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Nickolas Muray, courtesy Throckmorton Fine Art

Rebel, Rebel

Photographs prove Frida Kahlo was her own muse

May 3, 2017, 12:00 am

“Feet what do I want them for if I have wings to fly.”

- from a drawing in her sketchbook, 1953

In only 47 years of life, Frida Kahlo made an everlasting mark on the world as a painter, an icon of individuality and a symbol of feminism, exoticism, self-love and suffering. The immortal Kahlo phenomenon is her true masterpiece, however, and in the upcoming exhibit, Mirror, Mirror, at the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art, viewers can glimpse rarely seen photographs of her spanning 29 years.

“Frida Looking into the Mirror” by Lola Alvarez Bravo shows Kahlo in the garden at her family home in Mexico City, Casa Azul.
Most of the 50-plus photographs are part of the collection of Spencer Throckmorton, a former Santa Fean and current New York gallery owner who gathered images of Kahlo from shooters like Manuel and Lola Alvarez Bravo, Imogen Cunningham, Carl Van Vechten and Nickolas Muray.

“I think she’s one of the most interesting women of the 20th century,” Throckmorton tells SFR. “She realized her importance in art for women, she was very much a feminist and also ahead of her time.”

While he couldn’t collect Kahlo’s own work because of their high market value, he amassed the photos as a passion project.

Curator Penelope Hunter-Stiebel says the exhibit tells Kahlo’s story in captured moments, and that this is the first time she’s curated a show featuring photographs of an artist, as opposed to the work of the artist. “Why are photographs of Frida worth an exhibition?” she asks. “For me, that was the first question.”

“The only thing I know is that I paint because I need to, and I paint always whatever passes through my head, without any other consideration.”

-in response to talk about her works being surrealist, circa 1950

Kahlo didn’t simply create and inspire—she existed as a living, breathing embodiment of art. The intensity of her influence pollinated the awakening modern art and literary scenes to such a degree, her name was whispered in art circles around the world as Frida Kahlo became someone everyone wanted to know. She spent time with Picasso and flirted with Georgia O’Keeffe; she knew Pablo Neruda and André Benton; she became the love and wife of cubist-turned-muralist Diego Rivera, whom Hunter-Stiebel calls “one of the greatest painters in the history of art.”

The gravity of this collection of images hit Hunter-Stiebel after she spent time examining postage-stamp-sized samples from Throckmorton. “It was photographs from all different times in her life and sort of helter-skelter,” she says, “But the more I looked at it, I thought, ‘This is how we can bring people closer to Frida.’”

Nickolas Muray was a portrait photographer and one of Kahlo’s longest affairs. He took this image of her titled “Frida Kahlo on White Bench, New York” in 1939.
Mirror, Mirror is installed throughout the Museum of Spanish Colonial Arts’ multi-room space on Museum Hill in storybook succession, allowing patrons to effectively walk through Kahlo’s life. Each image is accompanied by a short description by Hunter-Stiebel that sets the scene and provides context about what was happening in Kahlo’s life at the time.

From early images shot by her father to those captured by friends and photographers, as well as images the artist had pasted on her headboard (made famous in the 2002 movie Frida, starring Salma Hayek), the pictoral timeline showcases the evolution of an artist and activist grappling with her own identity. Hunter- Stiebel says Kahlo’s development depended on these photographers.

“She used herself as the main subject in her paintings, but she developed that image of herself through photography,” she says. “We know she surrounded herself with mirrors wherever she lived; she’s constantly looking at herself, but where she really sees herself is through the photographer’s lens.”

“If you knew how terrible it is to know suddenly, as if a bolt of lightning elucidated the earth. Now I live in a painful planet, transparent as ice.”

- in a letter to her high school lover Alejandro Gómez Arias, 1926

Today, Kahlo is known as the heroine of pain in Mexico. She was plagued by her intense love for Rivera, who was a notorious womanizer, even having an affair with Kahlo’s sister Cristina. And though Frida was also unfaithful, she felt as though she loved Rivera more than he loved her.

Biographers say she was stricken with polio in her childhood, leaving her right leg limp. Then, in 1925, at age 18, she nearly died in a bus accident in the Coyoacán district of Mexico City. That day, she rode the bus with a painter who carried a bag of gold flakes. When the commotion from the collision died down, Kahlo lay naked­—the force of the crash having torn her clothing from her body­—broken and bloodied, gold flakes dancing in the air and sticking to her frail frame.

The damage caused her pain for the rest of her life, both physically and emotionally. She broke her pelvis and spinal column in multiple places, as well as her collarbone and ribs and her right leg, already weakened by polio, was shattered. The bus’s handrail pierced Kahlo above her right hip and exited her vagina.

Her devoutly Catholic mother visited her in the hospital only twice.

“She takes on this suffering and uses it through her art,” says Hunter-Steibel.

During her recovery, she painted butterflies on her body casts and experimented with images of her own likeness on canvas using mirrors, including one built into the underside of her bed’s canopy. Even as she lay trapped in painful recovery, roped and rigged in strenuous poses doctors hoped would align and heal her spine, Kahlo was forging her own metamorphosis.

“Everything without you seems horrible to me. I am in love with you more than ever and at each moment more and more.”

- in a letter to Diego Rivera, September 10, 1932

Kahlo healed and painted, and when she could walk again, she chased after the most famous artist she knew: Diego Rivera. Kahlo met the man long after he’d risen to fame, most say at the party of a mutual friend about a year after the accident. But when either retold the story of the day they met, they cited the time Kahlo tracked Rivera to his worksite with an armful of paintings, screaming at him to come down from a scaffold from which he was painting and evaluate her work. Kahlo had first seen the modern muralist years earlier as he painted at the National Preparatory School where she attended middle school in Mexico City. It’s said she became obsessed with him right then.

Rivera fell in love with the magic realism found in Kahlo’s pieces—and with the artist herself. He visited her every Sunday at Casa Azul, and they married (for the first time) in 1929, when she was just 22 and Rivera was 43.

“Diego always said that he considered her art more important than his,” says Throckmorton. “[Cosmetics mogul and art collector] Helena Rubinstein came to Mexico to buy Diego’s work, and Diego told her to buy Frida.”

Kahlo paints details that reveal her pain: Fetuses because she couldn’t have a baby, her spine as a cracked Roman column, or her long locks lying on the floor, shorn after she left Rivera. Her honesty is certainly part of what makes her an everlasting icon, and her work seems to say, “I am suffering, and you have to watch.”

The exiled (and later assassinated) Russian philosopher Leon Trotsky, who had a passionate and brief affair with Kahlo in 1937, is rumored to have said he was enthralled by Kahlo’s paintings because they laid bare a universal fear: We are alone in pain.

“I drank because I wanted to drown my sorrows, but now the damned things have learned to swim.”

- in a letter to her friend Ella Wolfe, 1938

Kahlo’s eyes communicate what she’s feeling. And predominantly—in photos and her self-portraits—her eyes are boring straight ahead. Even though she’s expressionless in her mouth and her heavy brow rests, not furrowed or raised, she’s not hiding or keeping secrets. In the earliest image in the exhibit, Kahlo is 18 years old and already working that stare.

Kahlo and Rivera were known for keeping a menagerie of animals around their home, like xoloitzcuintli (hairless dogs), monkeys and the deer pictured in this image by Nickolas Muray, “Frida with Granizo.”

“No one poses like that,” says Hunter-Stiebel. Throckmorton’s collection shows that Kahlo walked through life looking like she had stepped from one of her own paintings. Her gaze and heavily embroidered tehuana traje costumes reveal parts of her story, just as small components in her works reveal specific causes of her pain.

She appreciated symbolism and exhibited sympathy with the tide of growing Mexican pride. Even her self-portraits follow the style of traditional Mexican retablos. Kahlo often said she was a better communist than her notoriously political husband. To her, the movement was based in empowering the working class and the people. She had seen the Mexican Revolution overthrow the stagnant, patronizing Porfirio Diaz in 1911 and with him, his efforts to Europeanize the country. Kahlo and other sophisticated women in Mexico adopted traditional and Indigenous garb as a show of solidarity.

“They wanted to express their sympathy with the movement,” says Hunter-Stiebel. “She does it in spades and she does it longer and better than everybody else.”

Barbara Cleaver, a Mexican Indigenous textile expert, advised in the identification of Kahlo’s clothing for Mirror, Mirror. She says other women in Mexico were wearing traditional pieces around the time Kahlo did, but her style was notable.

“Of course, what made it work so well was her artist’s eye,” Cleaver says. “During that time there was this great wave of ‘Mexicanismo,’ this great love and identification with Indigenous culture in Mexico. You see it in Diego murals.”

And you see it in Frida’s wardrobe.

“Frida was an artist married to a famous artist, and she wore it best—she had incredible taste, and an incredible eye,” Cleaver tells SFR. “It’s very clear that she was always very individualistic and brilliant. She was an intellectual, and she crafted her persona—and her persona was, first and foremost, Mexican.”

“I paint myself because I am so often alone, because I am the subject I know best.”

- after the bus accident when Kahlo first began to paint, circa 1926

Kahlo’s father was a photographer, and she spent hours alongside him in his darkroom. It’s conceivable that her comfort with photographers and developing her own image through others’ lenses grew from her close relationship with photography via her father. As she evolved, she welcomed the friendships, affections and lenses of many photographers, some of whom later became superstars in their own right.

The photographs in Mirror, Mirror are evidence of Kahlo’s intentional image-building. As time progresses, she begins to appear more and more like the iconized version of herself. Many show her in folds of floral textiles with her midnight-black braids piled on top of her head, the silk ribbons flowing through them made familiar in her self-portraits. Each interpretation shows a consistent thread in the photographers’ interest in Kahlo. “She’s watching them,” Hunter-Stiebel says, “and she’s developing that in her own work—the image of self.”

In 1933, Kahlo was photographed by Carl Van Vechten, a champion of the Harlem Renaissance and a friend of Gertrude Stein. Van Vechten had shifted to photography following a music critic position with the New York Times, and when he shot “Frida with a Michoacán Gourd On Head,” she was beginning to come into her own. “She’s picking up the imagery of rural Mexican women,” Hunter-Stiebel says. “This idea of carrying a pot on your head and using it with the jade necklace and the embroidered blouse.”

“Frida Kahlo on White Bench, New York,” by Kahlo’s longtime lover and portrait photographer Nickolas Muray, was taken in 1939. It was featured 73 years later on the cover of Vogue México in 2012. Muray is known for having said he always wanted to record human nature and present the best in people through his photographs. From the flowers in her hair to the sly Mona Lisa smile on Kahlo’s face, it seems he succeeded here, at least in capturing the essence of her public persona.

“I love you more than my own skin, and though you may not love me in the same way, still you love me somewhat. Isn’t that so? ”

- in a letter to Rivera, July 23, 1935

The majority of the images found in Throckmorton’s collection are black and white, but one room is dedicated to color. It contains a series of images taken at Kahlo’s family home in Mexico City known as Casa Azul, by Santa Fe photographer William Frej. (The house is now the Museo Frida Kahlo.)

This photo essay on Casa Azul works in juxtaposition to the gray tones in the rest of the exhibit, adding life and modernity to the show. Frej tells SFR he tends to stick to black-and-white in his own work, but Mexico and Casa Azul in particular have always made him reach for color film. “In three different visits over the past two years, I’ve been really struck by the color that that house embodies,” he says. “I’ve tried to reflect that in the photography.”

Kahlo’s studio at Casa Azul in the Coyoacán district of Mexico City, as captured by Santa Fe photographer William Frej.
Frej says Casa Azul’s deep cerulean exterior mirrors its equally vibrant interior, gorgeously offsetting a bright yellow kitchen and a garden planted by Kahlo. Her lifelong home, which she shared with Rivera at times, became the breeding ground for her work.

“Years of very important artists and photographers came and visited her in her own environment,” Frej says, speaking to the importance of sacred art space.

One photo in particular made Frej feel Kahlo’s presence in Casa Azul. He took the shot in her studio, which still holds her wheelchair and paints. “The light was right, because it reflected the blue exterior back into her studio,” he says. “As she was painting over the years in that wheelchair, I’m sure that color really resonated with her.”

“I wish to be worthy, with my painting, of the people to whom I belong and to the ideas that strengthen me.”

- in a letter to her friend Antonio Rodríguez, 1952

Kahlo did her share of conquering as well. “She establishes herself as a person and as an artist separate from [Rivera], but always together with him, which is, through feminism, what we’ve all been struggling through: ‘How you do that?’” Hunter-Stiebel says. “And she did it. We’ve got the visual evidence of her doing it.”

Van Vechten’s image of Kahlo, “Frida with a Michoacán Gourd On Head,” was taken as Kahlo experimented with Mexican imagery.
Kahlo attended her first solo show in her native country at Mexico City’s Gallery of Contemporary Art in April 1953, just a year before her death, though no one expected her. Her health had severely deteriorated. The years of stashing flasks in her petticoats and smoking plentifully were catching up with her, as well as an addiction to morphine fueled by ailments and endless medical procedures.

But Kahlo wasn’t missing this show. She entered, dressed in her favorite fully embroidered ensemble, carried on a stretcher to her four-poster bed, which had been installed in the gallery that afternoon, complete with the photographs she cherished and the canopy mirror. People gathered around her and sang Mexican celebration songs. Kahlo drank tequila.

Hunter-Stiebel hopes viewers leave Mirror, Mirror feeling closer to the enigma that is Frida Kahlo. “You will see it in the photographs how she emerges as an independent person, never abandoning the passion she had for her husband,” she says. “But she emerges from his dominance. By the end of it, it’s Frida and Diego. She’s become the dominant one.”

The fable of Frida Kahlo becomes more interesting with every uncovered detail. Her connections spread through the most interesting and influential social circles of her time, and she triumphed over her own tragedies. Delve into the bible of Kahlo by Hayden Herrera, Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo, on which we relied for much of this story’s Kahlo quotes and biographical information.

Before it hit Museum Hill, parts and the whole of Throckmorton’s collection had traveled to places like the National Portrait Gallery in London and mirrors the collection of images that belonged to Kahlo herself. “Frida kept a collection that was given to Diego,” Throckmorton says. “Her collection of photographs paralleled my collection—these are the photographs Frida also felt were very important.”


Mirror, Mirror: Photographs of Frida Kahlo
1 pm Saturday May 6. $12.
Through Oct. 29.
Museum of Spanish Colonial Art,
750 Camino Lejo,
982-2226


 

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