Theater & Arts

Up close and personal with Frida Kahlo at Fresno Art Museum

Frida on White Bench, New York, 1939.
Frida on White Bench, New York, 1939. Special to The Bee

The Dec. 20 article in The Bee, only a few paragraphs long, wasn’t breaking news – just a reminder of a coming attraction. The Fresno Art Museum already had announced months before it would be opening a January touring show featuring a collection of memorable photographs of Frida Kahlo.

But the brief story, which accompanied a longer piece about the museum’s annual woman artist of the year, exploded on fresnobee.com. In one day it racked up more than 600 Facebook shares and 15,000 hits online to become that Sunday’s best-read story of the day. In the following weeks it has continued to attract online attention that far exceeds most local arts stories.

The takeaway?

A popular fixture on the visual arts scene for decades, Frida Kahlo remains an artistic sensation who continues to cross into pop-culture territory in a strong way. She appeals to a broad audience, one much bigger than just fans of the fine arts. A visceral bond connects her and a general public attracted to her tragic personal story, distinctive physical appearance, message of female empowerment and conflicted relationship with Diego Rivera, her husband and famed Mexican 20th-century muralist.

“Frida Kahlo: Through the Lens of Nickolas Muray,” which opens Friday, Jan. 22, for a three and a half month run, will be one of the Fresno museum’s biggest shows in recent years, if advance interest is any indication.

“People are actually calling in and asking if there are tickets to buy in advance for the show,” says museum director Michele Ellis Pracy. “That’s never happened for us before.”

Kahlo hits the sweet spot in terms of the intersection of art and personality, and even though a large number of comments on the Fresno Bee’s Facebook page had to do with her eyebrows, there’s something more substantial about her that continues to penetrate the popular consciousness.

All this for a show that doesn’t actually feature works by Kahlo herself. Instead, the exhibition offers more than 50 photographs taken of the artist by Muray, who in the 1930s and ’40s was Kahlo’s friend, confidant and lover.

Muray was a well-known artist in his own right and is considered a pioneer of color portrait photography, producing more than 10,000 images during a long career. According to GuestCurator, the company that packaged the touring show, Muray photographed Kahlo more than any of his other subjects and “his portraits of her are among the most iconic images of the artist that are not self-portraits.”

Despite their mutual passion, writes Salomon Grimberg in a book about the relationship, Muray eventually came to see that Frida would always stay true to Rivera. He moved on.

A memorable face

It’s fitting the show is about portraits, because they are an important part of Kahlo’s legacy. (I was unable to see the exhibition before the deadline for the 7 section because of a broken boiler this week at the museum, which pushed back the hanging of the show and made for a challenging few days for museum staff.) More than most artists, her own appearance is indelibly associated with her fame.

Many consider her unconventionally striking but not adhering to expected conventions of feminine beauty. With her prominent eyebrows and unmitigated facial hair, she stands out in today’s overly groomed and coiffed culture. Add to that the intense physical pain she suffered after a bus accident – a burden that was captured in many of her self-portraits – and the stage was set for a flawed and eminently relatable type of anti-heroine.

Kahlo once said: “I used to think I was the strangest person in the world but then I thought there are so many people in the world, there must be someone just like me who feels bizarre and flawed in the same ways I do.”

Ellis Pracy notes that the continued interest in Kahlo is nothing new.

“She’s had a long run of being poignant in people’s lives and being interesting to them,” she says.

Patrick Fontes, a Fresno artist, noted in a Facebook comment reacting to news of the show that Kahlo’s connection with Rivera is an important part of the appeal.

“Diego’s artwork is such a major contribution to 20th-century art,” he wrote. “I think people resonate though with Frida on both an artistic and personal level. Her pathos resonates, her suffering and dealing with a carousing husband makes her life tangible to women. I also think that when we know their lives and love story we gravitate and take sides with her, even if we never articulate this emotional affinity.”

Both Rivera and Kahlo had extramarital affairs, and Kahlo, a bisexual, reportedly infuriated her husband by sleeping with other men (but not women).

Muray’s affair with Kahlo started in 1931, after he was divorced from his second wife, and shortly after Kahlo’s marriage to Rivera, according to Grimberg’s book “I Will Never Forget You.” Grimberg writes that the affair “outlived Muray’s third marriage, and Kahlo’s divorce and remarriage to Rivera, by one year, ending in 1941.” They remained good friends until her death in 1954.

Muray died in 1965.

Big potential

For the Fresno Art Museum, the show, which has toured the country, is one of the biggest and most expensive in the museum’s history, with a price tag of $18,000, Ellis Pracy says. Security and temperature-control requirements also add to the cost.

While the show comes packaged (complete with glossy catalog) by the GuestCurator company, Ellis Pracy is excited it isn’t completely “canned.” (The show was booked before she took over as director last year.) There was flexibility in how it could be hung. The wall texts are both in English and Spanish.

There’s a backstory to why the Kahlo show is here in the first place. It was originally meant to be a complement to an “unprecedented retrospective exhibition” featuring a never-before-seen exhibition of works by Rivera. The show was planned at Fresno State, and was to include auxiliary shows at local museums. A 2014 advertisement on the website of the Association of Art Museum Directors for a “Mexican Exhibition Project Coordinator” was looking for a candidate who would report to the dean of Fresno State’s College of Arts and Humanities.

The advertisement indicates the Rivera exhibition would have run from Sept. 15-Dec. 15. Those grand plans fell through.

Now it seems Kahlo, not her famous husband, is grabbing the local attention.

It was a gamble for the museum to book such an expensive show, but it was able to get a grant from the Central Valley Foundation’s McClatchy Fresno Art Endowment to pay for it. (The McClatchy Co. owns The Fresno Bee.)

“This is the first time in years we’ve had a show like this,” Pracy says.

If the turnout is anything like advance online interest, it’s sure to be a blockbuster.

Frida Kahlo: Through the Lens of Nickolas Muray

Art preview

  • Friday, Jan. 22, through May 1. Opening lectures and reception begins 4:30 p.m. Friday (nonmembers $10).
  • Fresno Art Museum, 2233 N. First St.
  • www.fresnoartmuseum.org, 559-441-4221
  • $5

Other museum winter-spring exhibitions

  • Body/Land: A 25 Year Retrospective of Anne Scheid: The acclaimed Fresno City College art professor gets a major exhibition of her drawings.
  • Sonia Romero: Printmaker: The Los Angeles-based Romero specializes in mixed-media printmaking, painting and public art.
  • Promise Land: The first one-person museum exhibition of paintings by Fresno-based artist Richard G. Freitas.
  • RAD Fresno State Women: A group of portraits of past and present female Fresno State students, faculty and staff who are pioneers and innovators in their respective fields. Inspired by the children’s book “RAD American Women A-Z.”
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