Frankie Mancini / Gavel Media

MFA's Premiere Frida Kahlo Exhibit Highlights the Influence of Arte Popular

Mexican avant-garde artist Frida Kahlo’s deliberate, unique styles and provocative political themes have established her as one of the most influential painters of the 20th century. Rejecting the rigidity of academic styles, she found inspiration in her collection of traditional Mexican folk art, arte popular, to express her national pride.

In a celebration of Mexican heritage and the artist’s identity, Frida Kahlo and Arte Popular—currently on display at the Museum of Fine Arts until June 16—features eight of her works, along with pieces of arte popular, works of esteemed artists such as her husband, Diego Rivera, and Maria Izquierdo, and photographs of the artist in her home. The exhibit is meant to “open broader discussions about the influences of anonymous folk artists on famed modern painters,” offering context for and dialogue with post-Revolutionary Mexican artists. Though themes of the Mexicanidad movement and iconography lighten the mood of the exhibit, the artist’s struggle for empowerment can be felt in each of her works.

Born to a white German father and mestiza mother, Kahlo was proud of her biracial identity. In her painting, “My Grandparents, My Parents, and I (Family Tree),” she responds to the Nuremberg Laws that criminalized interracial marriage in Germany. Kahlo is represented as a child, connecting each member of the family through a metallic ribbon. The artist emulates the ex-voto style of painting, portraying her family members as saints floating in the clouds. The subjects of the piece are given beatific qualities, encapsulating Kahlo’s reverence and gratitude towards her upbringing and identity, while also demonstrating her secular views. Traditionally small-scale devotional works, ex-voto pieces are transformed in Kahlo’s mind to illustrate her values and the emotional turmoil surrounding her disability, infertility, and depression following her devastating trolley accident in 1925.

After the accident, Kahlo was left with a broken spinal column, a fractured pelvis and leg, a dislocated shoulder, and a punctured uterus. Bed-ridden, she turned to painting, using a lap-easel and overhead mirror to create many of her self-portraits. In one of her most famous works, “The Broken Column,” her spine is replaced with a tall, crumbling column, but she looks strong wearing a plaster corset. These corsets were central to her artistic expression, and she often painted on them and composed depictions of herself wearing them. Several of these corsets, a prosthetic leg, crutches, medicines, and enema cans were locked away in the Casa Azul by Rivera after her death in 1954.

Graciela Iturbide was allowed to photograph the privileged areas of the Casa Azul in 2005, and her exhibit El Baño de Frida complements the Arte Popular exhibit in an adjoining room. The collection of fifteen gelatin film prints features these artifacts artistically posed throughout the bathroom in a haunting juxtaposition of celebration and suffering. Contrasting with the vibrancy of Kahlo’s paintings and the patriotic spirit of arte popular, Iturbide exposes the physical pain behind so many of the painter’s works.

Kahlo’s political views heavily inhabit her work, as she revolts against classism and the typical role of women in Mexican society. The intimate portrait Dos Mujeres depicts two maids from her mother’s household, who would not typically be the subjects of a painting due to their lower economic status. Contrasting this work is an X-ray of the painting, which reveals that the artist had previously painted their aprons, but deliberately covered them to capture their individuality as separate from their class. Standing tall and somber, the indigenous women appear like deities in a Renaissance-era painting.

Across the room lies a focal point of the exhibit: Kahlo’s enigmatic “Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird.” The central meaning of the work has been disputed for years, with many arguing that the inspiration for the work was her tumultuous and adulterous relationship with Rivera or her physical suffering due to the accident. Regardless of the symbolism behind this portrait, Kahlo’s representation of herself is one of empowerment; she sits tall and proud, stern and strong, despite a thorn necklace cutting deep into her neck. This work is emblematic of Kahlo’s entire life: despite the emotional turmoil she faced over and over, she was able to channel her pain into works with the purpose of self-expression and political activism.

Bringing together the brightness of arte popular and the darkness of Kahlo’s disability, the two exhibits contrast beautifully to contextualize her surrealist and modernist works. Kahlo's art was revolutionary in the ever-intertwining worlds of art and politics and in the celebration of Mexican heritage.

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Carmen Chu