Visual Art

The ‘perpetual revolution’ of Mexican Modernist art is on full display at the Art Gallery of  South Australia, including the mischief, joy and pain of Frida Kahlo’s iconic work. By Alison Croggon.

Frida & Diego: Love & Revolution

Frida Kahlo’s ‘Self-portrait with monkeys’
An installation view of Frida Kahlo’s Self-portrait with monkeys at the Art Gallery of South Australia.
Credit: Saul Steed

There’s a huge cognitive dissonance – if one so common it flies by unremarked – in the clamour of marketing around the Art Gallery of South Australia’s (AGSA) winter exhibition, Frida & Diego: Love & Revolution. Is there anything more romantic, it whispers breathlessly as it guides you towards the gallery shop, than the confluence of art, love and revolution?

It’s hard not to feel Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, the two drawcards for this fascinating glimpse of Mexican Modernism, might be repulsed. Or perhaps – artists that they were, familiar with the realities of scraping a living in the brutal machinery of capitalism – they might nod in resignation. Perhaps, they might say, this is the price of being seen. Perhaps the art remains, impudently shining through its reductive context: beautiful, radical, alive to the last.

The artist’s struggle to exist is, after all, a constant from the Renaissance on. Although art can accumulate huge capital value – in 2021 a Kahlo painting sold for $US34.9 million – artists most often work in unromantic poverty. One of the final images in the handsome AGSA catalogue is of a letter from Kahlo to her patron, Natasha Gelman, asking for payment for a “little picture”. “I am very short of cash and today I have to pay bills and other things … Forgive me and I don’t know what you think of me, as I am a presumptuous disrespectful person, but if it wasn’t because I really need it, I swear that I would not be bothering you...”

This collection of more than 150 works of Mexican Modernism – the largest seen in Australia – was assembled by Natasha and her husband, Jacques Gelman, a film producer, after they settled in Mexico in the 1930s. It’s one of three significant collections they owned – they were patrons of considerable taste and bought a constellation of artists who later became global stars. But the art market was probably the least of the contradictions within which these artists lived and worked. For them, both love and revolution were painful and exhilarating realities.

The Mexican Revolution lasted officially from 1910 to ’20 and was long, violent and chaotic, costing an estimated 900,000 lives. When the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, the self-described “plenipotentiary of Soviet poetry”, visited Mexico in 1925, he found its politics “eccentric”, with each new presidential investiture “accompanied by the gun”. He noted everyone from the age of 15 to 75 had a Colt. “A revolutionary,” he wrote, “is anyone who, weapon in hand, may overthrow the reigning authority – indifferent to whom the reigning authority may be. And since, in Mexico, everyone has either overthrown or is overthrowing, or wants to overthrow the current regime – they are all revolutionaries.”

Mayakovsky was met at the station in Mexico City by Rivera. (Teasingly, he never met Kahlo, as Rivera was still married to his second wife, the novelist Guadalupe Marín.) Mayakovsky’s observations of Mexican art remain pertinent: he noted its Indigenous roots – “an outgrowth from the ancient, variegated, primitive, folkloric Indian art” – as an expression of the struggle against colonial slavery, and also the contemporary desire to marry these traditions with European Modernist painting.

At that stage Rivera, along with José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros, was one of the “three greats” commissioned by the government to create public murals for the largely illiterate populace. Details of Rivera’s murals are reproduced on the walls of this exhibition, which is strikingly – but not intrusively – designed by Grieve Gillett Architects. Even in a gallery context they are astonishing – teeming with colour and symbolism as rich as the mediaeval stained-glass windows whose functions they reproduce.

The exhibition includes nine of Rivera’s paintings, from the charmingly anthropomorphic Landscape with Cacti (1931) to the stylised beauty of Calla Lily Vendor (1943), with its details of plaited hair and basketwork framing the luminous hearts of lilies. They hang among some stunning works by Rivera and Kahlo’s peers.

Among the standouts are Carlos Mérida’s joyous red, white and black abstract Festival of the Birds (1959), Maria Izquierdo’s Living Still Life (1946), a surreal conflation of ominous skies and dying landscape with watermelons and shells, and a witty photo collage, A Dream of the Drowned (c. 1945), by one of the first Mexican women photographers, Lola Álvarez Bravo. She was a lifelong friend of Kahlo, and was married for a decade to another artist included here, Manuel Álvarez Bravo. The broad selection of photographs includes portraits of Kahlo by both of the Bravos and other studies, several lush portraits by photographer (and Kahlo’s lover) Nickolas Muray, and a picture of Kahlo’s crutches by Patti Smith.

Most people, as the framing of this exhibition suggests, are here to see Kahlo. “Modernism,” said the Mexican poet and critic Octavio Paz, “is born of desperation and is perpetually enamoured of the unexpected … the poems that we love are mechanisms of successive meaning – an architecture that unmakes and remakes itself without stopping, an organism in perpetual revolution.” This seems true of many of the works here, which still resonate years later and a continent away from where they were made, but it is particularly true of Kahlo’s, since her posthumous reputation rose with her minting as a glamorous feminist and queer icon. As is the way with fame, it has as often obscured her work as illuminated it.

The most comprehensive exhibition I have seen of Kahlo’s work was the 2005 survey held at Tate Modern, which was a reminder that the paintings for which she is most famous – the literally iconic self-portraits, inspired by Mexican religious paintings called retablos – comprise only a third of her modest oeuvre of 150 paintings. Ten of Kahlo’s paintings, as well as a selection of other media, are represented here, and they are all worth seeing. They possess that quality of fierce and painful sensuality that John Berger described as a visualisation of touch: a sense that the surface – canvas, board or paper – is an extension of her skin. Each hair in, say, Self-portrait with monkeys (1943) is so finely drawn it seems alive.

There’s not much effort to disentangle Kahlo’s work from the cult of Fridamania – and after all, as evidenced by the many photos, in many ways Kahlo curated her own image. This collection lacks startling images such as Henry Ford Hospital (1932), painted after one of her miscarriages, or A Few Small Nips (1935), a picture of a man standing over the body of a woman he has mutilated, both of which were included in another collection displayed at AGSA in 1990. The closest to these are a couple of moving lithographs, Frida and the Miscarriage (1932), where she stands naked, as in an anatomical drawing, next to depictions of splitting cells and a foetus, as tears and blood drip from her eyes and vulva.

Mischief and joy – such as the delightful miniature bride peeking in shock over a riotously sensual arrangement of fruit in The bride who becomes frightened when she sees life opened (1943) – are as present in Kahlo’s work as pain. Often they are deeply entwined. In the complex symbology of The love embrace of the universe, the earth (Mexico), me, Diego and Señor Xolotl (1949), the first Kahlo you encounter, the painter is held in the embrace of the earth goddess Cihuacoatl. Kahlo in turn holds Rivera, who is depicted as a child with a third eye. It’s deeply contemplative and calm, an image of love, but also expresses the pain Kahlo felt about her childlessness. It’s also, crucially, a political assertion of Indigeneity.

This exhibition rescues Kahlo from the splendid isolation of genius with which she is too often endowed. It foregrounds how she lived and worked in a community of artists that included many women, part of a complex intellectual landscape in which her art had political as well as psychological and emotional heft. The bodily fluids she so often painted were not merely her own: they were the milk of her Indigenous mothers, the blood of women murdered in a violent and misogynistic society, tears for a country raped by savage colonial powers. The personal, for Kahlo, was profoundly political. 

Frida & Diego: Love & Revolution is showing at the Art Gallery of South Australia until September 17.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 8, 2023 as "Modern lovers".

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