In 1933, Frida Kahlo visited Detroit, where her husband, the famed painter Diego Rivera, was at work on one of his monumental murals. But when asked by a reporter what it was like to be married to such a genius, the 25-year-old unknown scoffed. “It is I who am the big artist,” she replied.
Eighty-six years later, it turns out she was right.
Sure, her introspective self-portraits may look tiny next to Rivera’s far-reaching frescoes. But as a new exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum shows, Kahlo’s art extended far beyond the canvas.
“Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving” contains a dizzying 350 objects, of which only 11 are paintings. The rest are photographs, jewelry, decor and lots of clothes, many of the objects recovered from Kahlo and Rivera’s home in 2004, 50 years after her death.
Gannit Ankori, a Kahlo scholar and the exhibit’s curatorial adviser, says these artifacts — shown in the US for the first time, after debuting at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum — demonstrate Kahlo’s all-encompassing approach to her art.
“Her modes of creativity were multiple,” Ankori tells The Post. “The way she posed for photographs and the way she constructed her look and the way she performed her identities and the way she painted were all part of her art.”
Co-curator Catherine Morris agrees.
“Some people might wonder why we would do an exhibition of a woman artist’s clothing,” Morris says. “In the case of Kahlo, whose work is, at its core, always about her biography and her life experience . . . it enriches our understanding of a person who has really become iconic to such a degree as to almost be kind of flattened.”
Seeing the clothes, jewelry and artifacts Kahlo depicted in her painfully intimate self-portraits, Morris adds, “gives people the opportunity to see her for the human being she was.”
Kahlo was born in 1907, the daughter of a German-immigrant father and a mestiza — half-indigenous, half-European — mother. Her childhood was famously beset by pain. She contracted polio when she was 6, and the illness left her right leg shorter than her left. When she was 18, she was in a horrific bus accident, which shattered her ribs, legs and collarbone. Constrained by a plaster corset and unable to walk, she spent months in bed, painting.
There are multiple theories for why Kahlo dressed the way she did. Many believe she dressed in indigenous clothing to please Rivera, whom she married in 1929, when she was 22 and he was 43. Others say that it was a way to hide her disabilities: The long skirts, wide embroidered tunics and elaborate hairdos deflected attention away from her lower body and allowed her to move comfortably and gracefully, even with her stiff corsets.
Yet while she donned a traditional rebozo draped around her shoulders and a full skirt for her wedding to Rivera, she didn’t fully embrace her Mexican garb until her first trip to the US, in 1930.
“She started when she came to San Francisco,” Ankori says of Kahlo’s visit to the city where Rivera was commissioned to do a mural. “She wrote to her parents, ‘The gringas love me; their jaws drop when they see me.’ You can see that she’s beginning to understand that the way she presents relates to her being different from Americans.”
Kahlo, of course, took this traditional clothing — which had become a popular way to express national pride after the Mexican Revolution — and made it her own. She wore colorful skirts and embroidered shirts from different Mexican villages but also from Guatemala, and often customized them with ribbons or strips of fabric she found during her visits to San Francisco’s Chinatown or street vendors in New York. She painted her corsets — emblazoning one with a Soviet hammer and sickle. And when she painted her self-portraits, she exaggerated her unibrow and faint mustache.
“There’s such a complex relationship to the way she fashioned herself,” says Morris. “She did it for herself, she did it for the world, and she did it for politics.”
Kahlo spent hours on her appearance, fastidiously matching her accessories to her garments. For the opening to her first and only Mexican retrospective, in 1953, a largely immobile Kahlo arrived in an ambulance. Lying in bed, she was nevertheless fully made-up, her hair laced with ribbons and flowers, her neck adorned with stones.
That year, she had her gangrenous right leg amputated. Refusing the standard-issue prosthetic the hospital initially gave her, she had one custom-made. It had a sexy red boot on the end, embroidered with dragons and bells.
“She said, ‘If I have to wear a prosthetic leg it may as well be beautiful,’ ” says Ankori.
Kahlo died less than a year after she lost her leg, in 1954. She was 47. Now, more than half a century later, her way of making the personal political and laying bare her wounds and vanities seems contemporary.
“Gender, the fragility of the body, identity — all the things that made her seem like a narcissistic, marginal figure are now placing her center stage,” Ankori says.
“I think that when you come out of the exhibition you see that, yes, she had this disability, yes, she had a difficult life, but she did something really, really creative and amazing.”
“Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving,” through May 12 at the Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway.; BrooklynMuseum.org
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