An Extensive Frida Kahlo Exhibit Opens This Friday At the Brooklyn Museum
Frida Kahlo, one of the twentieth century's most distinctive artists, is the center of a new exhibitentitled "Appearances Can Be Deceiving." Located at the Brooklyn Museum, the show presents over 300 of Kahlo's sketches and paintings, items of sentimental value, and other ephemera from her life. It's the most extensive Kahlo retrospective that's ever happened in the U.S., and the first time that the artist's personal effects have traveled stateside from Mexico City's Casa Azul.
The last big Kahlo exhibit in New York, at the Botanical Gardens in 2015, paid homage to the flora and fauna that have become inseparable from her image and her paintings alike. The Brooklyn Museum exhibit doesn't document Kahlo's life chronologically, instead unfurling her story through key ideas and pivotal themes. Visitors walk through several rooms divided into different categories, including "Art and Revolution," which documents her lifelong ties to communism; "Disability and Creativity," showing how Kahlo grappled with injuries resulting from a bus accident and polio as a child; "The Blue House," a sweeping, azure-colored room filled with scores of folk art not unlike the pieces Kahlo and Rivera had at their home; and "Gringolandia," which explores her relationship with three different cities in the United States: San Francisco, Detroit, and New York.
Kahlo was at once in awe of and critical of the United States, particularly following World War II (the exhibit includes three sketches of an unfinished painting, which depicts the Statue of Liberty holding an atomic bomb and a bag of money in lieu of a torch). When she first arrived in New York, in 1931, she compared it to Babylon, writing: "...Everything here is mere appearance, but deep down it's a real piece of shit." The exhibit states that Kahlo, struck by the disparity of wealth ever-present in the city, "reaffirmed her political commitment to communism and to Mexico" during her time in New York. Still, she found herself drawn to New York, once noting that "it is hard to believe the city was built by humans, it appears like magic."
One section of the exhibit is devoted to Kahlo's pivotal time in New York, where she was particularly fond of Harlem. There it outlines how in the 1930s, Kahlo spent time with her husband, Diego Rivera, as he painted murals at Rockefeller Center (Nelson Rockefeller eventually had the unfinished murals destroyed, after Rivera added an image of Vladimir Lenin that wasn't in the original plans and refused to take it down). It also documents how in November 1938, Kahlo had her first solo exhibition in New York at the Julien Levy Gallery, the influential and short-lived gallery located at 15 East 57th Street that specialized in showing burgeoning Surrealist artists. One of the paintings from Kahlo's solo show is present: Fruits of the Earth, a gorgeous still-life that alludes to the cyclical nature of life and death. Several intimate photographs culled from Kahlo's short affair with Levy, where we see her braiding her hair, are also included in the section.
Kahlo's brilliance is undeniable, and the show traces well how she cultivated an inimitable artistic practice and life that defied traditional ideas of gender, sexuality, and identity. Frustratingly, in the time that she was active as an artist, Kahlo was often name-checked as a wife and in the shadow of her husband's artistic career—and the condescending way that the press wrote about her is peppered throughout the exhibit. In a review of her solo show, for instance, TIME Magazine routinely referred to her as "Little Frida," and an infuriating headlinefrom The Detroit News reads: "Wife of the Master Mural Painter Fleefully Dabbles in Works of Art" (Kahlo retorted: "Of course he does pretty well for a little boy, but it is I who am the big artist").
There's much to absorb here, particularly when it comes to Kahlo's personal effects: her stunning huipiles and rebozos, the perfume bottles she refurbished as tequila to-go containers, and the orthopedic corsets she used, often adorned with drawings. The photographs that Kahlo's close friends and fellow artists, such as Nickolaus Muray and Lola Álvarez Bravo, took of her in reflective moments ties together this moving, significant display that at once demystifies and amplifies our understanding of a vital artist.
Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving is on view at the Brooklyn Museum from February 8 until May 12, 2019.