Jealousy, infidelity - and great art


The tug-of-war between Mexican artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera is evident in a riotous exhibition that pulls you back and forth between the warring lovers, writes ARMINTA WALLACE

IF EVERY PICTURE tells a story, the paintings of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera tell one that is more turbulent and bizarre than most. The pair were celebrities at the dawn of the age of celebrity. They were public and highly political figures both in their native Mexico and in New York. Theirs was a marriage packed with infidelity and insecurity which must, in reality, have been hellish. And yet it translates – on canvas – into colour, playfulness and an often startling beauty. Walk into the exhibition of their work at the Irish Museum of Modern Art (Imma), and you’re confronted with a tug-of-war between two characters so vibrant and tangible they might as well be standing in the room with you.

Be grateful that they aren’t, however, because you’re witnessing a major marital disagreement. On the wall facing you is Rivera’s portrait of Natasha Gelman, the Czech wife of his wealthy film-producer patron. Slim, blonde and bejewelled, Natasha is draped over a sofa in a way that suggests she’s about to end up prone at any moment. Behind her, two enormous sprays of white lilies bloom as provocatively as only calla lilies can, their curvy contours echoed in her plunging neckline and the large slit which leaves her legs exposed almost to the thigh.

“It’s a real film-star look,” says Seán Kissane, the exhibition’s curator, urging closer inspection of Natasha’s jewellery. “Those are real stones. This was her third marriage, and her new husband apparently insisted that she got rid of the stones from the old husbands. So she said, ‘Well, fine – buy me new ones.’”

Gelman commissioned two portraits of Natasha in the year 1943. On the wall to the right is Kahlo’s version – which will make you blink and look again. It’s the same person, yet not the same at all.

The hair is curled in vicious-looking twists which manage to suggest not only the recent presence of heated rollers, but Medusa and a horned demon as well. The beautiful shoulders are hunched into a mink which could easily be an upmarket straitjacket – and you have to look carefully to see the (single) Van Cleef and Arpel diamond earring hidden in the hairstyle. The skin is still milky and the eyes are still almond-shaped, but the expression on the face is entirely different. “It’s film star, but mean,” says Kissane.

“Diego is obviously having a wonderful time with this very beautiful woman, and paints her in this incredibly seductive, sexual manner. Frida, by contrast, is not at all impressed by this new acquaintance of her husband’s.”

This particular disagreement turned out happily. The Gelmans became firm friends of both Rivera and Kahlo, and the current exhibition comprises paintings, works on paper, photographs and even a DVD projection drawn from the couple’s 300-piece collection of Mexican art.

As a general rule, though, happy endings were anathema to these artists. They both had a series of affairs: he, most acrimoniously, with her sister; she, most famously, with Leon Trotsky, who was sheltering chez Rivera during his Mexican exile. This last led to divorce – but Kahlo and Rivera remarried within a year.

In their own time, Rivera was by far the more successful artist; Frida was known primarily as his eccentric wife. These days the situation is, pretty much, reversed. Rivera is remembered as that communist guy who painted on walls, while Frida is celebrated as feminist icon and surrealist star.

Would we value Kahlo so highly if it weren’t for the colourful personal details – the childhood illness which was certainly polio and may also have incorporated spina bifida; the devastating traffic accident which left her with a broken back, pelvis and ribs, her right foot crushed and her leg smashed in 11 places; the three miscarriages? The Imma show offers visitors the opportunity to weigh up the evidence on both sides.

But as you walk from room to room, the experience is less like an exercise in rational objectivity and more like a mad rollercoaster ride which has you swaying delightedly from one side to the other and back again. Here is a world in which everything is up-ended and nothing is what it seems. What are we to make of Frida’s famous self-portraits, complete with moustache, a single eyebrow and monkeys? There’s a full room of them to marvel at – but don’t be fooled too easily, Kissane warns.

“In these you see Frida constructing an image of self. So you start off with her wearing a necklace of jade and a fine white gown with a delicate lace collar. Essentially, she’s got up as a member of the European bourgeoisie.” These images become progressively more un-European until they culminate in Diego On My Mind,which finds Kahlo attired in a traditional Tehuana ceremonial head-dress with a tiny Diego imprinted on her forehead. “It looks like the corona of a saint,” Kissane points out. “Which is interesting in the context of Irish Catholic mythologies, where you find similar structures happening. There’s also a suggestion of Eastern mysticism – the story of Parvati, who must make Shiva love her through constant self-sacrifice and self-immolation. The sense of sacrifice which is being alluded to here is really quite extreme.”

Both Kahlo and Rivera were virtuoso mythmakers. Hence the enjoyable – if, occasionally, dizzying – sense of being batted back and forth as you walk around the exhibition. There’s a surprise in every room. Rivera’s enormous green cactuses, some wearing “skirts”, others with breasts, all rearing up out of the Mexican desert. Kahlo’s poignant and delicate drawing of the view from the New York apartment in which she suffered a miscarriage, The Sun Breaks Through A Window, the foreground dominated by a radiator so bleak it will be instantly recognisable to anyone who has spent time in a hospital ward.

Meanwhile, the curator’s own favourite exhibit is Kahlo’s painting The Love Embrace of the Universe. It shows Kahlo with Diego, a chubby baby, clutched securely in her lap; she, in turn, is enfolded by the mother of Mexico and by the spirit of the universe. “It’s a very complex picture,” Kissane says. “And I think, as opposed to the self-portraits, it’s the real masterpiece. She’s able to marry her own biographical instincts with her interest in mysticism, indigenous culture and a hugely expansive spiritual worldview into a single canvas.”

But Kissane also admits to having been somewhat bowled over by the charm of Rivera’s work. “I’d seen all the Kahlo paintings before, but I hadn’t seen many of the Riveras – and they took me by surprise. They’re so big, and so colourful, and he really goes at the colours. Yellow is really yellow. Blue is blue.”

In terms of who’s the better painter, he says the jury is still out. “I think it’s useful to let people make their own decisions. To go into that first room and see the wonderful portraits of Natasha Gelman and say, ‘Well, is one of them better?’ Do we want to think Frida’s is better because it suits us to do so? Maybe Diego’s was better. Who knows?” We’re all just going to have to decide for ourselves.

Frida Kahlo Diego Rivera: Masterpieces of the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection is at Imma until June 26th

Kahlo chameleon

THE colours are so strong you think you’re looking at a surrealist painting. The impression is heightened by the black-and-gold outfit, the icon-cum-meditation pose, the way she appears to float in mid-air against a backdrop of flowers. Her make-up is immaculate – no sign of moustache or unibrow – and her cheekbones would give a supermodel pause for thought. An airbrushed version of Kahlo, you might think. But think again.

This is a photograph of Frida Kahlo by Nickolas Muray, with whom she had a 10-year affair and whose gastro-intestinal system she paints in forensic anatomical detail elsewhere in the exhibition (romance, eh?).

It would be a mistake to assume that – photograph or not – this is the “real” Frida Kahlo. There’s a whole room full of photographs at IMMA, all of which – including a selection of stunning architectural images of Mexican buildings, taken by her photographer father – cast her in a different and often contradictory light. Kahlo chameleon, is the only conclusion you’ll come to: but you’ll have fun doing it.