By: Joanna Sharp
“He painted for the people. She painted to survive.” These are the statements that introduce the AGO’s current exhibition on the lives and the artwork of two of Mexico’s most celebrated painters – husband and wife Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. These words are echoed in the art showcased throughout the exhibition, and serve as a starting point in the tandem analysis of the Rivera and Kahlo’s lives and works. The exhibition as a whole is a visual chronology, and includes paintings, drawings and photographs of the couple’s individual and shared lives, as well as of the evolving artistic trends that reflected the changing socio-political climate in Mexico during the first half of the twentieth century. It illustrates the story of two artists living side by side and brilliantly demonstrates the juxtaposition of their diverging artistic visions centralized around a common theme.
Rivera, who studied painting in Europe and experimented with various contemporary artistic movements, subscribed to the philosophy of “l’art pour l’art”. He tried his hand at landscapes, portraits and still life paintings in various styles before becoming a renowned muralist in both Mexico and the United States. What is exhibited is therefore a varied body of works recalling several different schools of art and demonstrating the versatility of a talented painter. A common theme throughout his career is that of Mexican identity and the plight of the people. Most of his paintings showcase people, but the people are only indirectly the subject of the work. Rather, the focus is on the context, the daily grind of the farmer or the worker. Using earth-tones and soft lines he creates stylized depictions of indigenous Mexican heritage.
Kahlo’s work, however, shows a much more personal, intimate journey. It is easy to see how art, for her, was a cathartic process and a means of self-preservation. Her paintings are an externalization of her pain and suffering, and yet also seem to be a vessel for keeping them close, since Kahlo paints herself as the subject. Her self-portraits display her fixation on maternity, and her deep pain surrounding the fact that she was physically unable to have children. The female body that she paints is not an object of beauty. It is not embellished or idealized. It is instead shown either in a broken, injured state or in a crude state of functionality, sometimes with text-book-style anatomy diagrams, as in Henry Ford Hospital, 1932, which depicts Kahlo after a miscarriage, bloody and in a hospital bed, with various images floating around her, including an unborn foetus, a pelvis and a uterus. The dichotomy between fertile and barren, alive and lifeless, is a recurring theme in her work. In her self-portraits, she is often portrayed against a background of vivid, luscious plants and brightly-coloured flowers or alongside animals, emphasizing the fecundity around her and contrasting it with the visceral images of her own broken body. One can see a shift in the subjects she paints later on in her life. The themes of fertility and maternity are still present, however the focus moves away from Kahlo’s personal struggles and progresses towards a more universal model of motherhood: that of Mother Earth and Mother Mexico.
Inarguably, the main converging aspect of the two artists’ work is their love for Mexico. Rivera’s paintings conjure the Mexican people, showing scenes of history, tradition and cultural pride, and reflect a nationalistic sentiment. Kahlo’s representation of her country, however, reveals a more abstract yet humanized Mexico – a sort of mythological goddess. Both artists were evidently inspired by Mexico’s pre-Columbian past and paid homage to these roots in their style of painting as well as in some of the indigenous
themes they chose to represent.
The photographs both of the couple and of the two artists individually throughout their lives nicely complement the display of their works. The photos give an added dimension to the exhibition, providing a more concrete historical and political context. For example, there are photos of the couple at labour rallies in Mexico and at demonstrations tied to the National Liberation movement. There are also photos of each of them with Leon Trotsky. As active members of the Mexican Communist Party, they hosted the Russian revolutionary at their home in Mexico City when he was exiled from Russia. The photographs also offer a glimpse into the couple’s relationship. By all accounts Kahlo and Rivera’s marriage was tumultuous and marred by mutual adultery, yet the many candid shots suggest a more tender, loving partnership and a mutual respect and admiration of each other as artists.
“Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics and Painting” is a snapshot of the intertwined lives of two individuals and of their unique perspectives and interpretations of specific personal, social and historical events. Beneath the surface, however, the exhibition actually has a far more global reach, touching on themes of feminism, alterity, progress, tradition, love and loss. The inclusion of varied media enhances and broadens the subject matter, contributing to an overall experience that is both thought-provoking and esthetically pleasing.
“Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics and Painting” is on at the Art Gallery of Ontario until January 20th, 2013. Be sure to catch it while you still can!