Frida Kahlo is one of the most recognizable figures of contemporary art—and an important symbol in art history. The striking image of her notorious brows and deep gaze alludes to her inner strength and empowerment. Far ahead of her time and traditions, the artist’s authentic spirit is the subject of her latest exhibition, Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving. The show, which opens on February 8, 2019, reaches its first U.S. destination at the Brooklyn Museum in New York.
Appearances Can Be Deceiving is coyly titled after Kahlo’s namesake drawing, exposing a leg brace hidden beneath her clothing, the result of childhood polio. The artist’s experiences of disability, race, and gender are expressed in her work, and offer a central theme in the exhibition. Layers of Kahlo’s identity are uncovered by her paintings and drawings, as well as photographs, film, and more than 100 recently-discovered personal effects from her Mexican home, Casa Azul. Upon Kahlo’s passing, her husband Diego Rivera requested that their belongings be privately stored there until 15 years after his own death. Brought to light in 2004, featured items include Kahlo’s Tehuana clothing, Mesoamerican jewelry, and even personal cosmetics.
Among the highlights of the exhibition are Kahlo’s paintings “Self-Portrait with Necklace,” 1933, “Self-Portrait with Braid,” 1941, and “Self-Portrait as a Tehuana, Diego on My Mind,” 1943. These self-images span a variety of contexts and universally express her creative, resilient nature. The inclusion of Kahlo’s medical accessories is also key to the show; she hand-painted her corsets and prosthetics to elevate and beautify them, re-imagining their necessity into art.
Context for Kahlo’s life story is created by portraits from her father, photographer Guillermo Kahlo, as well as some of the era’s most important photographers: Manuel and Lola Álvarez Bravo, Nickolas Muray, and Edward Weston. Distinctive art objects from the museum’s permanent collection speak to Kahlo and Rivera’s interest in ancient and folk art pieces, including West Mexican ceramics, Aztec figures, and regional pottery. “Both artists expressed pride in their Mexican identity or Mexicanidad,” Brooklyn Museum’s Nancy Rosoff tells CR. “They celebrated Mexico’s indigenous past and present with their collection.”
From her earliest years in Coyoacán, Mexico, Kahlo enjoyed the arts. She often assisted her father with his photography and family friend Fernando Fernández in printmaking. Unfortunately, Kahlo became disabled by polio in her youth and later by a traffic accident, resulting in more than 30 operations and physical difficulties throughout her life. During her initial recovery periods, she turned to painting as an outlet for her time and emotions, and discovered her creative gifts.
Both a talented student and a rebellious spirit, Kahlo was fascinated by the Mexican Revolution and political activism. She originally intended to go to medical school but chose to follow the path of her artistry and broader ideals. She found her counterpart in renowned Mexican artist Rivera, who she met at a social event in 1928. Impressed by both her artwork and bold persona, Rivera courted Kahlo and they married the following year.
Kahlo and Rivera went on to travel between Mexico and the U.S. for Rivera’s career as a muralist. She pursued her own expressive art, though she was often in the shadow of Rivera’s success. Her artistic style developed into larger works, often incorporating stories through mythology and Aztec symbolism. An early feminist, Kahlo adopted the look of traditional Tehuana women, a matriarchal group known for their social power. Portraits such as “Frida on Bench,” 1939 and “Frida in New York,” 1946 show the modern strength that Kahlo possessed, while still connecting with her femininity and nationality. Through folk-style clothing—long skirts, flowing blouses, and ornamental accessories—Kahlo made a dedicated cultural and political statement, while also masking her physical frailties. This carefully crafted appearance became essential to how she saw and presented herself to the world around her.
In 1938, surrealist Andre Breton, an early Kahlo supporter, arranged an important exhibition for the artist at Julien Levy Gallery in New York. The show was critically well-received and gained international recognition. Kahlo’s success continued in Paris the next year, when her painting “The Frame” was purchased by the Louvre Museum, and became the first work of a Mexican artist to be shown in its collection. While in Paris, she found camaraderie with fellow artists Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró, as well as the fashion set—Elsa Schiaparelli designed a Kahlo-inspired dress named La Robe Madame Rivera and Kahlo was featured on the cover of fashion magazines.
In spite of her artistic achievements, Kahlo’s personal life was troubled. Mutual infidelities marked her tumultuous marriage and the couple divorced in 1939, before remarrying the following year. Kahlo’s health issues became increasingly prevalent and debilitating. Still, she continued to be politically active and devoted to her social ideals. Her first solo exhibition in Mexico was held in 1953, the year before her death. Kahlo was on bed rest but determined to attend the show, she had her bed moved into the gallery to be able to attend the art party. Her boldly non-conformist spirit remained essential to her life and work through her final days.
Since her death, Kahlo has finally achieved the recognition that eluded her during her lifetime. By the 1990s, she had become widely celebrated cultural icon for both her artwork and social symbolism. In 1990, Kahlo’s painting, “Diego and I” became the first work of a Latin American artist to be valued at over million. In 2016, “Two Nudes in the Forest (The Earth Itself)” set a new precedent for Kahlo when it sold for million.
The imaginative artist remains a source of inspiration to many fashion designers. Kahlo’s corsets spurred Jean Paul Gaultier’s infamous cone bustier for Madonna’s 1990 “Blond Ambition” tour, and he later revisited Kahlo’s style in his opulent and romantic Spring/Summer 1998 collection. Braided hair and embroidered patterns echoed Kahlo’s likeness at Clements Ribeiro for Fall/Winter 2005. The Latin influence seen in designers’ recent creations also nods to Kahlo: Moschino’s matador-esque styles for Spring/Summer 2012, Valentino’s bold prints for Spring/Summer 2015, and Roland Mouret’s fluid and fringed looks for Spring/Summer 2018. In fashion, art, and life, the story of Kahlo is one of self-presentation. In sharing the truths of the icon, Appearances Can Be Deceiving gives testament to Kahlo’s reigning larger-than-life presence.
Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving is on view at the Brooklyn Museum from February 8—May 12, 2019.END
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