To say Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, from the Jaques and Natasha Gelman collection has been a highly anticipated exhibition is an understatement. I have been planning my trip for a year and my stomach flipped with anticipation each time I thought about it. Media outlets have pushed the exhibition; a casual write up here, a mention there, a cover of Art Almanac here. Mexican art + AGNSW + Frida + murals = exciting. This was an art cult favourite that most of us had only ever seen in books before. If you are like me, maybe you also ate tacos and enchiladas while flipping through the pages to make it somehow feel more authentic. It didn’t, that was a stupid but delicious idea.
FYI, Jacques and Natasha Gelman were long time friends and supporters of Frida and Diego. Their collection developed from their patronage of Frida and Diego. This exhibition contains 33 significant works from the collection and over 50 photographs by contemporaries such as Edward Weston, Lola Alvarez Bravo, and Guillermo Kahlo (Frida’s father). Collectively this exhibition presents a unique insight to the artists world; their relationship, their politics, their art, and their friendships.
The exhibition itself was held in the smaller galleries on the top floor of AGNSW. It is an intimate space. It wasn’t an entire retrospective, but it was enough to let me feel like I had worshiped at the alter of Frida and Diego while I continue to save moollah for the day I can head to Museo Frida Kahlo.
I already knew a brief history of their lives before I visited. I knew about Frida’s tragic accident and the role it played in her life work. I had a vague understanding of their romantic and platonic relationships, but of course I had no concept of what was really true and what was folklore. Like other great artists whose lives have been marked by tragedy and adversity, the story of Frida and Diego is legendary, filtered through art history textbooks and Hollywood interpretations. Knowing all this is very different from seeing it though.
I find artists self-portraits fascinating. On the rare occasion that I have attempted to do a self portrait, I’ve found the activity quite confronting. You can’t ever hide from your own face. And, I guess it is for this reason that quite often, artists say it is easier to paint a self-portrait than a portrait of someone else. There is less room for offense and vanity when the task at hand is quite simply just to paint or draw your own face, imperfections and all.
Frida’s self-portraits are not concerned with re-creating a simple likeness. Her portraits are frank, striking and cement her standing as the queen of resting bitch face. Frida captures her whole sense of self by filling the canvases frame with not just her own presence, but other imagery that alludes to who she is. There is as much attention to detail taken in capturing her necklaces and cultural dress as there is in capturing her eyebrows, mustache, and headdresses that altogether present a kind of emotional intensity that is not typically associated with self-portraits.
At first I was struck at how flat both Diego and Frida’s paintings were. And the fact that their aesthetics were strikingly similar. In works by Frida and Diego, finer details like a lace collar were traced with a thin brush and can almost be missed if you don’t get up close enough to the work.
Diego is famously known for his murals and political alliances, I was struck by how quiet his subjects were. Without trivializing the darker connotations these pieces had, the flower picker series made me want to believe in an idyllic way of life where we could all tend to flowers and work together, young and old. But that is a shallow reading. What does the burden of the flowers represent? What social status of these girls is articulated through their dress and bowed heads? And what are we to think of the man trying to maintain the weight of the calla lilies in the background? Without seeing his face all we know of him and his working life is a to be read by a quick glimpse of hit hat and hands.
Although this exhibition was not a blockbuster show, it is valuable in its intimacy. The range of photographs and works on display are all intriguing and act as a small piece to a larger puzzle. It would be impossible to fully articulate the lives and tales of these legendary artists, and it refreshing to be free of that expectation.
Long live Frida and Diego’s bohemian spirits and artistic freedom, and the dedication, appreciation, and friendship of patrons like Jacques and Natasha Gelman.