One of art history's mythic couples, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, front and centre at MNBAQ in Quebec City

Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Mexican Modernism, a new exhibit at Quebec City's Musée national des beaux-arts, includes 150 images by Mexican artists who were part of a flourishing art scene in the wake of a 10-year civil war.

20 works by Kahlo among 150 pieces on display at Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec until May 18

This 1939 photograph, Frida Kahlo on Bench #5 by Nickolas Muray, is on loan from the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and the Vergel Foundation. (Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec)

There's a quote credited to Frida Kahlo: "I suffered two grave accidents in my life: one in which a streetcar knocked me down. The other accident is Diego."

A new exhibit at Quebec City's Musée national des beaux-arts (MNBAQ) gives visitors a sense of how both those collisions sparked an extraordinary period in Mexican art.

Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Mexican Modernism includes 150 images by Mexican artists who were part of a flourishing art scene in the wake of a 10-year civil war. The exhibition includes works by many of the most illustrious painters and photographers of the period, but the headliners are the works of Rivera and Kahlo.

André Gilbert, the exhibition's co-curator, says in his murals, Diego Rivera 'reinvents Mexican history in a way that suits his ideals.' (Susan Campbell/CBC)

André Gilbert, the exhibit's co-curator, points to Diego Rivera's murals — the paintings for which he's best known  — as pivotal.

"The Mexican government hired him for many years to paint the most important government buildings in Mexico. He created monumental art that combines natural history, popular culture, native heritage," Gilbert said.

"He does a lot of those very large paintings. And in them, I would say, he reinvents Mexican history in a way that suits his ideals."

The museum has reproduced panels from some of Rivera's most famous murals, including The Arsenal, part of a tribute to the proletariat revolution he painted on Mexico's Ministry of Education building. In it, strong, clear-eyed young men in work clothes and peaked caps are preparing for battle — in the centre, in a man's red shirt, is Frida Kahlo, handing out weapons.

This reproduction of Diego Rivera’s The Arsenal is part of a fresco called Ballad of the Proletariat Revolution, painted on Mexico’s Ministry of Education building in 1928. (Julia Caron/CBC)

'Marriage of an elephant and a dove'

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo formed one of the most famous couples in art history. When they married in 1929, he was 42 and a well-established painter. Kahlo was 21 and setting out to study medicine. Her mother called the union "the marriage of an elephant and a dove."

Gilbert describes their relationship as stormy.

"The two of them had countless affairs with people of both sexes," he said. "But they shared a real passion for art, a deep love of their country and a commitment to the values of the Mexican Revolution."

The 1934 gelatin silver print is entitled Frida and Diego, by Martin Munkasci. (The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and the Vergel Foundation/Musée des Beaux-Arts)

Kahlo's self-portraits became her hallmark

In 1925, a bus Frida Kahlo was riding on was hit by a trolley. She suffered fractures to her spine, pelvis, right leg and foot. Bedridden, she began to paint to pass the time.

After her mother installed mirrors throughout her room, she began to paint herself. Her self-portraits would become her hallmark.

There are five in the MNBAQ exhibition, including the striking Diego on My Mind (Self-Portrait as Tehuana), from 1943. Kahlo paints herself wearing a face-framing halo-like headdress, typical of her mother's people, the Zapotec, an ancient culture indigenous to Oaxaca, in southern Mexico. On her forehead, as an object of adoration, she paints the likeness of Diego Rivera.

Kahlo's 1943 self-portrait, Diego on My Mind (Self-Portrait as Tehuana) is part of the Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Mexican Modernism exhibition at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Quebec City. (Julia Caron/CBC)

Annie Gauthier, the project director for the exhibition, said Kahlo used her painting to express her physical pain as well as her frustration over Rivera's philandering.

But Kahlo seemed intent on challenging ideas of feminine beauty, emphasizing her now-iconic mono brow, which she darkened with a pencil in real life, and the faint moustache above her lip. There's something challenging in her regard.

Annie Gauthier, the director of collections and exhibitions at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Quebec City, stands in front of a reproduction of Diego Rivera’s Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park. (Susan Campbell/CBC)

Kahlo was also intent on creating a living persona of her own design.

She adopted the floral crown and colourful, embroidered blouses and skirts of the Zapotec women and sat for portraits by photographer Nickolas Muray — with whom Kahlo had an on-again, off-again affair for over a decade. The vivid colour pictures show the birth of an icon.

Kahlo adopted the native dress of her mother's culture, which includes the braided hair, floral crown and the embroidered blouses, after her marriage. (Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec)

Annie Gauthier calls Kahlo's choice of dress artistic and political.

"She's making a statement there. It becomes herself, the work. A bit like performance art [is] how we would think about it today. Frida is her work, but also the persona."

Kahlo's health began to decline in the late 1940s. She attended the opening of the only solo show in her lifetime in Mexico in 1953 from her bed. She died a year later at 47 of a pulmonary embolism.

Her painting remained largely in the shadows until the mid-1970s, when feminist scholars began to shed a new light on her work. In the decades since, her fame has exploded.

Handbags featuring a beaded portrait of Frida Kahlo are on sale at the museum’s boutique. (Susan Campbell/CBC)

The MNBAQ designers have made the daring choice to acknowledge the phenomenon that is Frida by including a functioning boutique within the exhibit, where visitors can buy handbags, cushions and jigsaw puzzles bearing Kahlo's likeness.

The commodification of Frida Kahlo is the subject of hot debate. The MNBAQ's Annie Gauthier says there was no way not to underline the phenomenon that is Frida in this exhibit. And she says Frida has taken hold for a reason.

"It's like the image — or the trademark — was somehow taken by the public to serve something that was missing," she said.

It's difficult to imagine how Frida Kahlo, a Marxist, would react to seeing her face on a pricey T-shirt. But it's an interesting exercise to imagine the artist who dared people to take a good long look at her unconventional self seeing herself embraced, as she is, by people all over the world.

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera and Mexican Modernism continues at the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec in Quebec City until May 31, 2020. For a full program of events, visit the museum's website.


Susan Campbell


Susan Campbell is the community reporter at CBC Quebec.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?