Monday, October 22, 2012


Press Release

Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics and Painting
20 October 2012 – 20 January 2013

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo (Source: Zimbio)

He painted for the people. She painted to survive.

TORONTO - The exhibition Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics and Painting features more than 80 works on paper and paintings by Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera and more than 60 photographs of the couple, whose shared passion for each other and Mexico's revolutionary culture during the 1920s and 1930s have made them Mexico's most famous artists. Assembled from three distinguished Mexican private collections on Mexican art, the Museo Dolores Olmedo, Colección Gelman, and Galería Arvil, the exhibition provides the opportunity to view almost one quarter of Kahlo's entire body of work and a range of Rivera's painting styles from his early cubist period and studies for his Mexican murals to his portraits and later landscapes. Photographs by Nickolas Muray, Lola Alvarez Bravo, Bernard Silberstein and others help tell the story of one of the most prolific and politically charged couples of the 20th century.

All artwork / photos courtesy of AGO

During their lifetime together as a married couple, Rivera achieved international prominence as a muralist, while Kahlo's intimate paintings were embraced by the Surrealist movement and the Mexican art world but not well known in the broader context of art and modernism. Guest-curated at the AGO by OCAD University professor and cultural historian Dot Tuer, Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics and Painting offers a new perspective on their artistic significance for the 21st century: one that encompasses how their paintings reflect both the dramatic story of their lives together and their artistic commitment to the transformative political and cultural values of post-revolutionary Mexico.

Painting by Diego Rivera


Rivera, born in 1886 in Guanajuato, Mexico, was academically trained and prolific. By the time of his death at the age of seventy in 1957, he had produced hundreds of large-scale frescos acclaimed for their sweeping historical themes and dense figuration as well as numerous oil paintings, watercolours and lithographs. Kahlo, born in 1907 in Mexico City, was a novice painter when she married Rivera, twenty years her senior, in 1929. Self-taught and painstakingly measured, she completed fewer than 150 small works — mostly self-portraits and still-lifes — before she died at the age of forty-seven in 1954. During their life together, Rivera was the more celebrated of the two artists, lauded as Mexico's greatest muralist. In recent decades, however, Kahlo's posthumous fame has eclipsed Rivera's to enshrine her as one of modernism's most iconic women artists. Her paintings embody the physical pain she suffered after a debilitating bus accident at the age of 18 and the spiritual anguish caused by Rivera's infidelity and by her inability to have children.

Painting by Diego Rivera

Rivera's mission was, in his own words, to "to reflect the social life of Mexico as I saw it and, through my vision of the truth, to show the masses the outline of the future." Kahlo, who famously declared "I paint my own reality," affirmed her independence as a woman and her mestiza identity through an autobiographical lens. Where Rivera depicted the rural protagonists of the 1910 Mexican revolution as the heart and soul of mestizaje, Kahlo embraced her dual heritage by referencing the popular folk art tradition of anonymous retablos or ex-votos — small paintings on tin asking for divine intervention or recording a tragedy. For Rivera, nature was aligned in harmony with an indigenous Universe and represented by flowers; for Kahlo, it oscillated between parched earth and enveloping vegetation. While Rivera idealized the revolutionary masses and the pre-Columbian past in his murals, Kahlo kept company with animals and dolls in her self-portraits. When paired together, their distinctive oeuvres — Rivera's, expansive and historical; Kahlo's, inward looking and intimate — find common ground in their "vision of the truth" of Mexico's post-revolutionary culture.

Painting by Diego Rivera

During Kahlo and Rivera's life together, their admiration for each other's "vision of the truth" never faltered. In 1938, Rivera wrote to an American art critic to recommend her, "not as a husband but as an enthusiastic admirer of her work, acid and tender, hard as steel and delicate and fine as a butterfly's wing, loveable as a beautiful smile, and profound and cruel as the bitterness of life." In 1949, Kahlo wrote an essay to accompany Rivera's fifty-year retrospective at the National Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico in which she penned an impassioned defense of his communist ideals and "love of the Indian" as "the living flower of the cultural tradition of the Americas."
— Text by Dot Tuer, excerpted from ART MATTERS 2012 – No. 4

Painting by Frida Kahlo


Frida Kahlo's and Diego Rivera's respective bodies of work were incredibly diverse and evolved throughout their careers. Referencing pieces from Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics and Painting, the texts below describe some of the events, concepts, traditions and people that influenced their art.

European Influences

Through the sponsorship of Teodoro A. Dehesa Méndez, governor of the state of Veracruz, Diego Rivera travelled from Mexico City to Madrid in 1907 at the age of 21 to continue his artistic studies with the esteemed Realist painter Eduardo Chicharro y Agüera, whose stylistic influence can be seen in Self-Portrait with Hat and El Picador. Rivera's style became more experimental after he moved to Paris in 1909. There he immersed himself in the avant-garde circles of Montparnasse. When Rivera's grant expired in 1910, he supported himself through sales of his paintings, which enabled him to remain in Europe for the next decade. From 1913 to 1917, he adopted the aesthetic of analytic Cubism. In 1917, his style shifted yet again to a post-Impressionist mode inspired by Paul Cézanne's still lifes, bringing about a return to figurative painting. By 1919, having worked through his experiments with Cubism, Rivera reverted to a more Realist aesthetic, as seen in The Mathematician. His Cubist period had a marked influence on his later work, specifically in the spatial density that would characterize his murals.

Diego Rivera, The Mathematician, 1919

The Mexican Renaissance

In the early 1920s, José Vasconcelos, the Minister of Education, embarked on an ambitious program of sponsoring public art to make post-revolutionary Mexico the centre of a muralist renaissance. Of the many artists who painted Mexico's walls during this period, Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros were the most famous. Siqueiros and Orozco adopted an expressionist style in their murals and derived their inspiration from Mexico's graphic art traditions. By contrast, Rivera drew upon his studies of Italian Renaissance frescoes and pre-Columbian art to produce murals that idealized indigenous culture and rural revolutionaries such as Emiliano Zapata; after Rivera travelled to the Soviet Union in 1927, his murals became more overtly political but no less utopian in their depiction of revolutionary struggle. Of the three muralists, Rivera was the most adept at obtaining government and private patronage. Rivera's artistic ambitions were often at odds with his espousal of Marxist politics, resulting in his expulsion from the Communist Party in 1929 and the rupture of his friendship with Siqueiros, who together with Rivera had penned the Manifesto of the Revolutionary Union of Technical Workers, Painters and Sculptors in 1922.

Diego Rivera, Flower Festival: Feast of Santa Anita, 1931

The Accident

On September 17, 1925, at the age of 18, Frida Kahlo was involved in a tragic accident that would change the course of her life. She and her boyfriend, Alejandro Gómez Arias, had boarded a bus in Mexico City to take them home to the suburb of Coyoacán. The driver tried unsuccessfully to pass in front of a turning trolley and collided with the oncoming vehicle. Arias miraculously escaped unharmed, but Kahlo's spine was broken in three places; she also suffered two broken ribs, a broken pelvis, a broken collarbone and multiple fractures to her right leg and foot. An iron handrail impaled her uterus—in her words, "the way a sword pierces a bull." Kahlo spent the next three months in a full body cast. While immobilized, she asked to have a mirror hung over her bed so she could paint her reflection. In the years to come, self-portraits—some of which explicitly depict her physical suffering—would dominate her work as she underwent at least 35 operations on her back and legs.

Frida Kahlo, The Broken Column, 1944


Kahlo's distinctive style was intimately related to the popular folk art tradition of retablos or ex-votos. These small votive paintings on tin were made by anonymous artists to ask for divine intervention. In Henry Ford Hospital, Kahlo employed the retablo style by placing objects in the picture relating to a tragedy—in this case, her miscarriage in Detroit in 1931. Other paintings document anguished moments in her relationship with Rivera. A Few Small Nips, for example, is based on an anonymous retablo Kahlo owned which illustrated a woman's murder at the hands of her jealous husband; the painting may also express Kahlo's grief over Rivera's affair with her sister Cristina. Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair also invokes the retablo tradition, specifically in its scrolling text, a common stylistic element of this type of painting. During her lifetime together with Rivera, Kahlo cut her hair twice: the first time after Rivera left her and moved in with Cristina, and the second time after Rivera divorced her in 1939. The inscription on the painting reads: "Look, if I loved you it was for your hair, now that you are shorn, I don't love you anymore."

Frida Kahlo, Henry Ford Hospital, 1932

Projections of the Self

Frida Kahlo's self-portraits were tied to her dual European and indigenous heritage. In addition to depicting autobiographical aspects of her life, they also reflected Mexico's rich culture and traditions through references to folk art, traditional jewellery and indigenous clothing. Kahlo frequently depicted herself in traditional Tehuana attire (for example, Self-Portrait as a Tehuana (Diego on My Mind) [1943]), an act of solidarity with the Zapotec women of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, which borders the Mexican state of Oaxaca. Kahlo's mother, Matilde Calderón y González, was a mestiza from the Oaxaca region, and Rivera was entranced with the culture of Tehuantepec, which was seen by outsiders as a matriarchal society. In the post-revolutionary years, upper-middle class women in Mexico City adopted the traditional attire of the Tehuanas to denote overt sexuality in the face of conservative social mores of demure femininity.

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait as a Tehuana (Diego in my Thoughts), 1943

Animal Companions

Frida Kahlo owned a variety of pets that feature prominently in her paintings: her parrot Bonito; a fawn named Granizo; and an assortment of monkeys, parakeets, macaws and sparrows. Her favourite pet spider monkey, Fulang-Chang, was a gift from Rivera and appears in a number of her self-portraits. In Mexico, monkeys are often symbols of lust, though Kahlo renders hers as gentle, protective companions. It is perhaps for this reason that scholars have frequently interpreted Kahlo's many pets as surrogates for the children she and Rivera were unable to conceive. Kahlo also owned several Mexican Xoloitzcuintli dogs, including one named Señor Xólotl. The Xoloitzcuintli are a hairless breed of dog revered by the Colima, Toltec and Aztec civilizations. According to Aztec mythology, the god Xólotl made the Xoloitzcuintli from a sliver of the Bone of Life and presented the dog as a gift to humanity. Xoloitzcuintli were believed to guide the dead into the underworld.

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait with Monkeys, 1943


One of the most distinctive aspects of Rivera's easel paintings was the predominance of calla lilies, which reflected his fascination with the pre-conquest world of the Mexica people known as Aztecs. For the Mexica people, flowers embodied the sacred realm and the transitory nature of existence. Divinity was expressed through the poetic language of "flower-songs"—poems that were sung—and all the arts converged in the concept of a blossoming flower as the Giver of Life. Flowers were equally the purveyors of war and death. Magnificently plumed warriors engaged in Flowery Wars dedicated to obtaining sacrificial victims for Aztec deities. When warriors died in battle, it was said that they fell like rain upon flowers. Rivera spoke of flowers in relation to his passion for Communism, telling his biographer Bertram Wolfe that he envisioned a new dawn for the Mexican people in which a red five-pointed star in the sky would herald the future "of loving the sun and the flowers again…even though for that a new Flowery War might be needed."

Diego Rivera, Calla Lily Vendor, 1943


Natasha and Jacques Gelman were great collectors of Mexican art and important patrons for Kahlo and Rivera. Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, Jacques Gelman immigrated to Mexico just before the outbreak of World War II and became a successful producer of films featuring the comedian Mario Moreno Reyes, also known as Cantinflas. Natasha Gelman (born Natasha Zahalkaha) was from Moravia in the present-day Czech Republic. While traveling the world, she found herself in Mexico City, where she met Gelman in 1939; the couple married in 1941 and quickly began amassing an extensive collection of Mexican contemporary art. Among Natasha's most prized pieces was a portrait of her that Diego Rivera made. The painting of the young Natasha lying elegantly amidst bouquets of lilies—her white dress mirroring the shape of the flowers—hung in the salon of the Gelmans' home in Cuernavaca, Mexico.

Source: AGO

Painting by Frida Kahlo

Painting by Frida Kahlo

Painting by Frida Kahlo

All artwork / photos courtesy of AGO & blogTO

Art Gallery of Ontario
Musée des beaux-arts de l’Ontario
317 Dundas Street West
Toronto Ontario Canada M5T 1G4

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