Kahlo Inspires and Intrigues Audiences in New Exhibits

Article excerpt

exican artist Frida Kahlo continues to capture the public's imagination with her paintings, politics and personal style which is why she is once again the subject of major museum exhibitions and media attention.

It has been decades since the advent of "Fridamania," a trend that began in the 1990s but received a big boost in 2002, when the biographical movie, Frida, was released in which Salma Hayek played Kahlo. That movie and subsequent art events, books and articles raised Kahlo to almost a cult status. Famous personalities began collecting her work, including Madonna, who said she "identified with Kahlo's pain and sadness." The U.S. postal service put Kahlo's image on a first-class stamp, making her the first Hispanic woman to receive such an honor.

This year, art historians and curators are taking another look at how Kahlo's life and work still influences new generations of artists and how her beliefs about Mexican politics affected her painting. During her lifetime, Kahlo created approximately 200 paintings, drawings and sketches reflecting her experiences in life, her physical and emotional pain, and her stormy relationship with her husband, the Mexican painter and muralist, Diego Rivera.

Earlier this year, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, in collaboration with the Art Gallery of Ontario, organized a major show of works by Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, calling them the two central figures of Mexican modernism. The exhibit, "Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics and Painting," featured more than 120 works primarily drawn from the collection of Mexico's Dolores Olmedo as well as the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of Mexican Art.

According to exhibit curators, the myths that surrounded the two artists during their lifetime arose not only from their significant body of work, but also from their active participation in the historical happenings of the time.

"Their art speaks of a fierce loyalty to and pride in Mexico, the ideals of the 1910 Mexican Revolution and their commitment to the conditions of the common man," said Michael E. Shapiro, director of the High Museum of Art.

The exhibit paired works by Kahlo and Rivera chronologically and according to themes, including maternity, Mexican identity and portraiture.

"Frida & Diego" also examined the ways their work continues to influence Mexican artists, with two Frida- and Diego-inspired reading rooms designed by award-winning contemporary Mexican designers, Hector Esrawe and Ignacio Cadena. One reading room design featured a bold red version of Kahlo's unique bed, while the other featured a colorful and whimsical yellow installation inspired by the game of musical chairs.

Like previous museums that presented Kahlo exhibits, the High enjoyed a robust public response. "The exhibition has been very well received by our audiences, and we've welcomed more than 130,000 people to the museum," said Marci Tate, public relations specialist at the High. "School groups came through the High to see the exhibition every week, and our school group attendance exceeded 30,000. Our opening party held last February was our highest attended opening event ever, with over 2,600 guests."

That will come as no surprise to those who have observed the growth in Kahlo's popularity and its subsequent effect on museum attendance. As the Kahlo phenomenon continued to grow in the past decade, it attracted new audiences to art exhibits. The attention brought with it renewed critical analysis of Kahlo's work and also spawned a flood of merchandising.

When Kahlo was included in a 2002 exhibit at the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA), along with artists such as Georgia O'Keeffe, the show drew large crowds, including many younger people. Those who visited the gift shops snapped up memorabilia and items related to Kahlo's' style of dress. Likewise, when Kahlo was featured in museum exhibits in Texas and Arizona, gift shops reported brisk sales of Kahlo posters, dolls, tote bags, watches, mirrors and photos. …