The Genteel
February 28, 2021


Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Source:

In exploring the lives and works of artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, Jack Kerouac's quote from his novel On The Road comes to mind: "The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars."

Passion for painting, social and global politics, and Mexican tradition and culture, was at the forefront of their artistic journeys. The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) is featuring a new exhibit entitled, Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics and Painting, opening discussion on the fueling of their artistry - as a couple and as individual creators. The exhibit features more than 75 works of art, as well as photographs and even a video in which Kahlo's rare smile makes an appearance.

Diego and Frida AGO Natasha Gelman
Portrait of Natasha Gelman (1943) by Diego,
Rivera, oil on canvas 115 X 153 cm, The Jacques 
and Natasha Gelman Collection of Mexican Art.
Photograph courtesy of Art Gallery of Ontario.

According to the AGO, the collection offers visitors an in-depth look at the pair's development as artists by positioning their "work in the political and artistic contexts of their time…The selected works allude to both artists' support for the Communist movement, as well as the concept of Mexicanidad, an identification with Mexico's indigenous roots."

Although Rivera and Kahlo might have the three Ps in common, they were on the opposite ends of the spectrum as people and as artists. While Rivera aimed "to reflect the social life of Mexico as [he] saw it and, through [his] vision of the truth," Kahlo focused on painting her own reality, which led her to produce work that read like an emotional discourse. Both artists respected each other's visions - no subject matter was untouchable and no canvas was too big to fill. With their mixture of political commentary and activism, as well their emotional openness, Kahlo and Rivera crossed social and artistic boundaries that have earned them a special place in art history.

When Kahlo and Rivera wed in 1929, Rivera was already a prolific artist specialising in social and political frescos. Kahlo, who was 20 years younger than Rivera, was a novice painter. She admired and supported Rivera's work believing that, "His capacity for work breaks clocks and calendars."

By 1930, Rivera was an internationally renowned commissioned artist whose work led him to travel often. His success is attributed to not only his talent, but also his extroverted personality. It was his personality that allowed him to lead a life "at the center of a circle of left-wing painters and poets…" and attract wealthy art patrons, reported PBS. This proves to be true considering the role of Natasha and Jacques Gelman, whose patronage played an important role in Rivera's and Kahlo's careers. The AGO features one of Natasha's most beloved works by Rivera: a luxurious portrait of her lying elegantly and seductively admist Rivera's iconic lilies. The whiteness of the lilies and her gown create a sense of innocence, while her pose and the shape of the dress reveal her sexual charm. 

Diego and Frida AGO Broken Column
The Broken Column (1944) by Frida Kahlo,
oil on canvas 39.8 X 30.5 cm, Collection
Museo Dolores Olmedo, Xochimilco, Mexico.
Photograph courtesy of Art Gallery of Ontario.

David Wistow, Interpretive Planner for Frida & Diego confirms that Rivera "was larger than life, charismatic, a gifted raconteur who often stretched the truth." He was a tall man, with broad shoulders, a large frame and unruly hair. His grand physical demeanor suggests that he commanded attention upon walking into a room, and perhaps even drawing the attention of his female patrons. His artwork serves as a reflection of his personality and even his physical manner.

In his work, Rivera expresses his vision through figures and images that fill the surface almost completely, leaving a minimal amount of empty space - illustrating his passion on the subject matter from corner to corner of the wall or canvas. Wistow notes that Rivera's "crowded composition, vivid colours, large scale, historic detail, recognisable portraits of famous people from history and the [his] present" comprise Rivera's artistic quilt. There is nothing timid or personal about his work, rather it is grandiose and outwardly.  

Rivera was very supportive of Kahlo's painting and her artistic vision. In a letter to an American art critic, Rivera recommended her, "not as a husband but as an enthusiastic admirer of her work, acid and tender...and profound and cruel as the bitterness of life." Contrary to Rivera, Kahlo was a self-taught artist; she painted works that were small in size and explored matters of a more personal and intimate nature. She was a petite woman, with strong facial features - the iconic unibrow - and was often seen wearing full floor-length skirts, bold jewellery, middle-parted hair accompanied by a braid that was woven with flowers and or ribbon. In most photographs and paintings, Kahlo is not smiling. Her self-portraits - a blend of realism, surrealism and Mexican tradition - clearly depict her internal suffering, and constitute her most popular works. Her work didn't go unnoticed - André Breton (a father figure of Surrealism) proclaimed her to be a "Surrealist" artist and Spanish artist Pablo Picasso also admired her work.

Rivera's and Kahlo's opposite aesthetics, style and artistic treatments is exactly what makes the AGO's Frida & Diego a dynamic exhibition. What better way to illuminate an artist's genius than to place him opposing another's?

Kahlo is a true example of the tortured artist mythology. "I've had two accidents in my life - the bus and Diego," Kahlo reportedly said, according to Wistow. Although Kahlo was already faced with physical challenges growing up, a bus accident altered her life and shaped her career. A bus that Kahlo was riding collided with a vehicle causing a handrail to spear her through one hip and exit through the other. Fractures in her spine and pelvis were just some of the serious injuries she incurred.

During her recovery process, Kahlo started painting. In her work, The Broken Column (1944), Kahlo doesn't tiptoe around the physical pain and the mental suffering that she experienced due to the tragic accident. The broken, yet still standing, Roman column illustrates the severity of the three-place break in her spine. The raw, down-the-middle tear demonstrates the accident-induced obliteration of her body, mind and spirit. The nails scattered that cover her body communicate the all-consuming anguish she experienced from the pain. Yet, there she stands - making eye-contact, with tears on her face, hair down and vulnerable, bruised but not broken, trying to keep it together, instead of falling apart. 

Her marriage to Rivera also caused her a lot of grief. Wistow summarised this accident beautifully to The Genteel: "Rivera had the energy to paint and have multiple affairs simultaneously. So perhaps the extramarital stuff for him was fun and stimulating and had no negative impact. A friend once said he was about 'Me, myself and I.' He had no idea of the impact of his behaviour on others. He was in no way introspective. Kahlo often painted her emotional pain [caused by Rivera's affairs], her ambiguity about maternity [Rivera didn't want kids and would probably have run off with someone while Kahlo was in the hospital]…Kahlo was deeply needy, emotionally. She needed Rivera but he was not the man to provide the support, until the last decade or so when he became her primary reason for living." 

Kahlo's deep love and obsession with Rivera is exemplified in a number of her works. Self-Portrait as a Tehuana (Diego in my Thoughts) painted in 1934 is a great example of this: Rivera's portrait takes up the majority of Kahlo's forehead - tattooed into her thoughts and in place of a third eye.

Diego and Frida AGO Self-Portrait Tehuana
Self-Portrait as a Tehuana (1934) by Frida Kahlo,
oil on masonite 76 X 61 cm, The Jacques and 
Natasha Gelman Collection of Mexican Art.
Photograph courtesy of Art Gallery of Ontario.

Wistow observes that in the majority of Kahlo's work, "barren interior settings that seem to reflect her frame of mind…direct eye contact, careful attention to detail using small brushes," her "highly finished works [that] often includes personal symbols" and the works' taboo subjects that were highly unconventional are at the spine of her artistry.

Although Kahlo's work isn't as politically stimulating as her husband's, her bold paintings exploring the self, mind and body, globally recognised artistic effort, sexual confidence and open bi-sexuality made her a symbol of feminism. It seems that what we admire in her work the most is its honesty. Without a doubt, her work represents her vision of reality - that is, her version of the truth - but the honesty I refer to stems from the openness and unmasking of her emotions and thoughts.

Rivera's and Kahlo's opposite aesthetics, style and artistic treatments is exactly what makes the AGO's Frida & Diego a dynamic exhibition. What better way to illuminate an artist's genius than to place him opposing another's? But it seems that one artist does inevitably outshine the other. Dot Tuer, a cultural theorist, speculates in Art Matters 2012 that, "In recent decades…Kahlo's posthumous fame has eclipsed Rivera's to enshrine her as one of modernism's most iconic women artists."

The art world's recognition of Kahlo as a significant modern artist suggests that we place great emphasis on emotional transparency, self-expression and individuals who drum to their own beat while pushing boundaries to make their own. Wistow explains the difference between the husband and wife: "Rivera opens our minds to the relationship between politics and art," whereas "Kahlo is a cult figure. She is the classic underdog, who survived unspeakable pain, thrived, made powerful art - a lesson to everyone of perseverance under extreme conditions," he concludes.

During Kahlo's lifetime, her husband's celebrated talent and fame may have overshadowed her, but in the end, her emotionally charged work stole the spotlight from his internationally renowned frescos. Kahlo's tragic artistic journey might have a happy ending after all.

Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics and Painting exhibits at the Art Gallery of Ontario until January 20, 2013, in Toronto, Canada. 



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