Frida Kahlo’s art and fame were once eclipsed by her more acclaimed husband, Diego Rivera, as evidenced by the Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Mexican Modernism exhibit from the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh.
Frida’s image today is a symbol of feminism, Latinx pride, beauty, defiance and resilience. Her fame has far surpassed what it was in her lifetime, and overtaken Diego’s own legacy.
Interestingly, much of Frida’s fame comes from her frequent casting of herself as the subject of her art — self-portraits comprise nearly a third of her work. This was driven both out of necessity, due to her frequent confinement to medical bed rest, and because she felt like she knew herself better than she knew anyone else.
With this seemingly larger-than-life figure, then, how much can we really separate art from artist? Or is this image of the artist itself an illusion that does not perfectly align with the real person?
The vulnerability she shows in her art, drawn from the physical pain she endured through the loss of miscarriage, leads viewers to feel like she has let us in and allowed us to see the most intimate parts of her.
Frida’s self-portraits never feel voyeuristic, though. She stares us down with her self-possessed eyes. She shows us what she wants us to see.
One of the greatest gems in the exhibit is a series of four photos, taken by Frida’s friend and colleague, Lola Álvarez Bravo. Each photo features Frida and a mirror, alluding to the mirrors she used to guide her self-portraits. In a meta sense, we are watching Frida watch herself and get to witness her self-reflection ourselves.
These women's lenses capture a more truthful, complex representation of their subjects as opposed to the objectified, sexualized interpretation that was so prevalent among the men who dominated the art field at the time.
This is especially apparent in the side-by-side comparison of Frida and Diego’s portraits of the exhibition’s collector, Natasha Gelman. Diego’s piece has Natasha lounging like a Hollywood movie star, described as “a nod to her husband’s profession as a film producer.” This portrait was meant to please her husband.
Frida’s portrait, however, is in a classic head and shoulders frame, thus removing the female body from the scene, drawing attention instead to the sobering expression on Natasha’s face and making it all the more personal.
Art is so often funneled through the male gaze. This is why it is so important to celebrate artists like Frida Kahlo, who see themselves and allow you to see them, too.
The exhibit is running until Jan. 19, and students get free admission every Friday (including today!) with ID.
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