This summer, Kansas City is plastered with the iconic image of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. Her face, with its dark braids, thick eyebrows and hint of a mustache, is on billboards and buses promoting the Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Masterpieces of Modern Mexico exhibit at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. The centerpiece of the exhibit, which is based on the collection of Jacques and Natasha Gelman, is a set of paintings by Kahlo, and her husband, Diego Rivera.
Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivero had one of the art world’s great and greatly troubled marriages. When they met, he was 20 years his senior, and already a giant in the world of Mexican art, known for his epic murals. She was a student and a prankster.
Nelson-Atkins curator Stephanie Knappe says Rivera encouraged Kahlo to develop her painting, as well as see herself as a work of art. After they married in 1929, she began dressing in indigenous skirts and blouses, with her hair in elaborate braids.
“They both embrace Mexicanidad,” Knappe says, “or a re-assessment and a re-appreciation of Mexico and its traditions and cultures that a whole generation of artists, thinkers, musicians and writers embraced in the early twentieth century in Mexico.”
Both artists had affairs. According to a biographer, Kahlo once said, “I do not think the banks of a river suffer by letting the water run.” Knappe says that Rivera once asked his doctor for a note that would say it was physically impossible for him to be faithful.
But Kahlo pained paintings seem to betray that she was deeply hurt by Rivera’s philandering. Another theme in her work is lifelong physical pain she endured, including suffering from polio as a child and a serious injury in a bus accident as a young woman which required dozens of surgeries over the rest of her life.
Knapp says the Gelmans (the couple who amassed the collection that is now on display at the Nelson-Atkins) did not collect any of the art that showed the traumas of Kahlo’s life.
“Instead, they collected self-portraits that show her as a very strong, very confident woman,” Knappe says. “Her art could almost be a self-protective measure, almost the same way as the clothing styles that she adopted: the long skirts to cover her withered leg… the corsets that held her upright later in her life.”
Kahlo and Rivera divorced once in 1940, but soon remarried. After Kahlo’s death in 1954, Rivera mourned for a year, and then, true to form, remarried once again.
Still, when he died, Knappe says it was his wish that their ashes be co-mingled. But Kahlo’s ashes are in the house she grew up in, and Rivera’s are in the Rotunda of Distinguished Men in Mexico City.
“But to me that’s telling that even though Rivera would re-marry after Kahlo’s death, and even though their marriage suffered under great strain, that passion endured and there was that desire to always be together,” Knappe says.
The artistic relationship between Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera inspired an upcoming series on KC Currents about Kansas City’s Creative Couples. Tune in for the first profile on Sunday, July 21 at 5 p.m.