When they married, in the summer of 1929, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera were radically different. Twenty years her senior, he had already established a formidable reputation in his native Mexico as a painter of monumental revolutionary murals for public buildings; Kahlo had only just begun to define herself as an artist. She focused on depicting her own life rather than the political themes that obsessed the tireless Rivera. And Kahlo also had to battle against the fragility of her broken body, a victim of both childhood polio and a serious traffic accident that had left her desperately frail.
Borrowed from an outstanding collection formed by Jacques and Natasha Gelman, leading art patrons in Mexico from the 1940s, this fascinating show at Pallant House in Chichester takes us deep into Kahlo and Rivera’s devoted yet turbulent relationship.
They both had other lovers and divorced in 1939 before remarrying a year later. Yet they were emotionally dependent on each other, Rivera’s avid involvement with her evident in a 1930 lithograph called “Nude (Frida Kahlo)”. Seated on their bed, naked except for a necklace and high-heeled shoes, she adopts a statuesque yet erotic pose and raises both arms behind her head. It is an image that shows how much Rivera learned from his years as a young man in Paris, close to the cubists. But his belief in the importance of figurative art made him turn away from cubism after returning to Mexico in 1921.
Even when he painted “Landscape with Cacti” for his solo show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1931, Rivera’s preoccupation with people enlivened the entire canvas: the cacti look like human figures dancing and waving in the desert, one of them sporting a pair of bulging breasts.
Kahlo, by contrast, was addicted to self-portraits and to relentless self-exposure. Her “Self-Portrait with Necklace”, painted a year after she suffered a miscarriage in 1932, shows no hesitation in emphasising the strength of her thick, masculine eyebrows and incipient moustache. Yet alongside this assertion of her resilient inner strength, which helped her endure 32 gruelling hospital operations, she also explored her profound melancholy.
In 1937 “Self-Portrait on Bed” or “Me and My Doll”, shows her sitting upright on a bare bed, the doll next to her as blanched as a ghost – an eerie reminder of the babies she lost through successive miscarriages. This tough, desolate image is executed on metal, like the traditional Mexican ex voto paintings where the blighted subject is rescued by saintly intervention. But no such faith was available to Kahlo, whose interest in communism led her to have an affair with Trotsky in 1937.
By 1943 she had learned to gain comfort from the spider monkeys inhabiting the garden of her Blue House in Mexico City. Here, at the age of 36, Kahlo painted “Self-Portrait with Monkeys”, where she gazes out intensely as two of her simian companions wrap their tails around Kahlo’s arms and hold her protectively, devoted Darwinian friends.
But the most compelling exhibit in this show explores less reassuring aspects of Kahlo’s complex imagination. In “Self-Portrait as Tehuana” or “Diego on my Mind”, her ceremonial lace head-dress lends her a god-like power, yet Rivera’s patriarchal face is painted at the very centre of her forehead. The leaves attached to her hair sprout all over the painting, as if determined to ensnare her in a constricting mesh. Staring with mesmeric eyes, Kahlo continues to impress us here as a steely and resolute character. Even so, she felt increasingly trapped and, after her right leg was amputated below the knee, she died in 1954 at the age of 47.
Devastated by her loss, Rivera died only three years later. Although he wanted his ashes to be mingled with Kahlo’s, he was buried at the Rotunda of Famous Men in Mexico City. But this exhibition reveals, at every turn, just how important their troubled relationship had been for both of them.
Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, UK until October 2