More Than an Icon

A new exhibit at San Francisco’s de Young Museum takes inventory of the brilliant, difficult life of Frida Kahlo.

frida with olmeca figurine, coyoacán, by nickolas muray 1939
Frida with Olmeca Figurine, Coyoacán, by Nickolas Muray (1939).
Nickolas Muray

In November 1930, a diminutive 23-year-old woman from the village of Coyoacán, just outside Mexico City, arrived in San Francisco with her new husband, a celebrated artist 20 years her senior. It was her inaugural visit abroad. “San Francisco is very beautiful,” she wrote in an effusive letter, “from everywhere you can see the sea.” Her trip was filled with new experiences, from first witnessing the ocean—“I loved it!”—to her initial encounter with the world of Gringolandia, as she dubbed the United States.

Though as yet unheralded, young Frida Kahlo made an immediate impression on the city. According to photographer Edward Weston, “dressed in native costume even to huaraches, she causes much excitement on the streets of San Francisco. People stop in their tracks to look in wonder.” Kahlo herself observed the stares. She wrote to her mother in Mexico: “The gringas really like me a lot and take notice of all the dresses and rebozos that I brought with me, their jaws drop at the sight of my jade necklaces and all the painters want me to pose for them.”

Frida Kahlo—the woman, the icon, the artist—had arrived.

Some 90 years later, she’s back in San Francisco, in Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving, at the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park, where on clear days museumgoers can enjoy sweeping ocean views from Hamon Tower. Filled with art and artifacts from Kahlo’s brilliant, difficult life, Appearances Can Be Deceiving approaches something akin to a pilgrimage, where the artist’s paintings and drawings, many of them self-portraits, are displayed alongside her embroidered blouses, long skirts, vibrant rebozos, ornate jewelry, medicine bottles, makeup, painted corsets, and prosthetic leg. A bounty as potent and disturbing as the arm bone of any medieval saint.

That Kahlo attracted attention in 1930 comes as little surprise to us now, but back then she was mostly known, if at all, in relation to her husband, the internationally renowned painter and muralist Diego Rivera. One example of his status: after Rivera created murals in San Francisco and Detroit, the couple went to New York, where in 1931 he became the second living artist, after Matisse, honored with a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Presumably, Rivera should have been the sole focus of attention while in San Francisco. But already the spotlight was straying in the direction of his young wife, pulled inexorably toward her flamboyant style, her traditional attire, her bold self-creation, and, ultimately, her art.

Drawing from Catholic and indigenous Mexican imagery while pioneering intimate expressions of her biography, including female pain, Kahlo’s paintings were both old and new, familiar and groundbreaking. It took time for the art world, and the world at large, to catch up with her vision.

In an astonishing historical inversion, these days the great Rivera is mostly overshadowed by Kahlo’s posthumous supercelebrity, though the change didn’t happen until decades after her death. When I was an undergraduate in the mid-1980s, my comprehensive textbook, H.W. Janson’s The History of Art, did not include Kahlo among the 16 female artists newly wedged into its hundreds of pages for the first time.

As of this writing, @fridakahlo on Instagram boasts one million followers. In the culture at large, there are the endless Kahlo paeans and parodies, from Beyoncé adorned as Frida for Halloween to Frida Callus socks, on sale in the de Young gift shop. Today, Kahlo the cult persona tends to overshadow Kahlo the artist. Which makes a show like Appearances Can Be Deceiving a delicate proposal, balancing a treasury of personal effects against public exploitation. The de Young admirably threads the needle, honoring the artifacts of Kahlo’s life by connecting them with her art.

Frida on White Bench, New York City, by Nickolas Muray (1939). Kahlo sat for this photograph during one of her trips through the U.S. While visiting American cities with her husband, Rivera, she noted that “all the painters want me to pose for them.”
Frida on White Bench, New York City, by Nickolas Muray (1939). Kahlo sat for this photograph during one of her trips through the U.S. While visiting American cities with her husband, Diego Rivera, she noted that “all the painters want me to pose for them.”
© NICKOLAS MURAY PHOTO ARCHIVES

HIDDEN TREASURES

Almost magically, the objects at the heart of Appearances Can Be Deceiving were recovered from a room in Kahlo’s home, La Casa Azul (the Blue House) in Mexico City, locked away, per Rivera’s instructions, until 50 years after her death in 1954 at 47. When the room was opened in 2004, a whole world came to light: some 6,000 photographs, 22,000 documents, and 300 of Kahlo’s most intimate possessions. A trove—if something so tender and gutting can be called that—of art, identity, and pain.

Kahlo is universally recognized by her vividly colored Tehuana blouses and long skirts, a choice often attributed to Rivera’s revolutionary esteem for Mexican culture. “People assumed it was Rivera,” says de Young curator Hillary Olcott, “until the trove from Casa Azul was discovered and it became clear that it was not for him alone. Her mother was from Oaxaca—Tehuantepec, in fact.” The region is legendary for its matriarchal society of powerful, beautiful Tehuana women. So, symbolically, Tehuana dress served Kahlo’s ideals, but the choice was also practical. “Because of her medical needs,” says Olcott, “the outfits allowed her to be comfortable.” At six, Kahlo suffered from polio, leaving her with a withered right leg and a lifelong limp; a near-fatal streetcar accident fractured her pelvis and spine at 18. Afterward she required back braces, corsets, shoe lifts, and, when her right leg was amputated late in life, a prosthesis, all of which she hid beneath long skirts, colorful blouses, and rebozos that drew the eye upward. Says Olcott, “She assembled a look expressing her national pride, her aesthetic sensibilities, and that highlighted her strengths.”

It was while recovering from the streetcar accident that Kahlo first began to paint, but not until she was in San Francisco did she depict herself in Tehuana dress. In a painting from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection that opens the de Young show, she stands in a dual portrait hand in hand with Rivera. In a real sense, the city was Kahlo’s public coming out as, well, herself.

Slowly, Kahlo began to be recognized for her work. In January 1931, she was pictured in the San Francisco News under the headline “Artist’s Mate Has Own Success: Mrs. Diego Rivera Revealed as Portrait Artist in Her Own Right.” The painting she’s working on, Portrait of Mrs. Jean Wight, is in the current show.

Frieda and Diego Rivera, painted by Kahlo in 1931. The dual portrait opens Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving at the de Young Museum.
Frieda and Diego Rivera, painted by Kahlo in 1931. The dual portrait opens Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving at the de Young Museum.
SFMOMA

Though we may now cringe at the depiction of a towering 20th-century artist with no name of her own, consider the far more dubious headline in the Detroit News two years later: “Wife of the Master Mural Painter Gleefully Dabbles in Works of Art.” It hardly bears mentioning, but if ever there was an artist for whom “gleefully dabbles” is a gruesomely poor description (maybe only Van Gogh comes close?), it’s Frida Kahlo. As famously noted by the cofounder of surrealism André Breton, the “art of Frida Kahlo is a ribbon about a bomb.” Kahlo’s art, especially in her self-portraits, is often expressive of her pain, both physical and psychological. Her vibrant symbolic vision is often categorized as surrealist, including by Breton himself, but Kahlo disagreed: “They thought I was a surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.”

In Detroit, where Rivera worked on his mural for the Detroit Institute of Arts, Kahlo discovered she was pregnant. She wrote her doctor in San Francisco, Leo Eloesser, for advice on whether she was physically able to carry a child. After she lost the baby, she created anguished images of miscarriage and grief, including the only lithograph made in her lifetime, El Aborto (Frida and the Miscarriage), in the de Young’s permanent collection and, in a nice stroke of symmetry, signed to Juan O’Gorman, the architect who redesigned Casa Azul.

Eloesser, who became Kahlo’s lifelong friend, was introduced to her by influential Bay Area photographer and fellow polio patient Dorothea Lange. The daughter of a professional photographer, Kahlo had a profound relationship with the camera, and some of the show’s most stirring images are portraits of Kahlo by West Coast photographers like Weston and Imogen Cunningham.

There are more photographs of Kahlo in Appearances Can Be Deceiving than artwork made by her, though the de Young version of the show features about 20 paintings, more than other venues and most of them not seen elsewhere in the U.S. Maybe most exciting is that much of it is from private or public collections in Mexico that don’t usually lend out Kahlo’s work. That includes Kahlo’s wonderful Self-Portrait Dedicated to Dr. Leo Eloesser, wherein the artist wears a hand-shaped earring, a gift from Picasso rediscovered when Casa Azul’s sealed room was opened.

To seek out, and to enjoy, the personal touchstones of so autobiographical an artist, a painter whose oeuvre of nearly 150 paintings includes about one-third self-portraits, seems entirely fitting.

More important, seeing Kahlo’s connection to Mesoamerican art and Mexican history and culture, to her identity and disability, to other female artists and to men like Rivera and Eloesser, helps us see an artist in all her complexity and abundance who has too often been reduced to a marketing tool, a wacky emoji, to socks. Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving invites us to look closely—at paintings, yes, but also at clothes and makeup, corsets and prosthesis, photographs and letters and more, and to enjoy the art and life in all of it.

Bridget Quinn is a writer and art historian living in San Francisco. She’s the author of  Broad Strokes: 15 Women Who Made Art and Made History (in That Order).

FRIDA KAHLO: APPEARANCES CAN BE DECEIVING

• Due to COVID-19, the de Young is temporarily closed. Contact the museum for details on this exhibit.
• de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr., San Francisco
deyoung.famsf.org

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Three other shows celebrating groundbreaking female artists

Dorothea Lange: Photography as Activism: Lange’s visionary images of Depression-era poverty humanized the plight of America’s poor, while her pictures of Japanese American internment in World War II bore unflinching witness to a dark chapter of history; both are featured in this show at the Oakland Museum of California.

Rosie Lee Tompkins: A Retrospective: Experience the work of one of the most important quilt and fabric artists of the late 20th and early 21st centuries at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. The show is drawn from a landmark recent gift to BAMPFA of the Eli Leon Collection, nearly 3,000 works by African American quilt makers.

Luchita Hurtado: I Live I Die I Will Be Reborn: Abstraction, language, the human body, and the environment are all at play in the painter’s work. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art hosts the first eight-decade-long survey of the career of Hurtado—a California artist, born in Venezuela, who turns 100 in October.

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