One of art history's mythic couples, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, front and centre at MNBAQ in Quebec City
20 works by Kahlo among 150 pieces on display at Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec until May 18
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 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.
'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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.