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Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera’s lives and art intertwined, making both of them stars

“Self Portrait as a Tehuana” by Frida Kahlo (1943) is also known as “Diego on my Mind,” “Diego in my Thoughts” and “Thinking of Diego.” Kahlo and Diego Rivera were married 10 years. Both of their works will be at the North Carolina Museum of Art.
“Self Portrait as a Tehuana” by Frida Kahlo (1943) is also known as “Diego on my Mind,” “Diego in my Thoughts” and “Thinking of Diego.” Kahlo and Diego Rivera were married 10 years. Both of their works will be at the North Carolina Museum of Art.

Mexican artist Frida Kahlo could be considered the Beyoncé of her time, with her autobiographical paintings speaking of culture, sexuality, womanhood and human suffering.

In “Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Mexican Modernism from the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection,” the upcoming exhibit at the North Carolina Museum of Art, viewers will get a glimpse of the inner workings of a woman who refused to be muted.

“This show feels almost entirely Frida,” said Jennifer Dasal, curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the North Carolina Museum of Art. “About 80 percent of the work is by Frida or about her.”

JUMP Frida Kahlo_Portrait of Diego Rivera.jpg
Frida Kahlo, Portrait of Diego Rivera, 1937 The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art, The Vergel Foundation, Conaculta/INBA Copyright 2018 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The large exhibition runs Oct. 26 to Jan. 19 and features about 130 pieces — prints, drawings and photography — by Kahlo, her husband, Rivera, and their contemporaries. Rivera was a leading figure in the mural movement.

Both played a significant role in art history, thanks to their merging of art and politics.

The exhibit comes from the Gelmans, art collectors who have the second most important collection of Kahlo self-portraits outside of Mexico City, Dasal said. Most museums in the United States own just one or two pieces of Kahlo’s work. The Gelmans own seven of her self-portraits alone.

During Kahlo’s lifetime from 1907 to 1954, she was seen as a woman of glamour, especially by American photographers such as Edward Weston and Carl Van Vechten. Weston was enamored by her traditional Mexican dress and sandals. “People stop in their tracks to look in wonder,” Weston once told Vogue magazine.

“She played second fiddle to Diego Rivera,” Dasal said during a telephone interview. “That has changed now; Diego is now second fiddle to Frida.”

Kahlo’s impact

Eduardo de Jesús Douglas, an associate professor of art history at UNC-Chapel Hill, explains Kahlo had an early understanding of images because her father was a distinguished photographer.

“After high school, she was going to be an apprentice to a lithographer print maker,” said Douglas, who specializes in Latin American art and three areas — Mexico, Cuba and Brazil.

2ND Diego Rivera Calla Lilly Vendor.jpg
“Calla Lilly Vendor” by Diego Rivera (1943) is part of “Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Mexican Modernism from the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection.” Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection

Kahlo was badly injured in 1925 during a bus and trolley car accident. While riding the bus, she was impaled by a steel handrail through the hip. Her spine and pelvis were fractured. Her body already was weakened by her childhood bout with polio.

Kahlo painted self-portraits of herself as she recuperated for months, first in a body cast, healing from her life-altering accident. She was on bedrest for the better part of the year and painted to cope with the boredom, Dasal said.

“She didn’t sugarcoat her life,” Dasal said. “She used her paintings to cope with the traumas she was experiencing. It became her life’s direction, making portraits, showing what it felt like to be in an accident.”

Diego Rivera, a master muralist

Rivera, who lived from 1886 to 1957, was the better-known artist of the two.

“His work was more in public view,” Douglas said. “He had a life from the very beginning as a part of the larger art world. He was a prodigy.”

Rivera attended the prestigious San Carlos Academy of Fine Arts in Mexico City, proving his talents and his vision. He received money to go to Europe, where he became one of the leading Cubism painters working in Paris, Douglas said.

“By 1913, he knows everyone, he’s really in the thick of things,” Douglas said.

He eventually returned to Mexico, during a renaissance period in the country’s history.

“Rivera and Kahlo were active during an important moment in art history and Mexican political history,” Esther Leah Gabara tells The News & Observer in a phone interview. She is an associate professor at Duke’s Department of Art, Art History & Visual Studies Education.

“It was a moment when Mexico City was attracting people all over the world,” she said. “People were coming for this incredible art scene.”

That renaissance also attracted Kahlo and Rivera.

Rivera was 20 years older than Kahlo. They first met when she was an art student at the renowned National Preparatory School in Mexico City in the early 1920s. The famous Rivera was working on a mural called “The Creation” on the school campus. Kahlo admired his work from afar.

The two were formally introduced in 1928 and married in 1929.

“Rivera, from what we are told, was taken with what she did,” Douglas said. “He recognized her work as something extraordinary, and he was very supportive of it.”

Their work flourished and coincided with Mexico’s efforts to transform itself.

“This is a period after the Mexican Revolution from 1910 to 1920,” Gabara said. “Mexico was very invested in defining itself as a modern nation, and what that looked like. It was a period of great upheaval, massive movement of people from the countryside to the city and the changes it had on society. A lot of that was captured in their art work.”

Diego Rivera_Portrait of Natasha Gelman.jpg
Diego Rivera, “Portrait of Natasha Gelman,” 1943 The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art, The Vergel Foundation, Conaculta/INBA Copyright 2018 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The collectors

The Gelman collection is a very specific collection, Gabara said. The couple, eastern European immigrants, fled to Mexico in 1941, Gabara said. They thought the best way to connect to their new home was to get involved in the cultural sphere.

“They were participating as patrons of the arts,” she said. “You have these two artists (Rivera and Kahlo) who were selling individual art work to prominent people such as the Gelmans.”

Jacques Gelman made his money as a movie producer and commissioned Rivera to paint a portrait of his wife reclining in a chaise lounge, wearing a white gown.

“She’s made to look like a movie star,” Gabara said. “Her dress echoes calla lilies, which represent Mexican culture.”

Kahlo and Rivera had a tumultuous relationship, with both having affairs. They eventually divorced, but remarried a year later.

Americans became familiar with the couple when Rivera and Kahlo came to America to paint murals in Detroit, San Francisco and New York.

Once Hayden Herrera’s “Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo,” was published in 1983, “Frida becomes a superstar star in the English-speaking world,” Douglas said.

“Her work is more intimate and equally challenging as Rivera,” he said. “Her paintings commemorate her miscarriages with blood on the sheets, her female sexuality … the suicide of someone she knew in New York.”

“She was very bold and confessional in her paintings,” Dasal adds.

Today, both remain significant artists, Douglas said.

“They both did remarkable work, but their moments are very different,” he said. “Mexican art would be unimaginable without them.”

Bridgette A. Lacy is a freelance writer and can be reached at bridgettelacy@att.net.

Details

What: “Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Mexican Modernism from the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection”

When: Oct. 26–Jan. 19

Where: North Carolina Museum of Art, 2110 Blue Ridge Road, Raleigh.

Info: 919-715-5923 or ncartmuseum.org

Cost: This exhibit is ticketed with “Scott Avett: Invisible.” Tickets are $18 for adults; $15 for seniors, military, and college students with ID; $12 for youth 7–18; free for children 6 and under and Frida Friday Discount: Friday nights in November and December, take $5 off from 5 to 9 pm.

Events: See museum website for related events, including an opening night party Oct. 24, a screening of the film, “Frida,” youth activities and lectures.

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