Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW

Frida Kahlo’s work makes a case for narcissism as a female virtue that carves out space, time and the right to the internal, lived life, to show  pain and to say, Here I still am, and that has value. Her literary counterparts are the Bronte Sisters. Guest post by Merrian Weymouth.

Merrion Weymouth, 2015

I have read all my life and found solace and comfort and affirmation and new ways of thinking through my books. I was an Army Officer for nearly a decade and then a Social Worker, all the time dealing with increasing ill health and disability, including surviving two brushes with cancer. I have spent many years volunteering as a health consumer advocate and working to improve the care of people with chronic illness. I love living in the inner west with all the people out and about to chat to on the bus. I spend my time in op shops looking for things to craft and books to read and vintage clothes to wear. Every day deserves an outfit and a new book. @MerrianOW

The Art Gallery of NSW is showing an overview of the work of 20th century Mexican artists Frida Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera: Love and Pain. I have enjoyed Frida’s work vicariously through the internet and the mass consumer reproductions of her paintings and images on things that for many women are a sort of icon. Seeing the pictures and other art pieces in the exhibition was a revelation, though my little brooch is still precious to me. The internet images, the photos in books and the face on a shopping bag do not show how these pictures glow and seem so deep you could part the jungle leaves and walk into them.

Frida Kahlo brooch photo by Merrian Weymouth, 2016
Frida Kahlo brooch (Photo: Merrian Weymouth, 2016)

Frida Kahlo’s work is about female embodiment, injury and disability, and child-bearing loss, as well as exploring her turbulent relationship with Diego (Frida said Diego was the second great accident of her life). Her art is a mirroring opposite to her husband Diego’s work in intensity, scale and focus. I think for Frida the personal was always political and her body is where this was realised.

Diego On My Mind by Frida Kahlo photo by Merrian Weymouth
Diego On My Mind by Frida Kahlo, 1943 (Photo: Merrian Weymouth, 2016)

Some of the smaller exhibition pieces are painted on foot square tin sheets just like traditional Mexican folk art religious votives, painted to give thanks for a blessing or recovery. I thought of her engagement with her selfhood and suffering as being offered up when I saw this. The detail on pieces such as the painting Diego On My Mind (oil on Masonite, 1943) has fine black root tendrils, showing how Diego is rooted throughout her being, that are almost invisible in reproductions and on line images. The backgrounds and depth of the paintings were full of life and glowing.

Frida Kahlo’s art has always spoken powerfully to me, as a woman living with chronic illness and disability. It expresses what it is like to be caught and limited; of wanting to transcend our lived reality at the same time as acknowledging how our bodies are our worlds and shape our beings. As Frida became more disabled and ill, her physical capacity to paint was limited, yet she continued to make art using writing paper and sepia ink, always working to understand and to name for herself her situation.

The Miscarriage by Frida Kahlo photo by Merrian Weymouth
The Miscarriage by Frida Kahlo, 1932 (Photo: Merrian Weymouth, 2016)

I overheard one attendee call Frida a narcissist — something, I reckon, Diego and other male artists may be named but not accused in the same way. I walked on thinking … yes, when you are ill your body demands that your focus is only on it, that you filter the world and your choices through your body’s limits and potentials. Looking at Frida’s work I am all-in for narcissism as a female virtue that carves out space, time and the right to the internal, lived life, to show her pain and to say here I still am and that has value. I think her literary counterparts are the Bronte Sisters.

The exhibition contrasts Frida’s glowing work, which to me uses the skills of a miniaturist on bigger scale, with Diego’s paintings, which are matt and flat, using broad strokes and a muted palate of colours. I thought Diego’s work was very much of its time and, for example, in the AGNSW you can see Australian artists of the era using similar colour and techniques.

In their lifetimes, Diego Rivera was considered the greater artist, and like the man, his work was massive and public in scale. His murals of Mexican life were part of the political discourse of the pre-WW2 era. Both Diego and Frida were of the left and engaged with the Communist Party, befriending Leon Trotsky when he was in exile in Mexico.

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera photo by Juan Guzman (1952)
Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera (Photo: Juan Guzman, 1952)

Both their styles and intention is art as narrative. The story that their paintings tell is there to be read. Frida’s work, for me, questions the standard splitting of the private and public spheres of living through her focus on the body, which is present simultaneously in both social places. The photographs of Frida and her life are an important part of the exhibition. Through the regional Mexican costumes she wore and the face she showed in public, Frida performed as well as made art.

At face value, Frida’s very complicated love life and complex relationship with her husband may not offer a direct link to the romance novels we love to read and critique here on Book Thingo and all our favourite social media platforms. Yet, as I walked the exhibition thinking about the romance genre’s HFN and HEA being a discovery and owning of a true self, and that this is achieved through relationship lived through bodies, I didn’t feel that the connection is too much of a stretch. For Frida Kahlo, the most personal sphere of living was where the world was made real, and that is the same message for the romance genre, too.

Frida Kahlo photograph by Nickolas Muray (1952)
Frida Kahlo (Photo: Nickolas Muray, 1952)

There are not a huge number of the complex and surreal paintings that are so recognisably Frida Kahlo’s work, but there is a strong narrative arc to the exhibition. The sepia ink work, the letters and photographs, are an important part of the story but a little hard to spend time with in the crowded corridor-like space of the exhibition (there is timed entry). I was disappointed in the quality of the postcards available in the AGNSW shop. I thought the colours of the paintings quite muddy in the reproductions, washing Frida’s pictures of much of their life. The Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera: Love and Pain exhibition is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Australians to see the real work of these defining 20th century artists.

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera: from the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection is on display at the Art Gallery of NSW until October 23, 2016.


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