Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera

Catch a retrospective of inspiring artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Riviera at Sydney’s Art Gallery of NSW. Viva Mexico!

BY SOPHIE DAVIES

Compact but compelling exhibition 'Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera', at Sydney's Art Gallery of New South Wales, celebrates two of the 20th century’s most intriguing artists. It draws on 33 works from the world's most significant private holding of Mexican modern art, the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection. Alongside paintings and drawings by both Kahlo and Rivera are 49 photographs charting their life together, from 1911 to the 1950s, including bold black-and-white images by renowned photographer Edward Weston and gorgeous colour shots by Kahlo’s longtime lover Nickolas Muray.

Mexican artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo were the ultimate odd couple, with her parents describing their devoted but volatile union as ‘a marriage between an elephant and a dove’. During their lifetimes Rivera was more famous, feted for his large-scale leftwing public murals, still wowing admirers in Mexico today. Kahlo’s more personal, small-scale autobiographical art was less in vogue then, but now her star is rising, with this new retrospective of both artists seeing Kahlo in the ascendant.

TOP: 'Frida with Olmec figurine, Coyoacán', 1939, colour carbon print by Nickolas Muray
ABOVE RIGHT: 'Frida Kahlo', 1944, gelatin silver print, vintage, by Lola Alvarez Bravo
BELOW: 'Frida Kahlo on white bench', 1938, carbon print by Nickolas Muray; 'Self-portrait with monkeys', 1943, oil on canvas by Frida Kahlo; 'Diego on my mind (Self-portrait as Tehuana)', 1943, oil on masonite by Frida Kahlo

Even during Kahlo’s lifetime ‘Fridamania’ was catching on, fuelled by her talent, striking looks and collaborations with a coterie of photographers to create charismatic portraits (Germaine Greer dubbed her 'the first ever true performance artist'). Given our modern fascination with psychoanalysis and ‘selfies’, we can perhaps relate more these days to Kahlo’s self-eviscerating journey, foregrounding her own pain, than Rivera’s passionate politics. Rivera pinpointed Kahlo's appeal too, saying, ‘Frida is the only example in the history of art of an artist who tore open her chest and heart to reveal the biological truth of her feelings.’ Writer André Breton put it even more dramatically, describing her work as 'like a ribbon around a bomb'.

The personal was political for Kahlo, who spent her life traumatised by illness, from childhood polio to a terrible streetcar accident as a teenager which saw her back broken and abdomen pierced by an iron handrail. Her countless operations, spinal treatments, miscarriages and abortions isolated her, but fuelled her powerful self-portraits, self-taught feminist works exploring her body and mind. 'I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best,' she said. Alongside art reflecting her battle for survival, the show includes two iconic 1943 works: ‘Diego on my mind,’ in which Kahlo sports an icon-like image of her husband on her forehead, and the startling ‘Self-portrait with monkeys’, which sees Kahlo surrounded by four supportive simians, possibly representing her dedicated followers/interns the ‘Fridas’.

ABOVE: 'Frida in her Studio', c 1943, gelatin silver print, vintage, by Fritz Henle; 'Untitled' (Frida Kahlo on stairs looking right), c 1940s, gelatin silver print by Leo Matiz

Kahlo’s fashion statements have become iconic, spanning flower headdresses, pretty up-dos, chunky jewellery, peasant blouses, garnet-hued shawls and full skirts (not to mention her feisty facial hair), but she offers inspiration for interiors too. We're enamoured by her love of vibrant colour and pattern (from abstract geometrics to the dark florals in portrait ‘Frida Kahlo on white bench’) and her adoption of the costumes, crafts and curios of indigenous Mexicans in both her life and art. She often wore traditional Tehuana dress as a show of national solidarity with the country’s native population, and her home and studio were filled with pre-Columbian figurines and vessels (her ashes are kept in one).

Kahlo was born and died in her family home La Casa Azul (The Blue House) in Coyoacán, Mexico City, now a museum dedicated to her. She and Rivera also commissioned a ground-breaking modernist double house and studio in the San Ángel neighbourhood by Mexican architect Juan O'Gorman, who took inspiration from the Bauhaus and Le Corbusier to create a cacti-fringed red-and-white cube house for Rivera separated by a bridge from Kahlo's smaller boxy blue house on stilts. Built from 1921-31, and also now open to the public as the Museo Estudio Diego Rivera, the industrial abode included vermillion steel window frames, a concrete spiral staircase and a parrot-green studio for Kahlo.

ABOVE: 'Sunflowers', 1943, oil on canvas by Diego Rivera; 'Frida and Diego with Fulang Chung', 1937, gelatin silver print, photographer unknown

The Sydney exhibition features several photos of these spaces, offering a glimpse of the couple's unusual domestic style and taste. Alongside shots of Kahlo working at her easel in her high-ceilinged, art-strewn studio, there are more intimate images of her lounging in her vast wooden bed, sitting in the cacti-dotted garden or reflected in an outdoor mirror. If you can't visit Mexico City in person, this show could be the next best thing…
artgallery.nsw.gov.au

‘Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera: from the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection’ runs until 9 October 2016 at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Art Gallery Road, The Domain, Sydney (ticketed; it's popular, so booking online time slots is recommended)