Artisphere’s ‘Frida Kahlo: Her Photos’ offers intimate look at the artist

March 2, 2012

One of the best-known artists of the 20th century, Frida Kahlo produced art that was incessantly self-reflecting — 55 of her 143 known paintings were self-portraits. Her rocky years with Diego Rivera, whom she married twice, her near-fatal bus accident and the pain she lived with most of her life are reflected in her colorful, often surreal works, a pinnacle of Mexican art.

When a cache of her personal photographs was unsealed in 2007 at the celebrated Blue House where she was born and raised and returned to live until her death in 1954, the images unseen for more than a half-
century showed glimpses into her life, from close family and artistic turns to intense personal relationships.

Mexican photographer and curator Pablo Ortiz Monasterio culled the more than 6,500 personal photographs for the Museo Frida Kahlo that inhabits the Blue House. He chose 240 images, facsimiles of which became “Frida Kahlo: Her Photos” which just opened at the Artisphere in Arlington County, its only U.S. stop.

Kahlo took only some of the shots; some were uncredited, others were by the most famous photographers of the day. Annotating some or sealing them with her lipstick, the fact that she saved them — for sentimental purposes or visual reference — was the important thing, says Artisphere curator Cynthia Connolly.

From them, we can glean a life.

Sculptor Isamu Noguchi, 1935, by Edward Weston. Kahlo naturally kept a cache of photographs of friends and lovers. This image captures two of them: both the photographer and the subject. Both write on the image: Weston, the famed American photographer, who with his partner Tina Modotti was a great friend of Kahlo and Rivera, signs his name in neat type; Noguchi, the famed Japanese American artist, sculptor and landscape architect, writes scorchingly in pen, “For my darling my love.” The back of the photo indicates that feeling was requited, with a red lipstick impression of Kahlo’s lips.

Frida Kahlo with Fulang-Chang, circa 1938, by Florence Arquin. The rare color snapshot in the collection, in which the red of her coat matches the blooms in the flowers around her, also features one of the several spider monkeys that she kept as pets. Fulang-Chang was a famous one, though — appearing in another photograph in the show and featured most prominently in her own self-portrait, the 1937 “Fulang-Chang and I.”

Frida in traction, 1940, Mexico City. Nickolas Muray. One of the most bleak portraits of Kahlo in the exhibit is by Nickolas Muray, a Hungarian photographer who had a 10-year affair with the artist, remaining friends with her after their affair stopped in 1941. Kahlo would undergo 30 operations in her lifetime, mostly on her spine.

Frida painting on her bed with Miguel Covarrubias at her side, 1940, Mexico City. Photographer unknown. The artist found a way to work, even while in traction. She used a device that allowed her to look up and draw and paint, and affixed a strong light to help her do so. Miguel Covarrubias, the Mexican painter and influential caricaturist, was a longtime friend of Rivera and Kahlo.

Frida Khalo after an operation, 1946, by Antonio Kahlo. The lingering pain from her Sept. 1, 1925, bus accident led to a series of operations throughout her life. Though she often dressed up in colorful traditional Mexican patterns and jewelry, with her hair up, she appears in this small image, taken by her nephew, looking quite different in monochrome pajamas and her hair down. On the rear of the photo is written: “Frida right after surgery in 1946 — Coyoacan — she is now worse than ever, the pain is unimaginably intense.”

“Frida Kahlo: Her Photos,” through March 25 at the Artisphere, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. Information: 703-228-1855 or www.artisphere.com.

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