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It's Frida Kahlo on the Parkway!

March 27, 2008 By:
Rita Rosen Poley, JE Feature
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Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo
In 1961, during a summer in Mexico City, I was fortunate to have been taken to visit an unusual house museum called Casa Azul ("Blue House"). Before that moment, I knew nothing about it or its famous owner, the artist Frida Kahlo (1907-1954).

Casa Azul is an amazingly colorful, exuberant repository of art and artifacts. More importantly, it is an architectural expression of Kahlo's unusual persona.

That visit committed me to a lifelong interest in the artist and her story. Unfortunately, her oeuvre numbers only about 200 paintings, and opportunities to experience her work firsthand are rare. Therefore, I suggest that anyone with a curiosity about this woman, who has become a feminist icon, immediately make plans to visit the Philadelphia Museum of Art where, until May 18, the first U.S. exhibition of her work in 15 years is on view.

Kahlo did not paint conventionally pretty pictures; her life was neither conventional nor pretty. She was the daughter of a German Jewish father and a Mexican native mother, and she suffered physical hardships from a childhood accident that prevented her from having children, and eventually shortened her life. She suffered added emotional distress due to her stormy relationship with the famous Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera. All of these elements are depicted in these paintings.

In addition, the exhibition contains an extensive collection of family photographs that add immeasurably to one's ability to understand the Kahlo/Rivera dynamic. Rivera was larger than life, physically, and in his work and personality. He was not faithful to the diminutive Kahlo during their marriage, and he went out of his way to insult important art patrons, such as Nelson Rockefeller.

Most of Kahlo's paintings are biographical in nature. The many powerful self-portraits draw in the viewer as if in conversation with the artist. Her struggles with Rivera, her physical suffering, her miscarriages are all laid out in detail.

However, there are also paintings that demonstrate her love of her native land, Mexico; the happy years of her marriage; her joy in her pets; and her loving connection to her family and heritage.

During her lifetime, the attention paid to her paintings was limited at best. However, due to the fact that she was Rivera's wife, her work attracted many art-world luminaries, most notably France's André Breton, the major theorist of surrealism, who understood the importance of her vision and arranged for an exhibition of her work in New York in 1938.

Her first show in Mexico took place in 1953, a year before her death. Since then, interest in Kahlo's work and her life experience has steadily grown. She has come to be regarded as an artist of major importance and as a symbol of feminism.

The work of another unconventional feminist artist is also on display at the museum, where the photos of Lee Miller (1907-1977) occupy the Berman and Stieglitz Galleries until April 27.

Miller's career spanned the world of modeling, immersion in the world of surrealist photography, experience as a press photographer during World War II and, finally, a late-in-life career as a gourmet cook.

The photographs of Lee Miller are quite affecting. It is obvious that she had a true love affair with the camera and with photographic processes (not for nothing was she the Parisian muse of the grand surrealist photographer Man Ray, who happened to be Jewish -- his real name was Emmanuel Radnitzky -- and was born in Philadelphia).

Her use of light and dark, her structural compositions and her ability to find the abstract in the real world are all arresting.

High Fashion to Ravages of War
She made the leap from this world of high art to that of a war correspondent on the front lines. The fact that she was able to bring photographs of the slaughter and torture of the Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps to the pages of Vogue magazine, where they received major coverage, is a testament to her commitment to a lifetime of work that took her from the world of high fashion to the solitude of the studio and darkroom, to the dangerous, chaotic world of war.

Her photograph of "The Burgermeister of Leipzig's Daughter," who has committed suicide, says it all. It combines a strange beauty and a formalist composition with an unflinching commitment to tell a difficult but necessary story.


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