Standing in the long line outside Casa Azul, the blue house that was once home to Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, a friendly tourist tells me that this former residence is now the most popular museum in Mexico City. That checks out based on my experience, as the place is packed with visitors who want to experience the space once occupied by the woman who was to become one of the most recognizable female artists of the twentieth century.
Throughout her life, Kahlo’s talent was obscured by that of Diego Rivera, the well-known Mexican muralist whom she married—twice. If you buy a ticket to visit Casa Azul, you also get a free ticket to Diego Rivera’s museum, Anahuacalli, which is worthy but much less traveled. In the past half-century, Kahlo’s art has eclipsed that of her partner and she has become the iconic stuff of folklore, movies and many tattoos.
A New Museum at College of DuPage
Starting June 5, twenty-six of Kahlo’s works will be on display in “Frida Kahlo: Timeless,” at College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn This will be the first time in forty years that a comprehensive collection of original works by Kahlo will be presented in the Chicago area.
The pieces in Glen Ellyn are on loan from the Dolores Olmedo Museum, which holds the largest private collection of Kahlo’s work. To qualify to house this summer’s exhibit, the College of DuPage’s Cleve Carney Art Gallery in the McAninch Arts Center (MAC) had to be transformed from a simple gallery into a museum space outfitted with environmental and security technology.
Justin Witte, the exhibition’s curator, says the museum will conform to standards set by the American Association of Museums and Galleries. “We’ve installed motion detectors and a microwave grid that can detect a mouse if it tries to cross the floor,” he says.
Diana Martinez, MAC director, says the center put $500,000 into hardware and infrastructure, and another $350,000 into twenty-four-hour security. “We needed to prove to the Olmedos that we were the right place for these paintings.”
A Communist in Conservative County
I grew up in largely conservative DuPage County, an unlikely place to present the works of a radical who asserted the wisdom of communism, wore a hammer and sickle on her plaster bustier, and, from all accounts, had an affair with Soviet revolutionary Leon Trotsky, who lived with Kahlo and Rivera at Casa Azul for a time after he fled Russia.
“It suited her at certain times to be a socialist, but you have to remember her time period,” Martinez says. “She came to the United States during the Great Depression, when there were vast disparities between rich and poor, so she was interested in social justice and civil rights. The idea of everyone being equal appealed to her. Still, they took commissions from the Rockefellers, and they did like to run—and be seen—in those circles.
“She’s relevant today, progressive in her thinking. She broke boundaries all the time, on so many different levels, including her fashion style. She never was afraid to carve her own path, present herself as who she was, and explore things like sexual identity, fashion and art. That’s why people gravitate toward her, because she was unapologetic. There’s something about her that is very liberating.”
Who Kahlo was, and what she represents, is in sync with the goals of College of DuPage. “We are a community college,” says Martinez, “and Frida was a people’s artist. This is not just twenty-six works of art hung in a locked-up room. We’re going to produce events around the exhibit. We wanted the Olmedos to feel confident we could manage this and market it, and we are all about engaging students as well as members of the larger community.”
Beyond Museum Walls
This presentation of Kahlo’s work and related events was originally set for 2020, but was rescheduled; in 2021, the event will be held with safeguards in place.
The college started community outreach in September 2019 with Frida Fest, designed to educate and engage the public with events related to Kahlo that are strongly rooted, as was her art, in Hispanic heritage. There were tours of prints by Jose Guadalupe Posada, who popularized the calaveras, the familiar dancing and cavorting skeletons, and accompanying workshops on printmaking and face painting. Salsa and cooking lessons were open to the public, as well as performances by Ballet Folklorico Quetzalcoatl and a mariachi band from Mexico City. Then in February 2019, there was the “For the Love of Frida Gala,” featuring food from Rick Bayless, who has done as much as any Chicago chef to educate Chicagoans about the diversity and wonder of the country’s cuisine and culture.
One of the exhibition’s donors, Ball Horticultural, is designing an outdoor garden which will include all the plants featured in the paintings on view. The plants will be grown in Mexico and replanted in Glen Ellyn.
When the Ball Horticultural folks saw Kahlo’s “Portrait of Luther Burbank,” Martinez tells us, the group were excited, asking, “Do you know who he is? Luther Burbank is the father of modern horticulture. He’s our idol.”
“Portrait of Luther Burbank”
“The painting of botanist Luther Burbank, which Kahlo did in San Francisco, is a pivotal piece because it’s one in which her visual language is coming together,” Witte says. “The roots of the tree are tied around a dead body, underscoring the inseparability of life and death. Pictorially, it’s similar to her late self-portraits, where you have this non-distinct, fantastic background.”
Although Kahlo’s mother was Roman Catholic, her father was German Jewish, and Kahlo appears to have related more to pre-Columbian spiritual images than the European religious beliefs that crashed into Mexico starting in the sixteenth century. Still, there is unmistakable Christian iconography reflected in this painting of Burbank. The hard vertical in the center, with Burbank at the top, is a tree that connects with a skeleton-like figure below ground, reflecting the conventions of many medieval and renaissance artworks that depict the crucifix directly above the skull of Adam, growing out of it. Instead of Christ on the crucifix, however, we have Burbank, looking content, holding what appears to be one of the plants he hybridized, giving new life to the world in a way analogous to what was offered by Christianity’s favorite son.
“The Broken Column”
Much like the “Portrait of Luther Burbank,” Kahlo’s “Broken Column” presents a strong vertical, this time a shattered metal shaft going up through Kahlo’s body. There are references to Christian iconography in the nails in her body, and her pain on a column recalls renaissance paintings of Christ’s flagellation and St. Sebastian’s arrow-riddled body, also usually mounted on a tree or column.
“’Broken Column’ is one of the most immediately identifiable of Kahlo’s pieces as it specifically relates to her struggles with her health and the strength with which she presented herself through these challenges,” Witte says. “That’s something people are drawn to. In the painting, you see a lot of characteristics common to many Kahlo paintings. She was drawn to the folk art being made in Mexico at the time. Frida is wearing one of her corsets in the painting, and her chest is open, and you see the column, shattered to reference her shattered spine, with her head resting on top. And unlike paintings of martyrs and saints who are looking to the heavens, she’s looking directly out at the viewer, confrontational and defiant. There are tears, and she’s not afraid to show her pain, but she defies the viewer to see her as a victim. Her face is not contorted, and though she is crying, her stare is strong. Mexican painting at the time was violent, with imagery related to death, because that line between life and death is more open in that culture.”
“I have a background in improv at Second City,” Martinez says, “and what we tell the actors is, ‘dare to offend.’ Kahlo was bold. Think about the thirties and where women were at that time, in Mexico, where there’s a lot of machismo. The courage to paint herself bare-chested—talk about boldness!—and in such pain. There’s a certain progressiveness about her that may be hard for a contemporary audience to understand. When you look at her life, it’d be hard to find someone who doesn’t respect her for what she’s overcome, her talent, the adversity she faced and her significance in the art world.”
“The Broken Column” and similar paintings show Kahlo as both vulnerable and strong, and that combination of almost antithetical personal traits has proven highly attractive in other cultural stars, including American actors like Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe and writers like Maya Angelou and Sylvia Plath.
“Self Portrait with Small Monkey”
“Frida and her work were so interconnected, that it is impossible to separate one from the other,” Witte says. “Her presence is still strongly felt in every piece in the exhibition.”
Much of Kahlo’s work is clearly autobiographical. A horrific childhood accident on the trolley that led to crippling injuries is referenced throughout her oeuvre. In paintings like “Henry Ford Hospital,” which will be in the exhibition, she shows herself after a miscarriage, in pain, splashed with blood… but enduring.
In “Self Portrait with Small Monkey,” Kahlo steps away from her more visceral works to suggest the influences on her artistry, including the natural world, both tamed, like the domesticated hairless dog, and less tamed, like the monkey. The traditional cultures of Mexico are represented by small pre-Columbian figurine in the right corner.
The nail in the upper left corner is the only reminder of the accident that shattered her body, a symbol of not only her suffering, but the fact that her broken body was held together with pins.
Like “The Broken Column,” Kahlo herself is at the center of the painting—as she is in so many of her works—looking out at the audience. The golden thread woven throughout reflects the connection between human and natural worlds. This connection is further reinforced by the monkey’s arm, thrown casually around Kahlo’s shoulder, such that the dark hair of the monkey merges into the dark hair on Kahlo’s head and her upper lip.
“She painted herself with such a brutal honesty,” says Martinez. “Photographs show her to be much more attractive than her paintings; her mustache in the paintings is exaggerated. She’s not afraid to say, ‘This is who I am, and these are my flaws.’ That’s one of the reasons women like her to this day. She isn’t trying to portray perfection.”
“She had a very contemporary understanding of personality and image,” Witte says. “Identity, disability and nationality were always top of mind.”
Frida’s Distinctive Attire
In Oaxaca’s city of Tehuantepec, there’s a market ruled by women, a reminder of the matriarchal society that once held sway in this region of Mexico. In that coastal society, having a gay son was—and is—considered a blessing, even among a culture steeped in machismo, because such a son could be relied upon to stay at home and help at the market. At home and in the market, women were in charge, and a tall metal statue of a woman in Tehuana dress welcomes visitors to the town. Such highly elaborate, boldly colorful attire is seen in many Kahlo paintings, and her dress is intimately connected to her identity.
Kahlo may have “used dresses to hide certain physical deformities,” Witte says, but “she also used her strikingly personal though thoroughly traditional attire to project and broadcast her powerful personality to the world.”
At Casa Azul, some of the stunningly colorful and daring outfits—one is tempted to call them “costumes”—that Kahlo was fond of wearing are on view. The College of DuPage is creating accurate, hand-crafted facsimiles of Kahlo’s wardrobe.
“We have a complete costuming department, where Frida’s traditional costumes can be made,” Witte says. “They generated a copy of Frida’s head on a 3-D printer, and a life-size mannequin is used to model and present her clothing. They are going down to the stitching on her embroidery and the exact patterns.”
“Frida Kahlo: Timeless” will be on view June 5–September 6, 2021, at the College of DuPage Cleve Carney Museum of Art in the McAninch Arts Center, 425 Fawell Boulevard, Glen Ellyn. For more information: frida2021.org.