Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera at the AGO
We are entering the final week of the blockbuster show Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics and Painting at the Art Gallery of Ontario. The show ran from October 20th to January 20th. The AGO has been on a hot streak lately with great exhibits: such as last summer’s riveting Picasso show, the Abstract Expressionist show picked from the collection of the MOMA as well as future shows that include early Renaissance works from Florence and an Ai Weiwei exhibit coming this summer. My excitement and anticipation for Ai Weiwei is high. My feelings going into the current exhibit towards Frida and Diego were luke warm at best. I wouldn’t count either artist as personal favourites of mine, but I can recognize their talent and importance to the artistic canon. Art is a thing best experienced in person, so I felt that I couldn’t honestly have an accurate opinion of them if I didn’t see the works in the flesh. So I went to the AGO for the paintings, was indifferent about the politics and stayed for the passion.
The art of these two individuals will always be inseparably intertwined. You can’t mention one without the other. They were lovers, friends, teacher and student, husband and wife, rival and combatant and mentor and muse. In the end the muse became the master and one of the most recognizable woman artists of the 20th century. When they met, Diego Rivera was already considered one of Mexico’s greatest artists. Frida Kahlo was twenty years his junior. Diego was a communist, a man of the people, and his medium of choice was large scale murals that were intended to stir the passions of their viewers. He had received formal art training in Europe. He lived in Paris for a time where he was influenced by the cubists and the paintings of Paul Cézanne.
The first room of the exhibit is dedicated to the European works. Diego had very little trouble mastering the principles of Modernism. His cubist influences favoured Juan Gris more so than Picasso or Braque. His landscapes were direct appropriations of Cézanne. This would turn out to be my favourite room of Diego’s work. I am a big fan of Modernism and Diego does it well, but at the end of the day, no one does Cézanne better than Cézanne. It did however give the proper context to the rest of his work.
Other rooms followed examining his mural work and easel paintings. There were some beautiful charcoal drawings as well as reproductions, photographs and short films on view. Reproductions don’t interest me much when I go see an exhibition. They can’t compete with the actual artworks. If I’m interested; I can track down these things outside the gallery and I find them a waste of time. Time that can be better spent with the actual artworks themselves. The Lily paintings are quite alluring in the flesh but some of his other easel paintings left little impression. Frida on the other hand….
Frida Kahlo on the other hand leaves a large impression. Unlike Diego, she was self taught. Her technique is strong but never flashy. Her paintings both disturb and intrigue. They teeter on the over emotional and melodramatic edge but are pulled back at the last minute before they plunge into sheer ridiculousness. (Many of today’s pop stars could learn a thing or two from this kind of restraint.) Frida had a lot of demons to exercise. Her life was unfortunately full of pain. As a young woman she was involved in a horrific bus accident that left her body broken and infertile. These afflictions would follow her throughout the rest of her life. Her marriage was filled with infidelity; at one point Diego left her for her own sister. She portrays these incidents with dark images: cutting her hair off, sliced open and on display and being riddled with pins and nails. I don’t love these paintings, I think she makes that an impossibility. You’re not meant to love them, but rather respect the place they come from. I’m more drawn to her strait forward self-portraits which there were many.
Her presence is undeniable. This was most evident when the exhibition hung Diego beside Frida. During their lifetime Diego was the star and Frida was in the background. After their deaths the fame of Frida began to grow. This was helped in part by people like Madonna who started to collect her in the eighties and movies like Frida starring Selma Hayek in 2002. Hanging side by side on the gallery walls Frida Kahlo seems to eclipse Diego Rivera. It is painfully evident when faced with the same subject matter. In the same room hang two still-lifes with watermelon as a central theme. Diego’s is easily forgotten while Frida’s rendition brims with life, pattern and narration.
The exhibition was well put together with a nice array of art and documentation. In the end, I was drawn as much to the photographs as I was the paintings. My favourite being the one that appears at the top of this post. It shares it’s lightness with a sense of darkness. A baby deer in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Every photo is accompanied by that unflinching stare. It as though she looks straight through you. Frida Kahlo is an unconventional beauty whose air of confidence has an intoxicating quality. After viewing the exhibition, my appreciation for Frida Kahlo grew. Diego didn’t hold up as well in this context, when placed so close to a burning flame you will in-evidently end up in the shadows.