At first I wasn’t sure that showing the paintings of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera together, along with all the biographical drama that comes with that, was such a great idea. I’m somewhat of a purist when it comes to looking at art—I want to be able to assess the work as context-free as possible (though I know it’s impossible to be wholly free).
But as it turned out, Frida & Diego (now on view at Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario) was fascinating. I saw things about the paintings from both of them that I had never really thought about before. And the photos of Kahlo were wonderful, especially an entire room of them, both color and black & white, taken by one of the painter’s lovers, Nickolas Muray.
One of the main things that struck me was how each of the two painters used plants. With Kahlo, tropical plants are part of almost every self-portrait; they grow out of her or surround her; elephant ear or other large-leafed plants often form the backdrop to paintings that can include necklaces or headdresses made of plants. Rivera frequently depicts the plants that are part of Mexican festivals—as in Flower Festival; Feast of Santa Anita, Calla Lily Vendor, Flower Day (shown), and many other paintings—but the highly stylized blooms are also obviously symbolic. Of sexuality, sure, but it’s also interesting how the flowers come in huge, weighty sheaves, burdensome to whomever is carrying them.
As I made my way through the crowded exhibition, eventually all I was thinking about were the plants and how differently Kahlo and Rivera treated them. It would be easy—too easy—to say that Kahlo more freely connected herself to nature, and that Rivera may have seen the huge bunches of flowers as symbols of elitist oppression (as, in fact, has been said). The monstrous sheaves are powerful, to be sure. But their power does not seem entirely threatening, just as the tendrils in Kahlo’s works do not seem entirely benign.
It’s not often that an art exhibition affords the chance to think about the plant world and its depiction in just this way—I was glad for the opportunity and hope some of you will get a chance to see this. It’s traveling to Atlanta after Toronto.