Frida Kahlo The Artist, And Her Influences, Focus At Museum Of Fine Arts, Boston
Much has been made of Frida Kahlo’s enduring influence on the art world. What about her influences? The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston takes that focus for its first-ever Kahlo exhibit, Frida Kahlo and Arte Popular. “We can undeniably say that arte popular influenced Kahlo throughout her career, from her earliest portraits to her final still lifes,” exhibit curator at the MFA Layla Bermeo said. Throughout her career, Kahlo (1907-1954) collected Mexican folk art, also known as arte popular. These objects included decorated ceramics, embroidered textiles, children’s toys and devotional ex-voto paintings–tiny images painted on tin expressing the original owner’s gratitude for miracles and unanswered prayers–of which Kahlo collected hundreds. Eight Kahlo paintings are included in the show, placed alongside examples of arte popular which share imagery with the paintings, demonstrating how closely the two dialogue together and how Kahlo drew inspiration from them. Frida Kahlo and Arte Popular intentionally places its focus narrowly on Kahlo, the artist, a subject often swamped by the extraordinary cult of personality surrounding her. “Although Kahlo is perhaps more visible in popular culture than ever, I think that many of us would still struggle to name two or three of her paintings, to describe the evolution of her artistic career, or to articulate how she fits in to the longer history of modern painting,” Bermeo said. “Frida Kahlo and Arte Popular was not intended to be a retrospective, but to instead move away from the majority of the projects on Kahlo which overwhelmingly focus on her biography and interpret her paintings as direct illustrations of events in her life.”
The term "arte popular" was used publicly for the first time in 1921, one year after the end of the Mexican Revolution. Kahlo was not a folk artist, but that didn’t diminish her passion for it. “Like folk art in the United States, folk art in Mexico was defined and collected by middle- and upper-class people in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s as a way to show national pride and knowledge of art forms that were seemingly untouched by European traditions,” Bermeo said. “Just as artists, writers, and art dealers in New York City celebrated rustic weathervanes and anonymous regional portraits as representative of a true ‘American’ essence, Kahlo and her contemporaries held up painted ceramics and embroidered textiles from their country’s rural and indigenous communities as the embodiment of pure ‘mexicanidad,’ or Mexican national culture.” This show capitalizes on “Fridamania” which has been accelerating apace for decades. Few female artists–or male artists, or anyone for that matter–enjoy the name recognition and posthumous fame Kahlo does. Her empowerment, her vulnerability, her genius, her triumphs, her struggles, her personal iconography, her sex, her sex life, her–everything–seems to resonate uniquely through a diverse cross-section of contemporary groups seeking a champion. What, exactly, it is about Kahlo that generates a deep, sincere devotion from millions remains elusive, although there are no shortage of intriguing opinions on the subject. “At a time when few Mexican women had the opportunity to express themselves, Kahlo had a remarkable talent for conveying her multiple identities,” Bermeo said. “Through her paintings, writing, clothing, and social circles, she made visible her racially and culturally mixed heritage, her experiences with illness and disability, her relationships with men and women. Her imaginative and eloquent representations of the self resonate with many of the questions about identity and visibility that are being raised today.” That remains a discussion for another day, for another exhibit. Bermeo, meanwhile, has found plenty of provocative Kahlo topics to pursue here, all while keeping her eye on the art. I think it becomes radical to ask basic questions of her work, the same that would be asked of any white male artist with even half of her fame: Which works of art inspired her? What did she look at as she painted? What were her breakthrough paintings and professional milestones? Frida Kahlo and Arte Popular can be seen at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston through June 19.
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