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ISSUE 121 VOL 10 PUBLISHED 12/7/2007

Kahlo exhibit chronicles life

By Emily Koester
News Editor

Friday, December 7, 2007

If you take a peek into the Walker Art Center's Frida Kahlo exhibit, you'll find more than the artist's work - you'll gain a powerful sense of the life that shaped her iconic artistry. A native of Mexico who moved to the United States at the age of 23, Kahlo contended with a mixed cultural identity, a rocky marriage, the subsequent divorce and crippling injuries from a bus accident. The Walker's chronological exhibit of 46 of Kahlo's paintings offers the opportunity to walk through, in essence, the history of Kahlo's emotional struggle.

One of the most profound influences on Kahlo's life was undoubtedly her Mexican heritage. Allying herself with the Communist party in her teens and early 20s, Kahlo joined the ranks of Mexican Communists and acquainted herself with peasant culture, even adopting their traditional form of dress. It was after a crippling bus accident that the 18-year-old Kahlo took up painting to pass the time in bed, weaving the Mexican life she knew into her art.

Kahlo channeled her cultural identity into surrealism, a style she discovered upon moving to the United States in 1930. "My Dress Hangs There," 1933 oil and collage, demonstrates the cultural conflict Kahlo faced in her adjustment to the United States. In the painting, a traditional Mexican dress is depicted suspended between a toilet and trophy, demanding the viewer's eye against the dark, dismal American city-scene of the background. At the bottom of the painting, newspaper photographs of marching soldiers appear to be crushed by the above city-scene. The jolting contrasts in this piece - the toilet and trophy, the colorful dress and dismal cityscape - reveal the disparity between the lifestyles Kahlo knew and, most importantly, Kahlo's ultimate loyalty to her Mexican heritage.

Her identification is most explicitly captured in her 1937 painting "My Nurse and I," in which an infant Kahlo (with an adult head) nurses at the breast of a Teotihuac√°n figure. Kahlo deemed it one of her best paintings.

Perhaps the single most important force for Kahlo's work, however - and the catalyst for many of her emotional struggles - was Kahlo's tumultuous marriage to Diego Rivera, a renowned muralist. It was with Rivera that Kahlo traveled to the United States in 1930. Kahlo's early painting, "Frida and Diego Rivera from 1931, provides a powerful glimpse into the Riveras' unequal marriage. Kahlo shows Rivera looming in Western clothing next to herself, diminutive and dressed in a bright green Tehuana dress with a red Mexican shawl thrown over her shoulders.

The sense of awe towards her husband that Kahlo makes apparent in "Frida and Diego Rivera was certainly tried throughout Kahlo's life. Though both Kahlo and Rivera engaged in a slew of extramarital affairs, Rivera's 1939 request for a divorce from Kahlo seemed to shatter Kahlo's sense of identity. Her painting "The Two Fridas," created shortly after the divorce, shows her consequent crisis. One of the Fridas in the painting, dressed in traditional Mexican clothing and holding a portrait of Frida and Diego, symbolized past happiness. The other Frida, dressed in a white Victorian dress, is depicted cutting off a lifeline that drips blood onto the pure white of her dress.

As visitors walk through the rest of the exhibit, they see a very different Frida than the one from the beginning. The Frida depicted in paintings created during the years of her divorce keeps her hair short and even dons a business suit.

Kahlo also channeled her artistry at her despair over her physical health. The spinal injuries from her bus accident as a teenager flared up again in the mid-1940s, and Kahlo was forced to undergo a swath of new surgeries. Her bed-ridden state inspired a series of new self-portraits, now focusing neither on her heritage nor her husband, but her health. Her 1944 "Broken Column" is a manifestation of that pain, depicting a Frida pierced with nails, her spine a shattered Ionic column.

The Walker's Kahlo exhibit was ultimately a study of an artist's identity, as defined by the different struggles of her life. To complete this collective portrait, the Walker included a room of photographs, provided by the Vicente Wolf Collection, of Kahlo and her family. The Kahlo exhibit, in association with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, will run until Jan. 20, 2008, when it will travel to Philadelphia and San Francisco.

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