Frida Kahlo Exhibit in Philadelphia

I recently visited the Frida Kahlo exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and would highly recommend it. I am no art critic, but…

My preconceptions of Frida were mostly formed by the movie Frida, in which the controversial artist was portrayed by Salma Hayek. I will admit that initially I was not that excited to see the paintings of an artist I had formerly thought of as quite self-obsessed, and perhaps riding on the coattails of her famous husband Diego Rivera.

But after spending an afternoon gazing upon the often beautiful and horrific works that Kahlo painted during her lifetime, I was left with a new sense of respect for her as an artist. I think in some ways she was greater than Rivera. The good folks at fallon and rosof's artblog sum up the experience of Kahlo's talent very well in this week's article in Philadelphia Weekly.

For the novice like me, however, the dominance of her uber-present “unibrow” is perhaps the most shocking impression I had of her art on a concrete, 3rd-grade level. But in seeing the candid photos of her that are on display, some for the first time ever, I was struck by how classically “beautiful” a pair of tweezers would have made her. It is the exaggeration of her flaws, juxtaposed with her otherwise attractive femininity, that captures the eye in her self-portraits.

Also on display are several works inspired by great tragedy and betrayal in her life, including paintings depicting her miscarriage and Rivera's multiple infidelities. She also suffered from a leg damaged by polio, which perhaps also deformed her pelvis and contributed to her miscarriage. She was often in excruciating pain from spinal problems. There is a photograph of her in some kind of primitive traction device for her back, which would serve as a good addition to the Mutter Museum as a bizarre relic of medical practice. Not that all good art has to depict self-loathing or personal suffering, or that I need to feel sorry for someone to respect them, but rather she did achieve a lasting, provocative, and new look at the human condition by delving into her own.

It is hard to separate her art from her relationship with Rivera. It was often a source of complex inspiration, drawn from equal parts passion, love, jealousy, and betrayal. Her left-of-center politics also informed much of her art, as seen in several paintings critical of capitalism and her time in NYC. She had a love affair with leftist Russian Leon Trotsky while he was in exile in Mexico later in his life. One of the hidden pearls in the candid photo collection is a shot of Diego Rivera meeting the legendary Marion Anderson.

But her art is haunting. She has made an icon of herself. It’s as if each painting demands you see her as she saw herself in the fleeting moments that constitute a life. She has immortalized herself in those strokes of brilliant color, a consciousness and a personality too unbridled and passionate to be contained in one lifetime.

And so here she lands, in Philadelphia, for a while. Go see her.

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