Frida Kahlo made her own face famous by painting a seemingly endless series of self-portraits over the span of a 30-year career that often displayed an emotionally fraught —even flayed — psyche. Mirror Mirror: Photographs of Frida Kahlo, opening at the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art on Saturday, May 6, offers a rare opportunity to view Kahlo as others saw her, with a collection of more than 50 portraits by famous and lesser-known photographers, including Imogen Cunningham, Manuel and Lola Alvarez Bravo, and Lucienne Bloch. Mirror Mirror originated at Throckmorton Fine Art in New York City in 2015; the Spanish Colonial Arts exhibit is curated by Penelope Hunter-Stiebel, a museum board member.
Kahlo was born in Coyoacán, a small borough of Mexico City, in 1907, but she usually told people she was born in 1910. She did not do this in an effort to lie about her age but because she liked her birthdate to coincide with the Mexican Revolution. Even as a child, she pushed herself intellectually, determined to make a lasting impression on the world. A bout with polio at age six barely slowed her down — and then in 1925, when she was enrolled at the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria, planning to become a doctor, a bus she was riding collided with a trolley. A steel handrail impaled her through the hip, fracturing her spine and pelvis. She began her artistic career while bedridden and recovering from her injuries. The earliest portrait in the exhibit, Frida Kahlo at 18, was taken in 1926, by her father Guillermo Kahlo, who ran a photography studio. In this photo, taken not long after the accident, she is poised and stiff in her chair, staring directly and unsmilingly at the camera, her serious gaze unwavering. She took on this facial expression as a child and honed it throughout her life whenever she was photographed, as well as in her self-portraits. Looking at the works in Mirror Mirror, one cannot help but wonder how often the expression reflects pain, or the stoicism required to withstand it.
Kahlo first met the painter Diego Rivera — whom she would marry in 1929 — when she was in high school, and already a politically radical spitfire. He was painting a mural on site, using a nude model, and Kahlo and her friends spied on and taunted him. She dubbed him Panzón — Spanish for “fat-bellied” — a nickname she also used for him during their marriage, which was something of a soap opera. Both had numerous affairs. Among other men — and women — Kahlo slept with Leon Trotsky, the exiled Russian revolutionary. Rivera slept with Cristina, Frida’s younger sister, and the couple divorced in 1939. Unable to stay away from each other, Rivera and Kahlo remarried in 1940. They traveled frequently to the United States and Europe for Rivera’s commissions and later for Kahlo’s gallery openings. Photographs show the couple in San Francisco, New York City, and Laredo, Texas. Many images are posed, but some are more casual, as in Lucienne Bloch’s Frida Eating Ice Cream Cone and Diego Smoking a Cigar, Jones Beach, Long Island (1933). They are sitting on a bench by a dining patio. Rivera, hat on his lap, smokes and looks off to his left. Kahlo, holding an empty cone, the ice cream already eaten, might be giving the camera her signature level gaze — or the photographer may have caught her lost in thought.
In Frida With Diego and Gas Mask (1938) by Nickolas Muray, Kahlo is captured in an embrace with her husband, a gas mask dangling from one hand. Rivera’s storied sexual allure does not often come across in pictures, but in this one — taken by a man with whom Kahlo engaged in a decade-long love affair — his charm is overt, complete with impish grin and bedroom eyes. A circa-1941 Muray photograph, Group Portrait of Frida, Diego, Nick, Emmy Lou Packard, and Iona Robinson, shows Rivera seated with the others standing behind him. In curating the show, Hunter-Stiebel researched each photograph in search of a background story, and this one was taken in the hotel across from the twin studios of Diego and Frida. Robinson and Packard were assistants of Rivera's; also pictured is Muray's daughter, Arija, whose name is not included in the title.
“Muray’s daughter insisted on going deep into the wilds of Mexico, against all advice, and she caught some germ and died of it,” Hunter-Steibel said. “It looks like the most boring photograph in the world, but there’s a lot going on. This is the kind of tension and dynamic that was always around these two. Frida would turn his assistants around. Diego would start flirting with them, so she’d make them her friends.” In a photo by Packard, Frida Kahlo and Emmy Lou Packard Coyoacan, Mexico 21/40 (1941), the two women, dressed in fashionable yet slightly masculine attire, sit comfortably entwined, Packard’s arms around Kahlo, who squints into the sun.
In her dress and in her paintings, Kahlo favored a pronounced Mexican national and cultural identity — at least partially in response to the way American culture was sweeping Mexican cities as well as the influences she faced during the times she lived in the United States. She wore long colorful dresses and skirts and traditional rebozos. She wove flowers into her hair, which she kept knotted in a tight bun. The skirts covered her legs, making it easier to hide her scars as well as provide a visual distraction from the pain she was in, which increased as she grew older. She was unable to bear a child because of her injuries, and she had numerous surgeries on her spine. Her right leg was amputated below the knee in 1953, a year before her death. Mirror Mirror includes photographs of Kahlo posing in front of her work, and one in which she wears a painted body cast; in another, she naps with a dog. In a Juan Guzman photograph from circa 1950, the artist lies in a hospital bed, over which someone has made a puppet show for her to play with. There are also photographs of Kahlo’s funeral — the procession, with Rivera as pallbearer, and her body in the casket, Rivera looking over her.
Though she meant her often brutal images of pain and heartbreak as literal representations of her own experience, Kahlo fans identify with her for their own reasons — some aesthetic and some deeply personal. But no matter how dramatic her life story or how many consumer products bear her face, Kahlo’s work is the reason she is and will be remembered — and she did not wait until after her death for that recognition. “The exhibit really shows how the caterpillar has become a butterfly in terms of international artist circles,” Hunter-Stiebel said. “When Manuel Álvarez Bravo photographs her at the Picasso exhibition in Mexico in 1944, she has had solo exhibitions in New York and she’s had an exhibition with Bravo in Paris. Her work has been admired by Picasso. She has arrived. She is part of all of this now.” ◀