ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Museum exhibitions are planned well in advance so it’s almost impossible to anticipate the effect they may have. But in the case of Frida Kahlo at The Dalí, the solo exhibition of the revered Mexican artist and feminist icon on display at Florida’s Dalí Museum, it could not have come at a better moment.
The small but impactful exhibit, running until April 17, includes paintings, drawings, and personal photographs that touch upon her now well-known biography — a terrible bus accident and its brutal aftermath, her turbulent marriage to artist Diego Rivera, the personally challenging and professionally successful years in the United States, her notorious love affairs and uncompromising political activism and a body ravaged by illness.
Through it all, Frida looks out from one iconic self-portrait after another, unbowed and serene, challenging the viewer to embrace the pain or the possibility her life has come to signify.
It's been almost a decade since the directors of the Dalí Museum and Mexico City’s famed Museo Dolores Olmedo, with its extensive representation of Kahlo's work, started to explore the possibility of bringing the late Mexican artist's work to the Dalí. The effort was worth it; the show, which is now on pace to outperform the Museum’s previous exhibits, has really resonated with the audience, says Peter Cush, the Dalí’s Curator of Education.
We spoke to Cush about why Kahlo's work and the exhibit is so impactful.
Is there any one painting in particular that is the linchpin of the show?
For me [personally] the piece that the whole show hangs around is the Broken Column, from 1944.
We’ve seen so many images presented in relation to her Mexican cultural background that to see this piece - where she’s looking at her European roots and using that as a very powerful metaphor for the damaged body that she was forced to suffer with — and also combining that with what seems to be a reference to the martyrdom of St. Sebastian — having the ability to rise above that despite the pain and suffering and damaged nature of her body, to still have this very powerful expression on her face of perseverance and the ability to overcome, to me it’s really extraordinary.
In addition to the paintings and drawings, the show relies heavily on photographs - from the projected image of her posing with Rivera to more candid selections that seem no less iconic. How in control of her own image can we assume she was?
When you get to the photos, what seems really amazing about it, is that those were all her private photos. They come from the Vicente Wolf collection. They were basically three scrapbooks of photos that were fortunately able to be kept together and purchased by him.
Knowing that her father was a photographer and she would work on a number of his portraits doing brush ups, she became very conscious of how props work, how you can achieve the most notoriety in the way that you pose.
Even a year after her accident, [you see] the sort of audacity in choosing to wear her father’s clothing in an early photo when she was about 19 years old. She looks so self aware and powerful that you have a sense that, from working with her father, almost since day one, she had a control over how the camera captures her.
Could you foresee how the issues she raises would relate to the larger national discussion happening right now?
Who knew when we were putting this together that we would be dealing with issues like this in such a powerful and unabashed way — the observation of her embracing her hybrid identity or the challenges she had coming to America and trying to understand our culture, yet feeling that there was value in that.
She was really discovered in America despite the fact that she was not happy with America, that this was not a place she felt comfortable with. There are a whole lot of contradictions and curious asides that made this show far more fascinating, relevant and sort of haunting.
Both Dalí and Kahlo had their first Paris and New York exhibitions at the same galleries. What other connections do you see between the two artists?
Dalí is an artist who explores his dreams and incorporates his personal life through this dream element into the body of his work. For Frida, her sense of dreams are quite different. She’s not amplifying her dreams for dramatic effect as much as these are dreams which she considers part of her reality.
Dalí would take something from his life, amplify it, change it, metamorphosize it. Frida is much more direct in terms of the relationship to the symbols that she’s choosing. They're more emblematic than hidden in the way they are with Dalí’s work. It becomes this really rich opportunity to examine artists who really dwelled on their personal lives, their own autobiography, and used a symbolic format in order to discuss those in public.
This is the first solo exhibition of Frida Kahlo in Florida, though other institutions have featured her in group shows and in conjunction with her husband, Diego Rivera. Why was it important for the Dalí Museum to focus solely on Kahlo’s work for this exhibition?
I think for the sense of our commitment in trying to explore avenues of Surrealism. Our curator, Dr. William Jeffett, focuses on the question: How she is related to Surrealism? Is she indeed a Surrealist? And are there problems created by that definition? Can you see Surrealism? Can it be imported after the fact to a different country, does it still make sense, does it have relevance? I think for us it was a much richer dialogue than if we’d had a Diego-Frida exhibition.