Thursday, 14 May 2015

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, together (again)

Full title: Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Mexican Modern Art
Author: Helga Prignitz-Poda
Genre: Exhibition catalogue
Attributes: 144 pages, hardcover
Publisher: Skira Rizzoli (2015)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

As we speak, the NSU Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale is hosting (February 26 – May 31, 2015) this almost obligatory exhibition of Mexican Modern Art, at the centre of which stand the works of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Full title: Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera from the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection & 20th Century Mexican Art from the Stanley and Pearl Goodman Collection. The book I’m looking at here is the catalogue of the exhibition, edited by Helga Prignitz-Poda, a Kahlo expert and curator specialized in Mexican art. The book is an object as well as an event. It makes apparent the exhibition’s coherence and its spirit, surveying works by the sonorous representatives of Mexican muralism, José Clemente Orózco and David Alfaro Siqueiros, or by many of the Surrealists who, like Rufino Tamayo or Francisco Toledo, have given modern Mexican art its distinctive flavors, twists and fantasies, as well as its solid Zapotec roots.
But the centre of this vortex is, obviously, the two-headed hybrid Kahlo-Rivera. The book starts with them and somehow, in the readers’ subconscious, ends with them.
Classed, almost against their wish, as Surrealists, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera are doubtless the most famous of Mexican artists of all times. They differed a lot, and the book wastes no opportunity to point this out. The couple, who somehow came down in history as near-archetypes of love, are described here from the point of view of separation. Artistic separation, to be sure, because this is what the catalogue is really interested in; the rest of their story having already become legend.
“When Kahlo painted surrealistically she took the iconography of everyday life and created estrangements in order to describe the surreal quality of her own reality. When Rivera painted in a surrealistic manner, he took found objects in the landscape, contemplated them, and exaggerated their peculiar forms of appearance.”
To illustrate this statement, the author mentions Landscape with cacti (a Rivera of 1931), and also Kahlo’s The Two Fridas (1939), their most iconic canvases. But there are plenty other examples to confirm the story of their divergence.
Yes, the differences between the two are their most apparent artistic feature, but also a feature that appeared just as relevant in life. Rivera, masculine, grand, dominant, worked on a scale that transgressed the human dimension. His choice, later in his career, of mural painting (which is, perhaps, the turn that’s made him really famous) is indicative of this domineering outlook. Big, but also capable of sentiments – of big sentiments, that is –, his work impresses by scale but also by quantity.
“Rivera’s catalog of works comprises several thousand oil paintings and more than forty-three thousand square feet of murals.”
This was, no doubt, a man who painted beyond necessity; a man who painted like there was no tomorrow.
Kahlo, on the other hand, worked diminutively. One finds out from the catalog that only 140 of her works are extant now, and most of them are paintings on a small scale. There’s an explanation for this:
“Kahlo’s oeuvre remained small because the act of painting was physically difficult for her, despite almost thirty operations undertaken to counteract her gradually worsening state of health.”
Because of this, perhaps, Kahlo represented herself more than anything else. Her self-portraits, where she appears and disappears in waves of realism and surrealism, are indicative of an obsession with the self that’s narcissistic, but of a strange kind of narcissism, which is not precisely self-glorifying but rather self-exploring. One can see that in the decorativeness of her poses, in the static (doll-like) qualities of her face, in the flamboyance of her colour schemes.

Source: BBC
With Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera at the centre of everything, the Mexican art of the twentieth century has always found its recognition. And, as the catalogue seems to point out, it will be long before the place of honour is taken by someone else.