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Art Review: Frida Kahlo at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

This exhibit, the first major Kahlo retrospective in an American museum in practically fifteen years, commemorates the hundredth anniversary of the great Mexican painter’s birth. Conventional wisdom is that either you’re in the Kahlo cult or you’re not. Not to be disrespectful to Salma Hayek, but more than any major motion picture ever could, this exhibit will shatter any preconceptions about Kahlo that you might hold, especially if you’ve been subjected to disdainful commentary about the artist’s presumable self-absorption. On the contrary, the works on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through May 18 underscore the universality of Kahlo’s dark, tormented vision. For the uninitiated, it could be a life-changing event.

In addition to more than forty original works on loan from around the world, the exhibit includes a fascinatingly assembled collection of photographs from throughout Kahlo’s life, along with two separate exhibits placing Kahlo’s work in the context of Mexican art from her era. The first including works from the museum’s formidable collection, including the famous, anonymous Execution of Maximilian and David Siquieros’ astonishing Giants; the second focuses on the work of her contemporary Juan Serrano, who died only last year. While this stroke of uncommonly smart, relevant curating is a bonus, it’s Kahlo’s work that everyone is coming out for(early arrival is very strongly advised, the earlier the better).

Kahlo is best known for her self-portraits, blending elements of European surrealism into her overtly traditional Mexican style. Despite being crippled in a bus accident while still in her teens, she was a strikingly beautiful woman, someone who bears only a passing resemblance to the monobrowed, lightly moustached, stoic figure in her paintings (on the other hand, her husband Diego Rivera, an aging, dumpy man whose own work has long since been overshadowed by hers, is always rendered as a pillar of strength). In more than one sense, Kahlo never completely recovered from her injuries, was frequently hospitalized throughout her life and spent her last few years in a wheelchair. The anguish in these works – the iconic Broken Column, depicting her spine as an ancient stone obelisk shattered in many places, and The Two Fridas, one of whom has just ripped her own heart out – is visceral. While most of her work is dead serious, she wasn’t without a sense of humor, as demonstrated by her surreal, green-themed portrait of botanist Luther Burbank as a plant. And she’s nothing if not self-aware: the most riveting, and revolting of all of these portraits depicts the artist as an infant in the arms of a wetnurse, whose breast is rotten and sagging, the tendrils extending from Kahlo’s mouth sucking all life out of it.

There are so many other iconic works here. Without Hope shows the artist on her frequent hospital bed, trying to suck some sustenance out of a funnel overflowing with entrails and fish heads. In a nod to the Mexican votive artists of the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth century, the famous The Dream positions a skeleton on the top bunk overlooking the artist below. The exhibit also includes the hauntingly ethereal Suicide of Dorothy Hale, the New York socialite/actress appearing several times as she floats down through the clouds, then bleeding but intact at the foot of the skyscraper from which she hurled herself.

The show ends on a typically dramatic note with the potently feminist The Circle, a nude torso in a circular frame, a splash of flame – or is it blood? Or both? – emanating from behind a shoulder. The self-portraits are all reliably disquieting, including a handful of miniatures rarely seen in the context of a major exhibit.

Perhaps one of the reasons for the critical backlash against Kahlo is her legend itself. Like Sartre, Camus, Joy Division and Nick Drake, she’s someone that American audiences tend to discover while in their teens, a point where those who have suffered young (who hasn’t?) find special affinity for her work. Whether Kahlo is in your own pantheon or not, this is an extraordinary exhibit, one of the best in recent memory, making the cost of a trip to Philadelphia well worth your while. Through May 18 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 26th Street and Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Tues-Sun 10 AM – 5 PM, Fridays til 8:45 PM.

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April 21, 2008 Posted by | Art, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment