Mexican artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera were a tumultuous – and famous – real life couple who shared the same political passions, but 60 years after their deaths it is rare to see an exhibit that combines their work.
Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics and Painting, which opens at the Art Gallery of Ontario this weekend, throws light on their marriage and their public personas through their paintings and through the images shot by a group of photographers who were both friends and fellow socialists.
Guest curator Dot Tuer said the different styles and scale of the two artists makes them difficult to show side by side. Kahlo’s introspective works are often tiny – while Rivera is best known for his large murals.
'What I hope this exhibition accomplishes is bring viewers back to that time in the '20s and '30s when art and social politics are combined'— Curator Dot Tuer
"Rivera’s work is thematically quite different from hers. He paints indigenous Mexico, his great love , and what Frida called his special adoration for indigenous persons; she paints herself," Tuer told CBC News.
The two were also at different stages in their careers, in part because Rivera was 20 years older and already famous when he married Kahlo.
"To my point of view Rivera is much older – for me he’s at the height of his creative powers when he meets Frida Kahlo[in 1927]. Frida Kahlo is just an amateur painter, she’s just begun painting and she doesn’t really come to fruition as a painter until the 1940s," she said.
But they shared socialist politics and a commitment to the Mexican revolution (1910-1920) that was reshaping their country.
"What holds this couple together is their great love for each other, their passion for painting and their incredible shared belief in Mexico, in the post-revolutionary Mexico, and their shared conviction that the future belongs to socialism," Tuer said.
While civil war split Spain and fascism rose in Europe, they sheltered Leon Trotsky at Kahlo’s home and moved among other leftists, including those expelled from the U.S.
Rivera’s murals express his politics overtly – he paints the history of the revolution, his conception of the socialist future and the history of Mexico, says Carlos Phillips Olmedo, director of the Museo Dolores Olmedo, which loaned the work for the exhibition.
In the 1930s, Mexico was a centre of the art world and Diego Rivera was a larger-than-life figure at its heart, an artist as well known as Picasso, whom he had painted with in Paris, Phillips Olmedo said. The AGO exhibit includes paintings from Rivera's Cubist period when he studied in Europe.
Rivera on a public stage
After returning to Mexico, Rivera was hired to paint murals for the Ministry of Education to promote indigenous and popular folk tradtions. Among them is the famous work reproduced in this exhibition, The Arsenal, which shows Frida handing out weapons to the peasants.
Rivera had a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1931, and won commissions for murals from famous industrialists such as the Rockefeller family and Henry Ford. But Rockefeller famously destroyed his fresco for the Rockefeller Center because Rivera had painted in a figure with the face of Lenin.
The Mexican artist loved that kind of drama, and loved life on a public stage, Phillips Olmedo said.
Kahlo, by then his wife, was a more private person with small circle of close friends. An accident while riding a bus in 1925 had injured her severely –and continued to affect her health. She began painting while still lying on her back in a body cast – minute canvases that reflected on her pain and disability.
Her own poor health was a theme that she returned to frequently in her career, including in works shown at the AGO such as The Broken Column, which shows her spine as an exposed metal rod, and Hospital Henry Ford, painted after she lost a baby.
Photos staged by Kahlo
But Tuer argues she was also consciously creating a public persona for herself through staged photographs that show her in traditional dress and with symbols of Mexico’s past, including flowers and animals that express her deep commitment to the folk tradition and the examination of herself as a woman with European, Native American and Mexican background.
The exhibition includes more than 60 photographs, taken by Lola Alvarez Bravo, Khalo’s lifelong friend, and Nikolas Muray, a photographer who was also a former lover, that show Kahlo and Rivera together and apart.
"For Frida, photography is very much a part of who she is," says Tuer, an instructor at Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto who also has a specialty in photography. "She constructs herself. She’s posing."
Rivera and Kahlo were known to have a turbulent marriage – they divorced briefly in 1939 before marrying again. Both had multiple lovers – and in paintings such as Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair, Kahlo is expressing the pain of seeing him take another woman.
In the years since their deaths – Kahlo died in 1954 and Rivera in 1957, Kahlo’s reputation has continued to grow, while Rivera is less well-known than he was.
Kahlo 'represents modern woman'
"In the 1970s, Frida was discovered by the feminist movement. She represents modern woman," Phillips Olmedo says. "She has been seen as an oppressed woman, but that is not true. She was very liberated."
The renewed interest in Kahlo resulted in her being studied separately from Rivera and that tradition has continued.
Although she sold very few paintings during her lifetime, a wealthy patron of Rivera, Dolores Olmedo Patino, bought at least 27 of her paintings and willed them to a Mexican museum, now called Museo Dolores Olmedo in Xochimilco, while Rivera willed her family home and the rest of her paintings to the Mexican people.
Tuer said she hopes putting Rivera’s work alongside Kahlo’s, with photographs of them together, creates some awareness of the meshing of politics and art in the Mexico of their day.
"I wanted to give a greater sense that Frida and Diego are at the centre of an incredible salon culture," Tuer said.
"What I hope this exhibition accomplishes is bring viewers back to that time in the '20s and '30s when art and social politics are combined."
Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics and Painting runs Oct. 20 to Jan. 20, 2013 at the Art Gallery of Ontario.