A first-of-its-kind exhibit that opened Friday at the Brooklyn Museum gives fans of iconic artist Frida Kahlo a chance to see personal items from La Casa Azul, her famous home in Mexico, as well as a more complex, layered view of her sexual and political identity.
In the decades since her death in 1954, Kahlo’s work and image have only grown more ubiquitous. Do a quick search online and you can find her likeness on tote bags, T-shirts and earrings.
“We realized that there was a very small window of opportunity for us to bring that material here and material that has never been seen in the United States before. We really wanted to seize on that," said Lisa Small, who co-organized the exhibit along with the museum's senior curator, Catherine Morris, and originating curator, Circe Henestrosa.
Before Kahlo became the pop culture shorthand for “art,” she was a complicated artist who survived childhood illness, a life-altering accident and a difficult marriage to acclaimed muralist Diego Rivera. She was unrepentantly political, marching against the CIA’s intervention in Guatemala only days before her death. As the daughter of a German-Hungarian émigré and a Tehuana-Spanish mother, Kahlo challenged conceptions of Mexican identity and celebrated the country’s indigenous roots as a radical act.
“I'm really excited at the possibility of people understanding how complex Frida Kahlo was and how vital she was in her time historically, politically, socially, culturally,” Morris said. “All of the ways in which she resonates with people today are primarily driven by conversations that she never would have had in her lifetime. It's also a very interesting proposition to think about a historical character who has somehow transcended her historical moment and becomes an iconic figure for us.”
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There are subjects in the museum’s exhibit that are sometimes left out of the whitewashed versions of Kahlo’s life. Sections of the exhibit devote themselves to explaining her support for communism, her tempestuous divorce from and second marriage to Rivera, and her extramarital affairs.
There are also pieces of her identity on display that she wasn’t always public about, like her bisexuality, her exploration of gender norms and her disability. A number of Kahlo’s medical corsets that she decorated are on display next to her drawings about the human body, her spinal braces and several bottles of medicine that were a part of her daily life.
“There are ways in which she is often referred to as broken and fragile,” Morris said. “There's all of this language around disability that needs to change ... Her relationship to her disabled body is very forthright and very direct, and there's a lot of language in this exhibition that I find really fascinating.”
The exhibit catches the eye from the outset. The entryway is framed with a bold pink and blue LED screen, with letters in a sleek pop art modern style.
Visitor are greeted by bilingual signs in Spanish and English. Warm coral and blue walls pull in the viewer to see Kahlo’s black-and-white family photos mostly taken by her photographer father, Guillermo Kahlo.
A number of the videos are projected at a floor-to-ceiling height, adding an extra level of sensory immersion and light in the space. As Kahlo’s paintings enter the mix, the colors within the frames take over, playing against a muted background of gray or white. It makes the works pop and the details more vivid.
Throughout this space, pieces of Kahlo’s identity begin to take shape. Her fascination with traditional Mexican dresses began early and became a part of her persona as she traveled through the United States. The walls are full of her quotes and sketches, revealing an artist sometimes at odds with herself or her surroundings, a picture that’s less polished and more candid, like the loose drawings of the accident that almost killed her when she was 18 — something she never formally addressed in her best-known paintings.
As the exhibit builds, it then leads to a blue room, a homage to Kahlo’s beloved Casa Azul. In the middle of Mesoamerican figurines, statues of Kahlo’s favorite dog, the hairless Xoloitzcuintli, and dolls she hand stitched is another large looping video of the two artists in their home. Kahlo and Rivera look happy and flirty for the camera, comfortable at home.
The video is surrounded by the things that once inspired the couple to create alongside each another. For most of her career, Kahlo worked in Rivera’s shadow, her art written off as the stuff of a wife’s dabbling. Now, she’s the center of attention.
As she told one reporter who dismissed her artistic efforts in relation to her husband, “Of course, he does well for a little boy, but it is I who am the big artist.”
The final room is perhaps the most stunning of all, a long hallway filled with several outfits from Kahlo’s wardrobe. There are formal and casual clothes, flowing intricate skirts, sweeping blouses, colorful rebozos (shawls), chunky jade necklaces, a flowery headpiece and when available, photos of the artist wearing the clothes on display.
“I think there can a tendency among some people sometimes to think that showing the wardrobe of artists — particularly a female artist — is in some way reductive or diminishing,” Small said. “That's the furthest from the case here because as you go through the exhibition and you see the way she constructed her appearance through these clothes, they’re absolutely deeply embedded in her politics and in her creative life as a whole.”