Kahlo & Rivera High Museum explores couple's art, pain, politcs

Magda Carranza de Akle, curator for the Jacques & Natasha Gelman collection, inspects the Frida Kahlo painting “Self-Portrait With Monkey.”

Phil Skinner

Conventional wisdom says it’s futile to try to figure out why a couple of seemingly ill-fit people stay together.

You can speculate, but unless you are one of the players, how can you know? And sometimes, even the people involved can’t pinpoint their reasons for remaining a pair.

Yet from the moment Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera met in the late 1920s until now, many have tried to answer that question. Why did Kahlo and Rivera stay together? She was the petite, self-taught painter of some of the 20th century’s most riveting portraits of suffering, misery and vitality. He was the gargantuan, classically trained artist of the 20th-century’s muralist movement. Their 25-year marriage seemed the very definition of tumult, betrayal and grief.

Through a remarkable assemblage of nearly 140 paintings, lithographs, drawings and photographs spanning the couple’s lifetime, the High Museum of Art tries to answer that question in the exhibit, “Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics and Painting.” The show, which opened Thursday and runs through May 12, is a collaboration with the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. The High is the only U.S. venue for the dual retrospective.

The show’s central argument is: While Kahlo’s and Rivera’s mutual intellect and admiration for the other’s artistic gifts tethered them with a hold neither could break, it was their staunch socialist beliefs and life commitment to communist tenets that was a frame for their relationship.

“The driving force of the ex- hibit is to answer the question of why these two artists stayed together,” said Elliott King, consulting curator for the High show. “We know about the affairs that both of them had, the one-year divorce, then they got back together. But it’s hard to conceive of both Frida and Diego without that political dimension.”

King and Dot Tuer, guest curator for the Art Gallery of Ontario presentation, collaborated on the show’s catalog.

Each worked separately, yet each reaches for the same conclusion. “I felt strongly that if you were going to do a Frida and Diego show, for it to be compelling ... one had to go to a premise that was not the usual premise,” said Tuer. “To retell the myth of the perpetrator and the victim would be a disservice to both artists.”

The show opens with the couple in a haunting 1934 photo by Martin Munkacsi. It is one of four photos of the couple owned by the High. It was taken during one of their most trying years, profes- sionally and personally. There is Kahlo, 20 years younger than her husband, her signature, thick eyebrows close as she squints in thought. Behind her, in shadow, is the meaty face of Rivera, his bulging eyes trained at the camera. In his expression there is something of bitterness, if not defeat. The image suggests this will be a show of equals.

Accomplishing that is a difficult task for any exhibition of the pair’s art, given that Rivera’s best work is all but impossible to show outside Mexico, and, perhaps, Detroit because of the size. The monumental murals he painted cannot travel. The best examples adorn the Ministry of Education in Mexico City (depicting the Mexican Revolution) and the Detroit Institute of Arts (a series that exalts workers of the Industrial Revolution). So exhibits of Rivera’s work outside Mexico have leaned heavily on his smaller, easel works. This is the case with the High’s show. But in this exhibit, with Rivera’s smaller pieces paired with his wife’s work, the case for the couple’s shared ideology is perhaps easier to make.

The exhibition begins with Rivera’s earliest work as a 21-year-old art student in Europe from 1907-20. By the time Kahlo was born in 1907, Rivera was considered a prodigy back in his native Mexico. He returned to Mexico at the close of the Mexican Revolution in the early 1920s.

Rivera was called by the Mexican government to paint history on buildings of that nation’s power. Because he had been in Europe during Lenin’s rise, Communist ideals had begun to shape Rivera’s world view (and that of many artists then). So he used his classical training to paint images glorifying the common Mexican worker and indigenous culture. That is rendered subtly in works, but leaps forward in “The Arsen-al,” a 1928 mural where Kahlo is depicted at its center handing out arms to the people.

“The politics are a lot clearer in Rivera’s work,” said King. “His murals ... are just so rich with images of Mexican history and his association with the Mexican Revolution. When we think of Kahlo, her works are much more person-al. But a lot of people don’t of- ten think of Kahlo as being as politically committed as Rivera,” and that is not the case.

In a show of this breadth, viewers are rewarded with nearly a quarter of Kahlo’s works. All of it was produced after a bus accident in her late teens that so damaged her spine, leg (already ravaged by polio) and pelvis, that her body essentially disintegrated year by year. In life, she would have some 30 operations that some say made her misery worse. And though she knew Rivera’s failings before she married him, his womanizing only exacerbated her pain. Frida could never bear children, a longing that never left.

The daughter of a German immigrant photographer and a Mexican mother, Kahlo began painting during her recovery from the bus accident, and its horrible legacy and her reaction to Rivera’s disloyalty is a constant theme.

Even before her accident, Kahlo was involved with the popular Communist student movement of the era, which eventually paved the path to her introduction and marriage to Rivera in 1929. That Kahlo came of age during the Mexican Revolution and its exalting of the indigenous and the landless is apparent in her work, but subtly, Tuer and King said.

Kahlo’s and Rivera’s works don’t look similar, so you have to look at the spirit behind them, King said. “This is what ties the two together. They had a lot in common, both very proud of their Mexican heritage.”

If there are two works in the High’s show that exemplify the pair’s rose-colored view of communism’s potential, it is the room-sized copy of Rivera’s “Man at the Crossroads” mural and Kahlo’s painting, “My Dress Hangs Here.”

Rivera began the mural in 1933, in the Great Depression, at the RCA Building in Rockefeller Center as a commission by Nelson Rockefeller. Years before, Rivera had run afoul of the Mexican Communist party for accepting commissions from U.S. millionaires. This was one such project, but when Rivera inserted a picture of Lenin in the mural and refused to remove it, Rockefeller had it destroyed. Rivera later painted it again in Mexico.

Kahlo painted “My Dress Hangs Here” in reaction to the economic disparity she witnessed in NYC. Her disgust with high society and the obsession of progress at any cost seems to be a testament to her socialist principles. In it, a traditional Mexican Tehuana dress of the sort that Kahlo was known to wear hangs empty amid a swirl of skyscrapers, smokestacks and glittering symbols of celebrity and prosperity. At the bottom of the canvas people stand in bread and unemployment lines of the era.

Her Marxism ideology is always tied up with her pain. So by the time a visitor makes it to the body cast (there were dozens) that Kahlo was forced to wear after her many operations, they are not surprised by the images Kahlo painted onto it: an unborn baby, symbolizing the pregnancies she could never bring to term, and a hammer and sickle above the heart.

The question lingers: Did Frida and Diego really stay together because they were like-minded thinkers? There may never be an answer, but some will try to divine it each time they look at the worlds the couple created on canvas.

If you go

What: “Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics and Painting”

When: Through May 12, closed Mondays.

Where: 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta;

Cost: $16.50-$19.50.

more info: 404-733-4444, www.high.org

Lecture: Consulting curator Elliott King discusses the artists, 2 p.m. Feb. 23. Free.