room there are three films about Frida and Diego’s life playing silently on a loop. It’s beautifully done and I sat for some time watching the artists and their closest friends through this medium.
Afterwards I pondered the question I’d been asking for some time: why more Frida and why now? I think it is as I said earlier, partly a generational thing – younger people discovering the compelling story of a female Mexican artist of the 1930s and 40s who suffered from debilitating pain due to a tragic bus accident when she was 18, and who died young at 47. Her capacity to then go on and paint her life and pain and give a female voice to her ideas was unique. But as Hayden Herrera wrote in an excellent article for the NY Times back in 1990 Frida had only two solo exhibitions during her lifetime and she was pretty much unknown outside Mexico until the late 1970s. Her fame came long after her death and in addition to her work, seemed to be connected to many social threads.
Which brings me to today, and why now.
As I wrote in my inaugural post for this blog a few ago, art matters now, for so many reasons. Art can help us understand our own place in the world and connect us with others, propelling us to see the world differently. It can encourage us to question. And to be curious. To push us beyond our individual lives and to wonder about others, the past, the future, and the thoroughly unfamiliar. I think Frida Kahlo (her life and work) does that for many people. When I first encountered her work it made me curious about Mexico and the 30s. So did the social content of Diego’s murals and the way he would involve others in the painting of them. Their work, Frida’s work, is about the human condition in a given time. A tumultuous time in history, but some might argue, the period we’re in now with its confusion and violence occurring on a global scale, is not an easy one either. So perhaps Frida’s work connects with many now because of these common threads. Or perhaps she’s the kind of artist whose work will continue to capture the public’s imagination because of all that it is and all that it says about the human condition, hers and Mexico’s in particular.
Luckily for me I’m still hooked because I have two more groups of friends traveling from interstate to see the Sydney exhibition. Which brings me to the topic of cultural tourism and the power of art. But more on that in another post.