Many images, but she's not all there
By Lavanya Ramanathan
Friday, Feb. 24, 2012
Few artists can summon voyeuristic interest like Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, whose physical torment, tumultuous wedded life and famous lovers could inspire a telanovela.
So Artisphere's new exhibit, "Frida Kahlo: Her Photos," will draw its fair share of looky-loos, but they'll have little luck extracting any salacious new details.
Kahlo's photos are not as sexy as one might hope, nor are they as revealing.
Rather, they're a collection of keepsakes that betray a sentimental artist - or, perhaps, in today's parlance, a hoarder - who stashed away stacks of photographs of her father and who clung to her husband's memorabilia as well as photos of seemingly every last lover.
The walls at Artisphere match the artist's exhaustive approach. Hung salon-style through the gallery are hundreds of images, a large portion of them so tiny they could only have been snipped from contact sheets. (Save yourself the eye strain and ask for a magnifying glass at the front desk.)
Yet these photos weren't dug out of Kahlo's home. What's on the walls at Artisphere are copies. The actual photos went on display in 2007 at the Frida Kahlo Museum in Mexico and have remained there since. The perfectly aged-looking tears and wrinkles that viewers can make out at Artisphere are thanks to a careful process used to make facsimiles of the worn, wrinkled originals.
Knowing as much dulls the luster of the show, because "Frida Kahlo: Her Photos" is only marginally an art exhibition; it is mostly a historical one, and historical replicas are rarely as magical as the real thing.
To select the 240 images that make up the display, Mexican photographer Pablo Ortiz Monasterio sifted through more than 6,500 items sealed away after the death of Kahlo's husband, artist Diego Rivera. Rivera, who died in 1957, three years after his wife, asked that the archive stay shut for 15 years after his death; it remained unopened for 50.
Monasterio has divided the images into six thematic "rooms" depicting, among other things, Kahlo's family, her health and her interest in photography as both an influence for her paintings and as its own medium.
A few rooms stand out, none more so than "The Origins," which appears to be a collection of old family photographs until it becomes obvious that much of it is devoted to the artist's father, Guillermo Kahlo, whose clear-eyed, mustachioed mug appears again and again. A photographer by trade, he was a major artistic influence on his daughter, leaving behind a trove of self-portraits to rival Andy Warhol's - or Frida Kahlo's.
The section titled "The Blue House," named for Kahlo's lifelong home, illuminates what was likely the happiest time in Kahlo's life. There are photos from a childhood spent posing impassively for her father's camera. It's in this section that Rivera, already an established painter and an unlikely suitor for the striking girl of 22, first turns up with his shock of black hair, broad smile and considerable belly.
For a couple often remembered for the chaos of their pairing, the tiny photos here offer a glimpse at what might have worked. Among the photos Kahlo filed away are of her husband proudly dancing to mariachi music and the couple laughing playfully with friends at what looks like a dinner party.
Viewers do get a look at some of the more notorious moments of Kahlo's life, but they're ultimately unsatisfying. The disarmingly vast "Loves" section feels like a police lineup of pouty young starlets and artists with whom Rivera and Kahlo dallied. (To know who really rivaled Rivera for Kahlo's affections, it's better just to look at who for years took the photos of Kahlo at her most vulnerable: the famed photographer Nickolas Muray.)
The section called "The Broken Body" also only suggests Kahlo's virtual lifetime of ill health: She suffered from polio as a child, then met with a terrible bus accident in her teens before spending her latter years enduring frequent surgeries.
Perhaps the reason that Kahlo collected all of the photos lies in this section, however, in a single shot of the artist, bedridden and clutching a phone. From the various sickbeds where she spent much of the later half of her life, phone calls, visitors and the photos she collected provided her connection to the outside world; the photos in particular were inspiration as she continued to paint from her bed.
The show suffers a bit, too, from a lack of context. Much goes unsaid, including why Rivera is absent from nearly a decade's worth of photos when Kahlo was bedridden. Besides more text, what one also longs for is that Artisphere had provided examples of Kahlo's work to pair with her effects.
Though the exhibition is packed with personal photos, Kahlo herself still seems fleeting.