23 marzo 2023
by Guedalina Dainelli

Diego and Frida. Love, an obsession

Nickolas Muray
Frida with Olmeca Figurine, 1939
Nickolas Muray
Frida with Olmeca Figurine, 1939

He, painter and muralist, almost heir to the ancient Mayan mural tradition, celebrated as a hero for supporting Mexican workers after centuries of colonial oppression. But also a voracious seducer of women, with sadistic and chauvinist inclinations. A colossal fame, proportionate to his physical mass. She, a severe and mysterious beauty, sometimes androgynous, sometimes delicate, twenty years younger, petite and of fragile health. First polio, then a bus accident in her youth, the cause of a long stay in hospital, dozens of surgeries and the discovery of painting as an act of salvation for her distressed and tormented soul. A dreamer capable of producing paintings of penetrating introspection and magical communicative power.

A dreamer capable of producing paintings of penetrating introspection and magical communicative power

People called them “the elephant and the dove”. Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo Calderón was born on July 6, 1907 in the Coyoacán neighborhood of Mexico City. Her relationship with Diego Rivera, husband 20 years her senior, was one of the most turbulent and troubled love stories in the history of art. In the only Italian stage of a world tour, the Altinate San Gaetano Cultural Center in Padua presents the two Mexican artists in a major exhibition, from February 14 to June 4, 2023. Promoted by the Department of Culture of the Municipality of Padua, the exhibition is organized by the Vergel Foundation, MondoMostre and Skira, in collaboration with the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes y Literatura (INBAL), curated by Daniela Ferretti.

The core works come from the US collection owned by Jacques and Natasha Gelman, distinguished collectors whose pieces include works by Balthus, Chagall, Giacometti, Matisse, Picasso and the young Bacon. With Diego and Frida - from whom they also commissioned their portraits - they had a particularly intense relationship and thus the collection includes around thirty paintings, which are exhibited in Padua together with various other photographic works. Indeed, Frida and Diego, undisputed stars of their time, attracted the attention of the best international photographers: Héctor Garcia, Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Giséle Freund, Martin Munkacsi, Nickolas Muray, Lucienne Bloch and Edward Weston. Finally, there is a very colorful section displaying Mexican customs, came from a land that in the mid-1900s was a catalyst for European intellectuals, artists, militants and adventurers, conveying ideals and values of equality and fairness.

Posters, prints, mugs, tea towels and T-shirts. The image of Frida is among the most familiar in the modern art scene. Tragic heroine poised between bohemian life and political commitment, risen to queen of Pinterest and Instagram, her iconography appears all the more congenial in the era of influencers and social media. Much ink has been spilled over the complex and tortured love story with Diego, of whom she was the third wife, despite their excesses and infidelities: he out of necessity, she out of spite. In the enigmatic double portrait Diego in My Mind, the artist, dressed in a traditional Tehuantepec headdress, expresses her obsession with her husband painted on her forehead. She painted him again, his face streaked with tears. She painted him naked, holding him on her lap, as in a nativity scene, in which she herself is a daughter of the universe. She painted him as Moses in the cradle, in a triumphant scene of saints, divinities and heroes.

But love is a sickness and the mystery of the relationship has recently deepened with a final twist created by a BBC documentary. Did Diego Rivera help Frida Kahlo die? As is well-known, polio had paralyzed her right leg and the damage caused to her spine in the accident aggravated the situation, requiring it to be amputated. Aware that the end was near, Frida began drawing pictures of angels and skeletons in her diary. She even attempted suicide but was killed by a pulmonary embolism, officially, at just 47 years old, on July 13, 1954.  Yet the documentary subtly hints that Diego may have complied with her “request” to put an end to the unbearable physical pain, the torture of the steel bust and the wheelchair. Almost an extreme act of love which, however, would not prevent him from remarrying a fourth time, just a year later.

Revolutionary supporter of the empowerment of the Latin community, role model for the female artistic community, emblem of a modern and inclusive beauty that goes beyond the classical canons

In the catalog, Victoria Combalía, Spanish historian, columnist and curator of exhibitions, proposes two final and most difficult questions: “Who was the real Frida Kahlo? Why are so many people fascinated by, in equal measure, both her life and her works?” Revolutionary supporter of the empowerment of the Latin community, role model for the female artistic community, emblem of a modern and inclusive beauty that goes beyond the classical canons, there are many interwoven messages surrounding the figure of Frida together with mysticism, religious symbolism, a surrealist vein and dazzling rich and primordial colors.

In a world dominated by selfies, as many as 55 of her 143 paintings are self-portraits starring Frida with a hieratic, hypnotic, questioning expression.  In 2021, one of these, DIEGO Y YO (Diego and I) was auctioned for nearly USD 35 million. Perhaps answering the questions is practically impossible, but the magic of her art is expressed in one of the many thoughts she left us with: “They thought I was a surrealist artist, but I wasn't.  I have never painted dreams.  I painted my reality”.

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