Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Unmasking Frida Kahlo at the AGO's Frida & Diego Show

Self-Portait with Monkeys by Frida Kahlo, 1943, oil on canvas.
The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of Mexican Art (C) Banco de Mexico Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Frida Kahlo's iconic image, created with braided hair, thick eyebrows, colourful ethnic dress and bold accessories, was a carefully constructed persona that spoke to her passions for politics and her identity as an artist and as the wife of Diego Rivera. In effect, she constructed her identity through fashion.

Although fashion is not the subject of the Art Gallery of Ontario's exhibition called "Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics and Painting", Kahlo's colourful outfits, headdresses, ribbons, shawls, and accessories define many of her self-portraits. The exhibition makes no explicit mention of fashion, but Kahlo used clothing and accessories as identity construction and so my reading of the exhibition focused on the artifice of her dress.

It would be easy to miss the clue that reveals Kahlo's construction of her artistic persona, because it requires a close look at two black & white photographs in the exhibition. In 1926, one year after the accident that nearly killed Kahlo, she sat stiffly upright in a car for a photographic portrait by her father and wore a black satin bias cut long-sleeved dress with an applique on the bodice - a conventional look for the period. In 1929, a photo by Tina Modotti (shown below) captured Frida marching alongside Diego Rivera in Mexico City's May Day March with the Union of Technical Workers, Painters and Sculptors. She wore a knee-length A-line skirt with a long sleeved collared blouse with a tie and she looks conventional and bourgeoise. It must have been soon thereafter that she adopted ethnic dress and created a highly contrived and eclectic persona.

Exhibition Photo taken by Ingrid Mida (C) 2012
Original Photo by Tina Modotti 1929
Mexico City's May Day March with the Union of Technical Workers, Painters and Sculptors
Dot Tuer, guest curator of the exhibition, said that "both Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera fabricated their lives, in that Diego was a tremendous story teller and the facts rarely got in the way of a great story, while Frida used painting and photography to tell her story. She was constructing an image."

The highlight for me was seeing her painted plaster corset on display. This haunting form carries the imprint of her body, and speaks to the uncanny. Nearby photos show Kahlo wearing the corset in the hospital and it demonstrates her incredible force of will that she could create such beauty out of so much pain.

Frida Kahlo Plaster "Corset" with a Hammer and Sickle (an Unborn Baby) 1950
Dry Plaster and Mixed Media
Photo Copyright Ingrid Mida 2012 
The AGO show is exquisitely staged and offers a composite picture of Kahlo and Diego as a couple, visually representing the intersections of their work as artists, especially in the later stages of their lives. The exhibition includes 75 paintings and over 40 original photographs taken of the artists during their lives, creating a portrait of Kahlo and Rivera together.

It is not widely known that it was only recently that 300 pieces from Kahlo's wardrobe, including shawls, corsets, blouses and skirts, were discovered. Apparently after her death in 1954 and Diego's death in 1957, art collector Dolores Olmedo who acted as the manager the estate, refused to give access to Kahlo's archives of letters, clothes, jewelry and photographs. They were not unlocked until 2004 after Olmedo died. On November 22, 2012, Museo Frida Kahlo in Mexico City will open an exhibition called "Appearances Can be Deceiving: The Dresses of Frida Kahlo" which will run until November 2013.

Although I think it would be ideal to marry the two exhibitions, showcasing Kahlo's actual garments alongside her photographs and paintings, I highly recommend the Art Gallery of Ontario exhibition "Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics & Painting". The inclusion of photographs reveals the nature of the artifice of Kahlo's identity construction through clothing, and the combination of Kahlo's and Diego's paintings together shows the intersection of their interests and talents.

Art Gallery of Ontario
317 Dundas Street West, Toronto, Ontario
October 20, 2012 - January 20, 2013

For more information about the exhibition of Kahlo's garments at Museo Frida Kahlo, visit their website here (in Spanish only) or read the AP report on ArtDailyNews here.

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